The Poetics of Non-Space

Here is my interview with Matthew Turner for 3:AM Magazine, 6 April 2021.


Matthew, last year you were Visiting Professor of Architecture and Visual Theory at the University of Bergen, and are currently a Lecturer at Chelsea College of Arts, as well as an editor at an architectural magazine (LOBBY), so it seems quite natural that both your non-fiction (I’m thinking of your superb piece for frieze on the ‘architecture of fascism’ in Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina) and fiction should revolve around architecture, as the title of your first collection of short stories — Other Rooms (Hesterglock Press, 2019/ Dodo Ink, 2020) — attests. Your fiction, in particular, delineates a poetics of space — an architecture of the mind — that often focuses, as we shall see, on the liminal or uncanny.

You seem to be exploring very similar themes — the intersection between built and mental space — through your academic work, criticism and creative writing: could you tell us a little about these different approaches?

MT: I could answer this by describing how they all relate, and they do, but the real reason is pragmatic. It’s difficult to have the time and funding to think and develop new work, and working across these different areas allows for that. The needs of the students and readers come first of course, and unpacking books which have triggered something for me, but a by-product is that the academic work and criticism are a kind of test site for what filters into the fiction. I don’t have the Nevada Desert to experiment in, however, these more immaterial locations work well at the moment.

The precursor to Loom was an essay on what I called ‘Interior Edgelands’ for Icon Magazine (Icon 196: The London Issue), where I showed how the traditional edgelands, those strange areas on the outskirts of cities where the urban met rural, were migrating inwards because of properties bought for investment and left vacant, and all the buildings sites that pollute the small fragments of nature in the city with toxic dust and other detritus. And that was what I initially proposed to Emma Bolland at Gordian Projects.

It was a bizarre proposition really but I set it as a kind of thought problem to myself and hoped someone else might be intrigued. I essentially wrote a proposal describing this perennially exchanging urban condition, and asked whether someone who was on the run could evade capture by using it. And that happens in Loom, an urban myth of a persona called Olian who is on the run and there are rumours of hidden money that apparently nobody can find.

At the time I was thinking about other crime fiction based on changing urban conditions, such as Chinatown (1974) with its backdrop of changing water landscapes, the California water wars, as well as Scarface (1983) which is supposedly set in Miami, though more often the locations are simulated with these brilliantly grotesque wallpapers and plastic palm trees which really capture the unreality of that city, and, how anything is permissible.

These two examples really capture what I’m interested in when it comes to space, something I explored in the Bachmann piece. There is lots of discussion about how spaces can express personalities and dogmas, while I think they are more effective as incubators that create personas. J. G. Ballard usually described his ‘psychic landscapes’ as emanations from his characters’ minds, but really I think his brutal environments are incubators for these characters. They are made by it and for me that makes them more powerful, because they are real and not fitful projections. You can also see it in Patricia Highsmith’s writing, who was well aware of how spaces can be used to uncover disassociated psychological states. Remember that her first protagonist in Strangers on a Train is an architect who becomes paranoid that his guilt will somehow be shown in the buildings he is designing, yet when they are reviewed his peers see only ‘serenity’. Again, Tom, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, people know he’s evil, however, he gains some kind of redemption because of his exquisite taste in clothes, furniture and painting — which is most likely Highsmith toying with the shallow morals of the reader. All this stuff is not an emanation of his good taste at all, rather the environment is Tom Ripley because he has no solid personality of his own. The intense opulence of this incubator he creates for himself only underscores his lack of psyche. Similarly in Loom I wanted to explore how a corrupt built environment can affect the minds of the people who inhabit it. What kind of person does corruption carve out?

Your new novella, Loom (Gordian Projects), is rooted in the reality of contemporary London — or at least one aspect of it: it revolves around an uninhabited residence on a ‘Potemkin’ street (Millionaire’s Row) in a ghost (part of) town, where houses are investments not homes. The book immediately veers into stranger (and, arguably, far more interesting) territory, but I first wanted to ask you where you stand on psychogeography…

MT: Psychogeography is a tricky term for me. I grew up in such a boring and grey town that using your ‘imagination to remake the world’, as the psychogeographers say, was the only way to cope, and I knew that before I could put a name to it. My friends were all skateboarders and they were great at using the city in way that was opposed to how it was designed. We can’t have been alone in doing that.

As a teenager though, I really enjoyed reading Peter Ackroyd, but I think his writing is very different from the other writers using that term, and I’m not even sure he would label himself a psychogeographer. Reading Patrick Keiller’s book of essays The View From the Train was also a turning point, along with Anna Minton’s brilliant assessments of subtle control mechanisms and corrupt flows of wealth in London. Minton’s books come across as surreal quasi-fictions at first, but that is the reality of the city now. Surrealism made concrete.

As for the other writers most often associated with psychogeography, I think they commandeered writing about place, which already had an incredibly rich history in literature, put a name to it and overthought the whole thing into something which is, at its worst, close to trainspotting. They had a tendency to fetishise place and architecture to an extent that it put other people off writing about it who weren’t in the club, or, didn’t want to be associated. It might be why lots of fiction now has a very weak relationship to space and environment, whereas in the past, this link has been rich. I’m thinking of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square and Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight — he would have hated psychogeography of course, yet it is a great journey through a ghostly landscape. This sense of movement from place to place is also missing from a lot of current fiction and it makes me feel quite detached from the narrative, like some dimension of it is missing. Maybe this is more to do with seeing IRL spaces like digital spaces, where transitions are fast and seamless. Non-existent almost, without a real journey.

Despite this, there are people at the moment who write about place in a really inventive way. Just to name a few: Nicholas Royle, Joanna Walsh and Chris Power in his new book A Lonely Man, which is very clever in its use of a gentrified Berlin as a setting, tedious and ripe for paranoid delusions, and includes a drunken dérive-like taxi ride through London.

As for Loom, after Emma at Gordian Projects initially expressed an interest, we met and she challenged me by asking whether we needed another book about a man walking around London. This question led to the narrator being repositioned as a blind spot, unsure of who they are, resulting in this blurring of the house with the person that’s inhabiting it. For me, the psychogeographic writers I’ve come across write from a very masculine point of view, whereas when I read people like Marion Shoard and Luke Turner, places such as the edgelands are much more fluid in terms of gender and sexuality. In Loom the gender of the narrator is never mentioned, their pronouns will depend on the default setting the reader has in their mind. It will be interesting to see what this is.

The title Loom seems apt given the pervasive sense of foreboding, but it also refers to the all-important piece of gold thread that finds an echo, for instance, in the electric cables the protagonist attends to like ‘a medical student separating a circulatory system from an old cadaver’…

MT: It works in a few ways to hint at the book’s themes, while also functioning to join the personal events in the narrative to some kind of collective catastrophe. It’s easy to imagine the gold thread in Loom making its way beyond the house into all the invisible infrastructure, drains, pipes, internet cables, that could link it to the rest of the world.

The title also alludes to narrative threads. When I was young my mother made lace gloves for these rich aristocrats that nobody had ever heard of and were still living in a fantasy of the past. I see writing as being a bit like that weaving process, a filigree thing where you lay down threads, or, a machine, a loom.

At the same time, the title is somewhat paradoxical because what seems to be looming has, in a sense, already happened (like the disaster for Maurice Blanchot). Would you agree?

MT: Yes, I think this feeling of constant suspense without conclusion is a much more truthful depiction of the times we live in than, say, moving towards one dramatic event. There are these monumental catastrophes that are so big we can’t see them, and they are so carefully stage-managed that it’s rare for there to be a distinct climax. We’re in a moment of these low-frequency ‘borderless disasters’, as M. John Harrison calls them in The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, that are largely unseen and constantly ongoing, but must secretly contribute to a sense of suspense and anxiety that people can’t directly pinpoint. Gilles Deleuze writes about this kind of thing in his Postscript on the Societies of Control, mapping how control has metamorphosed from Foucault’s prisons to a serpentine gas that has infiltrated everything. Again, this relates to the pervasive gold thread you mentioned in the previous question.

The real protagonist is this seemingly sentient house, right?

Yes and no. The protagonist fuses with the environment so they are both parts of each other. As I mentioned previously, the house incubates a kind of person to the point where it’s hard to tell which is which. I was interested in how a house built from corruption can create a person, whether it results in a corrupt person is for the reader to decide.

Buildings, and how we interact with them, are shadows of thoughts and feeling before we become fully conscious of them. A cluttered home can be stream of consciousness made real, which is much more convincing than traditional articulations of that narrative mode, that for me is usually too ordered and well defined. Space in my writing expresses pre-conscious and pre-personal undercurrents which one of my favourite writers, Nathalie Sarraute, defined as ‘tropisms’ — a phrase borrowed from how plants move towards the sun or other stimulus, such as wind, gravity and darkness. I think my characters grow towards walls and objects, and in turn spaces grow inwards around them. Kafka wrote in one of his notebooks that everyone carries a room around inside of them, and we can hear the noises it makes — it’s this kind of relationship.

We are told that this house was modelled on Alfred Loos’s Villa Müller in Prague, which is famously all about its interior. Here, the original is criticised for containing — like many great artworks — ‘too much of its creator’. What are we to make of this remark when applied to the copy?

MT: You mentioned my piece on Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina for frieze in the introduction. While writing that I was working something out on a map of Vienna and realised the house where the majority of events in Malina take place is just five minutes from Adolf Loos’ apartment and he would walk past the address regularly on the way to the headquarters of the newspaper he wrote for. I find these moments where fiction and reality meet really interesting. Many of the psychological control mechanisms described by Bachmann find their physical manifestation in the architecture of Adolf Loos. Loos designed the Villa Müller so the women inhabiting it could only sit on the built-in furniture, giving him complete control over how they inhabited his spaces. The fixed chairs are usually placed below windows and looking away from them, so in effect void the outside world and reality. The Villa Müller was the epicentre of modernism and partial copies of this house are everywhere, along with the misogynistic and racist spatial politics it promoted. And we don’t even need to look far in the first instance, a slightly longer walk from the Malina house is Haus Wittgenstein that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein designed for his sister, continuing Loos’ principles. It’s an incredibly intimidating house with heavy doors made from iron, and his sister never could live there, writing that it was a house for ‘gods’ rather than ‘small mortals’ like her, echoing Bachmann’s unnamed narrator in Malina.

There is a disquieting centripetal force at play in the novella, as well as an oppressive feeling of claustrophobia: the edgelands have migrated to the city centre; the house ‘turns its back on the outside’ and even haunts itself through its negative space. The house — which is already a copy — harbours its own Matryoshka doll-style doppelganger (the kind of doubling which is often indicative of the unheimlich):

A typical house or flat has a whole host of hidden constructional layers; walls sandwiched with carcinogenic chemicals, asbestos and poisonous lead paints; strange dark voids filled with cigarette ends and vodka bottles from those that built it.

Could you tell us a little more about this very original twist on the haunted house trope? I have already mentioned Blanchot, but were you at all influenced by Emmanuel Levinas’s concept of the il y a (I’m thinking here of the passage where you write that the house ‘obsessively contemplates’ its inhabitants)?

MT: When you invent a ship, you also invent the shipwreck. In some strange way, when you invent a place through writing you also invent its ghost, without really being in control of what that is. This house that haunts itself came about in that way. Its external surfaces are haunted by the secret life of the detritus hidden in its layers of construction. It just happened, but if I were to look back I’m pretty sure Levinas and Blanchot are there.

I was also thinking about how buildings are probably the most effective way to launder money, not just in the sale of whole properties, but all the materials they are constructed from. Due to the complexity of buildings, it’s all very unaccountable and difficult to point fingers at particular individuals when something goes wrong. We are seeing this right now in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Many buildings have ghosts of corruption and potential disaster, we can feel these things intuitively, but don’t really understand them or see them clearly. I think that’s what ghosts really are and why they are such sources of anxiety.

In one of my favourite extracts, the narrator wonders ‘What slips by unnoticed when we’re habitually grasping for a light switch in the dark?’, drawing the conclusion that ‘We dwell in the spatial equivalent of a stranger’. This ties in with the theme of architecture as fiction that runs (like the piece of gold thread) throughout the book, as well as that of hyperobjects. Is architecture a hyperobject like Olian himself?

MT: Hyperobjects are these strange presences that only show themselves through the marks they leave behind. Global warming is a hyperobject and probably the internet in some ways as well. The architecture in Loom could be seen in this way because it only becomes visible in its interactions with the narrator, through the traces they leave on each other.

Loom was written two years before Covid yet the confinement and the emptying of town centres and cities is already there. In this section of the book I was interested in how little of our homes we actually see. If you were to track the parts of your home you actually walk through and interact with, it would be a surprisingly small percentage. You might look at a painting occasionally, but when was the last time you looked at the wall? There are many of these voids. It relates again to what ghosts really are, and for me they are an acknowledgement of all the parts we don’t see or can’t see.

Similar to other themes in Loom this goes beyond the narrative. Work makes us not see things, capitalism doesn’t really require us to be aware of our environment, and this accounts for why the built environment is becoming increasingly boring. Capitalism wants you to keep walking, it doesn’t require you to stop and admire a building. The result is that the places we walk through every day feel as though they are forever someplace else, distant and unreachable, despite the fact that we live in them. A whole city can become a ghost.

Without giving too much away, of course, where did the inspiration for Olian come from?

MT: Olian is an amalgamation of the oligarchs we read about in the news, but he is also based on a real person that Orson Welles lived with for over a year. Similar to the character described in my book, Michel Olian was a Latvian fixer, an international financier of extreme dubiousness. He was in the background of many major political events and one of the richest men in the world. Search his name on google now though and he’s disappeared. In Olian there are also shades of François Genoud, who was a similar individual. All these people had a fog-like ubiquity, an ability to seemingly be in multiple places at once, that makes them all human precursors to the darker side of the internet. They were all centres masquerading as peripheries, the same as the urban condition underpinning Loom, they were also hyperobjects before that term was coined.

If we return to the subject of influences, Loom (for me) conjured up J. G. Ballard, Tom McCarthy, Shirley Jackson, ruin porn and the nouveau roman — but I think there’s also a Huysmans-style element in there. In particular, a tension between surfaces (aestheticism) and depths (decadence)…

MT: Around the time of writing Loom I was re-reading Huysmans’ À rebours and Là-bas. In his decadent phase, spaces are part of the cosmos of his characters’ inner world. The intensity of his prose is something I find really addictive and has the feel of a medieval cathedral, it reminds me of Jan van Eyck’s paintings, where there is so much detail you can’t possibly perceive it all at once — there is something of the internet there. Despite being directed towards the future, the internet weirdly strives for the religious symbolism of the past: immateriality, light, point clouds, the similarity between prayers and algorithms. Huysmans helped me realise this. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was also with me at the time, and you can see that influence clearly in the illustrations.

The beautiful illustrations also have a William Morris wallpaper quality, which may be linked to what we have just said apropos of Huysmans. Could you talk about the interaction between the text and the illustrations?

MT: I don’t really see them as drawings but more as an extensions of the text. They are just single lines because I wanted them as similar to writing on a page as possible. There are minimal passages mixed with those that are more rococo in character and the drawings respond to this pace, texture and complexity without illustrating it directly.

I have an interest in Early Netherlandish painting, a time when the distance between text and painting was incredibly fine. The Arnolfini Portrait, for instance, might appear as a painting, but really it contains a good amount of writing and was seen as a legal contract at the time of its creation.

What’s next?

MT: At the moment I’m working on an article about disaster architecture for Port Magazine and finishing my short story collection, which doesn’t have a publisher yet. I’m also in the current issue of Icon Magazine (Icon 203: Spring 2021) writing about unstable ground in London and how it was never as stable as we might like to think. The issue is available for free on their website.

Chauvo-Feminism

Here is my review of Chauvo-Feminism: On Sex, Power and #MeToo by Sam Mills. The Irish Times, 27 February 2021, p. 14:

A performative espousal of feminist principles may be a fig leaf for plain old misogyny. Many of the abusers exposed by the #MeToo movement — including Harvey Weinstein himself — were men of a woke persuasion. Sam Mills calls them chauvo-feminists, among other things. She even dated one, which gave rise to a textbook case of gaslighting. This provides the armature for a coruscating disquisition on the mind games of Jekylls who Hyde in plain sight. Mills corrals a vast array of material, blending poignant memoir and meticulous research to great effect. Bristling with righteous indignation, yet commendably nuanced, her essay is never less than entertaining, as when she remarks that map-reading is not a task she has to ‘strain against [her] vagina to accomplish’.

Indecipherable Chicken-Scratch Squiggles

Sam Mills had the good taste to choose “Celesteville’s Burning: A Work in Regress” as part of her contribution (5 February 2021) to A Personal Anthology, a fine series curated by Jonathan Gibbs.

‘Celesteville’s Burning: A Work in Regress’ by Andrew Gallix

Sostène Zanzibar, a successful novelist based in Paris, is suffering a midlife crisis and struggling with creative inspiration. When the journalist Loren Ipsum comes to interview him, they embark on a love affair that ends in humiliation for Zanzibar, who then descends into crisis. The prose is beautifully crafted, the story a wonderful mixture of literary satire, erudite references, superb puns and zingy one-liners, and jokes that made me laugh out loud — Zanzibar’s ex “publicly pooh-poohed his cunnilingus technique, comparing the result as a series of ‘indecipherable chicken-scratch squiggles’”. As the story progresses, there is a shift in tone from comic to poignant and the ending is dreamy and bittersweet.

First published in The White Review, and available to read online. Collected in We’ll Never Have Paris, Repeater Books, 2019.

The Death of Francis Bacon

Here is my review of The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter. The Irish Times, 9 January 2021, p. 13:

Porter’s Portrait of the Artist is a Masterpiece in Miniature

Max Porter explores the inner workings of Francis Bacon’s mind as the artist deliriously recalls his life

If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, what of painting? As Francis Bacon once said, “If you can talk about it, why paint it?” Indeed. In his third novel, Max Porter explores what happens when you contemplate canvases to the point of being contemplated by them.

Rather than talk about Bacon’s paintings, he lets them speak — or mutely howl — and what they express is not what they represent, but how they feel: the sensation of their own brute facticity. “I can still feel it, right through me, like a shock,” Bacon says here, remembering the time when he “bit down on shot” while dining out on pheasant stew: “Metal drill in my fillings right down through my urethra. Buzzing in my underbladder.”

Possibly moonlighting as the critic David Sylvester, the author plants a sneaky mission statement at the beginning of the fourth chapter, where he confesses his longstanding “unfashionable fixation” with the painter as well as his aim “to get art history out of the way”. (Porter once obtained an MA in this very subject at London’s Courtauld.)

Bacon is lying on his deathbed in a Madrid clinic, where he is attended to by a sister whom he addresses as Hermana or Mercedes (she calls him “piggy”) and regularly mistakes for figures from his past, such as his lover and muse Peter Lacy or photographer and Soho habitué John Deakin. Through a series of delirious dreams, his life is depicted in the visceral style of his work.

Tales of turpentine and turpitude, fisting and feasting commingle with children’s stories and striking imagery, while the artist ponders his legacy: “Oh naff off you skag,” he says apropos of one famous critic. Dying itself is leavened with dark levity: “I wonder if I might have no pain. If you’d be so kind.”

The opening section — one page long, text laid out like a poem, copious amounts of blank space — is devoted to a “[N]on-existent” sketch, from which we may infer that all the other works conjured up thereafter are authentic and still extant. Every subsequent chapter proceeds from a different oil on canvas — seven in all — of varying dimensions (the smallest being 14 x 12 inches).

Of little import at first blush, these measurements highlight the art’s materiality, enabling us to track down, with a fair degree of accuracy, most of the pieces Porter has purposely left untitled. They also allow us to ascertain that the sequence in which the paintings are summoned is strictly chronological down to the penultimate chapter, which is in keeping with the narrative’s biographical tenor.

Porter spares us the tiresome ekphrases. Save for the aforementioned sketch, none of the artworks is described. The emphasis is placed firmly on the creative process and how the works “work”. The revelation of the models’ convulsive beauty, for instance, as soon as they twist and turn — a recurrent gesture that echoes Bacon’s retrospection. When the sister turns sitter she suddenly becomes a “handsome prospect”, her “crowded mouth” making the artist yearn to see her snarl: “that’s why she has to sit like that, as if sitting for me, lest those rows of teeth burp out”.

In one instance Bacon juxtaposes the boyish features of Don Carlos, seen on one painting, with Julius Caesar’s punctured body from another: “I folded the head over at the eyes and laid it on the injury.” This is portraiture as vivisection: “Yes, peeling a scab. Lifting the whole clotty lot of it and seeing the root. Verruca stippled. These are a few of my favourite things.”

The non-existent preparatory sketch, which Bacon cannot recall drafting, represents his own deathbed scene. It soon becomes apparent that with each new chapter and canvas, the sketch is being fleshed out. This impression is reinforced by the numerous repetitions: the sister’s incessant “Intenta descansar”, on which the book closes, produces a sort of litany; every chapter beginning with “Take a seat why don’t you” and containing questions pitting the painter against other figures (Edward the Martyr, Caesar, Mussolini, Caravaggio).

All the while, Bacon is painting his own departure until he absents himself through his work, resurfacing in canvases hanging in museums and galleries from whence he can spend an eternity mocking his critical foes. Self-portraiture as auto-autopsy.

The Death of Francis Bacon is a little masterpiece; a slim volume that packs a mean Peter Lacy-style punch. It is as though Porter had bit down on shot, taking the most adventurous passages from his two previous novels and letting rip — painting in words the “deeply ordered chaos” Bacon saw all about him.

Loren Ipsum – The Movie

This short film, by Julie Kamon, is based on an extract from my novel-in-progress, Loren Ipsum. The music and soundtrack are by Also Known as Ariel (aka London-based Argentine author Fernando Sdrigotti). Readings by Susanna Crossman, S.J. Fowler, Stewart Home, Sam Mills, and C.D. Rose.

The film was published by 3:AM Magazine on 13 January 2021. It premiered on Carthorse Orchestra, David Collard‘s online literary salon.

“From the opening shot (a stylish nod to Jacques Demy) this is a wonderful, assured, immersive ten minutes in which sound, text and image align perfectly. Repays multiple viewings” – David Collard.

Also Known As Loren Ipsum

Also Known As Ariel (aka London-based Argentine author Fernando Sdrigotti) has kindly composed this eerie soundtrack for a forthcoming video (by Julie Kamon) showcasing an extract from my novel-in-progress Loren Ipsum. More soon.



You can also find it on Spotify.

On Mooning Considered as One of the Fine Arts

I have a short story — “On Mooning Considered as One of the Fine Arts” — in ZenoPress’s latest annual anthology, Zahir: Desire and Eclipse.

Here is the publisher’s blurb:

Zahir: Desire and Eclipse is a new collection of writings including essays, poems, experimental texts and short stories. This issue features works by both established and emerging artists and writers.

The starting point for this new anthology is the short story by Jorge Luis Borges ‘The Zahir’. Zahir is an Arabic word that indicates a concept or object that obsesses man, to the point of making him lose touch with reality. The Zahir at first may appear insignificant, it insinuates itself into the mind and invades it occupying every corner. It becomes an obsession that can only be freed by going to meet it, looking for it and making it one’s own forever.

Within the realms of poetry, essays and short stories, this anthology explores how the Zahir — something both very serious and vaguely absurd — sticks on our minds and refuses to be shaken. The aim is to consider how its cultural meanings are produced and how it shapes and resonates in our imagination, as well as causing consequences in various aspect of life. Each work investigates how the Zahir allows itself to be a screen onto which we project our anxieties and desires and functions as a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected.

Featuring works by:

Andrew Dyer, Andrew Gallix, Annie Q. Syed, Anthony Etherin, C.C. O’Hanlon, David Roden, Emma Bolland, Flowerville, Genese Grill, Geoff Saunders, Iris Colomb, Julia Rose Lewis, Kate Wakeling, Octavia Bright and Rushda Rafeek.

Edited by Christian Patracchini.

The Sound Mirror

My review of The Sound Mirror by Heidi James. The Irish Times, 4 September 2020, p. 13:

The Sound Mirror starts on such a high note that one wonders how the author will ever manage to sustain it. After an opening sentence such as “She is going to kill her mother today” — with its nod to Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Ann Quin’s Berg — the only way is down, surely. Against all the odds, Heidi James rises to the challenge, parlaying this expository gambit into an exhilarating, heart-rending work that is full of surprises. The main motif, crudely put, is the past in the present; the collective in the individual. It is introduced in the first chapter and reprised in the last, but what may have come across as theoretical is now so emotionally charged that the words resonate in the pit of your stomach, bringing tears — of joy as well as sorrow — to this reader’s eyes. Quite an achievement.

The pre-emptive incipit notwithstanding, James is a mistress of suspense. Chapters alternate between the three women — Claire, Tamara, and Ada — whose destinies are limned from the second World War to the present day. It is not giving too much away to reveal that Claire and Tamara are related, although this is only established at a late stage — a few pages, in fact, after we finally discover how Ada’s life intersects with the other narrative strands. The first clue that Claire and Ada’s paths are about to cross — a dead horse blocking the road (possibly evocative of Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin) — is so unobtrusive that it could easily be overlooked.

Time is out of joint in this hauntological saga, and not only because of the parallel lives and abrupt flashbacks. Tamara’s mission — as the last female in her family line — is to erase the past after cancelling the future. The chapters devoted to this character are narrated by a Greek-style chorus composed of all her female ancestors. “What we are,” they declaim, referring to a long history of hurt, both endured and inflicted, “is the story she is made of”. Tamara’s tinnitus, like the trauma encoded in her DNA, is but a manifestation of this collective voice: “The body remembers what the conscious mind will not”.

James’s fourth novel is dotted with references to mythology and tragedy: it is the chronicle of a death foretold, free will is locked in battle with fate; Persephone crops up twice, not to mention matricide and incest (already contained in the Nabokovian name Ada). The most striking feature, however, is the figure of Tamara as conduit: “She’s a recording, a medium the past speaks through”. This condition is usually associated with oracles, rhapsodes, or Aeolian harps, not the head of communications for a high-street bank, hence the giddy feeling that one is reading a contemporary feminist novel composed by Sophocles’ sister.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that the realm of poetry can only be accessed through the madness of the Muses. The “family sickness” Tamara has inherited “like a tarnished heirloom” is also a form of madness — that of generations of women “trapped and raging and muzzled like beasts”, their horizons “snipped small”. One of her ancestors describes it as just a kind of “second sight” but the boundaries between past, present and future are now “leaking and mixing and contaminating” at an alarming rate (mimicking the convergence between the three plot lines). The disease turns out to be degenerative: “She is a translation. A bad one. The code has been perverted. It will, having been replicated too many times”.

Language — at the heart of the tension between atavism and “unbelonging” — is another code that has been corrupted by overuse. Claire, who justifies her venomous tongue by claiming to speak as she finds, only happens upon hackneyed phrases as clapped out as her husband’s nag. Like Tamara, she is ventriloquised. Her cockney patois (that remains just on the right side of Dick Van Dyke) will prompt her daughter to belittle her own offspring for dropping her aitches. Racist shopkeepers pretend that they cannot understand Ada because she was born in Calcutta, recalling Claire’s father’s attempts to eradicate all traces of their “eyetie” origins.

Language is also a means of reinvention. A posh word like “marvellous” fills Claire’s mouth “like a sweet heavy cream”. Throughout their lives, all three women try out different versions of themselves, but are borne back ceaselessly into the traumas of the past. James should be commended for not writing the pain away. The pathetic fallacy Tamara expects, following the climactic event, fails to materialise: “There’s no magical sign from the universe. No portent, no natural phenomenon she can misread”.

This defamiliarised family saga ends with a ray of sunshine: in spite of everything, love can be found between “what was and what will be”. We are “stories in transmission” — and the saga goes on.