As Janet Davey’s 2004 novel First Aid opens, a luggage-laden mother is on a train with her children. A few pages in and her daughter, without a word, ‘opens the door and jumps’. The lack of reaction from the mother, Jo, is striking: she closes her eyes and ignores the protestations of her son. The other striking feature of this book’s opening is the pared down prose with which its actions and (lack of) reactions are conveyed. As writer Tessa Hadley commented in a review of By Battersea Bridge last year; ‘the syntax isn’t showy or faux-archaic, it’s crisply contemporary; but it’s complex and promises that nothing offered for our interest will be blatant, or banal.’
In an almost-unnerving sleight of literary hand, Davey has rapidly communicated a keen sense of the geographical and mental space that these characters inhabit. Continue winding through Janet Davey’s beautifully slender ribs of prose and you realise that her economy of expression is a startlingly effective way of submerging you in the worlds of her novels and characters, yet also of keeping the reader at bay. There is much which is unsaid in Davey’s novels; details and histories that remain shrouded, with occasional, tantalising glimpses rising from a smoky unknown.
This thread of the unknown and the not-quite-said runs through each of Davey’s four novels. The London-based author’s first book was English Correspondence, longlisted for the 2002 Orange Prize. First Aid was published next, followed by The Taxi Queue in 2007. Davey’s fourth novel, By Battersea Bridge, has recently been released in paperback. Each work features taut prose that makes you feel like you’re walking a tightrope, and characters at moments of both pivot and suspension.
In English Correspondence we watch Sylvie, half French owner-manager of a hotel and restaurant in a colourless part of France reeling from the death of her father. Living either side of the Channel, they communicated by letter, and Sylvie is now in limbo, consumed by the possibility that her father’s final letter is still to come. Struggling with her grief, her marriage, and the never-ending cycle of work in a hotel that is mainly a place between places for people on their way to ‘a destination’, Sylvie searches for someone else to write to. In the process, she drifts further from her husband and ends up in her father’s old flat with an almost-stranger. In a wonderfully evocative passage Davey writes: ‘Sylvie felt she was part of a chain reaction of obligations, as pointless as an ugly piece of knitting. She longed to unravel it, or at least drop a few stitches.’ The novel is this unravelling, at least in part.
Neither the neatly structured beginning-middle-end story arc of airport paperbacks and Hollywood films, nor the muddled ebb and flow of Modernist fiction is the frame into which we can fit English Correspondence and Davey’s other novels. Instead, they are characterised by personally monumental events, expressed in an understated way – silent screams, perhaps, or electric flashes that fizzle or dissolve, leaving a trace on the characters, the page and the reader’s mind.
In The Taxi Queue, the initial spark is the incongruous meeting of two men in an environment that relentlessly resists friendly interaction; an angry crowd of jostling London commuters, where women shout and shove ‘with mouths wide open, showing the bumps on their tongues and dispensing alcoholic fumes’. Richard, married with children, and Abe, roaming and manipulative, spend the night together. Perhaps this novel never quite reaches the well-pitched balance of light, lingering sketching and rich suggestion of Davey’s other novels. Still, the prose is masterful, and there are some wonderful character creations. Abe’s mother Gloria, like many of the members of Davey’s supporting cast of characters, appears solid and certain of herself in contrast to the luminously uncertain central figures: ‘Gloria suited the chair; tiny and symmetrical in the centre of it, her feet, in a pair of red leather boots, neatly lined up and touching the floor.’ Deliciously, Gloria’s only ‘mushiness’ is an uncharacteristic penchant for New Age books and chants.
The subsequent By Battersea Bridge is where Davey’s delicate and incomplete tracing of past events is perhaps most successful. A trauma has happened in Anita’s family past; something that’s ruptured the carefully-constructed middle class fabric of which Anita has never felt fully part. The details are obscured, although the event often murmurs up through the narrative, as images and rememberings of Anita’s past unmoor her present. Similarly, in First Aid, the history that holds the reason for Ella’s jump from the train dances just out of our reach. We know that her mother’s boyfriend attacked Ella’s mother, but it seems that there’s something else, too – hazy yet painfully sharp – that’s made Ella want to escape, and that later in the book compels her to flight again.
Sliding, unsteady perspectives are coupled with alarming perspicacity in Davey’s fiction. In By Battersea Bridge we think that we’re watching someone watch Anita at her brother’s wedding. Ed muses about her and creates his own fictional version of her, yet then discovers that he was mistaken; he is watching someone else, and therefore, unsettlingly, so are we. Anita was never there at all, and has just had a breakdown. In fact, in this central part of the novel, Anita repeatedly eludes us and is ‘unraveled’. Her feeling of paling into insignificance beside her sharply-drawn family and ebullient brothers is mirrored with the erasing of her in the narrative. When Ed discovers that the woman he identified as Anita is someone different, Anita’s absence is multiplied: ‘Having mistaken her identity, she seemed to him doubly missing.’
Davey deals in the space between black and white, solid and liquid, fact and fiction. The grey areas, the in-betweens and the uncertains are held up to the light by her bold writing. In By Battersea Bridge, photos remind Anita that her school uniform was mustard coloured, unlike her brothers’: ‘Mark and Barney posed in their school’s black and white; monochrome to her jaundiced Technicolour. They were in a silver frame and she was loose in the photograph box’. These are novels of quietness, that speak volumes.