Joanna Briscoe
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Buy *You* by Joanna Briscoe online

Joanna Briscoe
Bloomsbury USA
368 pages
August 2011
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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In what is basically a story about womanhood, Briscoe ties past mistakes to present-day assumptions with chapters teeming with images of Dartmoor, the jagged landscape a constant presence and a powerful symbol for the intimacies of Dora Bannan and her daughter, Cecilia. Both are blinded by passion - albeit in different ways - for the alluring school-teachers Elizabeth and James Dahl.

The author’s acute attention to detail permeates this passionate novel in which illicit affairs are paramount as Cecilia returns to her childhood home Wind Tor House in Dartmoor to look after an ailing Dora. Although Cecilia loves her partner, Ari, and her three daughters, an indefinable sense of failure defines her present life as she gapes into the past years and a childhood that should have been about innocence.

Here at Wind Tor, she lived with her parents Patrick and Dora, their dilapidated lives cobbled together in a sort of alternative hippy collective where children were raised like animals, allowed to roam on the moors, and men appeared with “foxy beards,” their “fluty women” in dresses resembling aprons. Cecilia doesn’t even guess the intensity of her own desires in this unkempt Eden that seems ripe for blooming romantic impulses.

Red-haired, with a rosebud mouth and a sweet nature, Cecilia is emboldened by the metaphorical hauntings of literature, of "savage and yellow-eyed wolves" and the fog that rolls down from the moors. She can’t help but be attracted to erudite, handsome James Dahl, who teaches English at the local progressive school. As James’s dark lashes form “a protective veil,” he tells his new teenage muse that one day she could be as beautiful and tragic as the great heroines of Thomas Hardy.

When Dora takes a job as a music teacher, she meets James’s wife, Elizabeth. Officious and direct with her dark grey suits and “spicy fig-like smell,” she looks at Dora with open curiosity. For Dora, the idea of a liaison with another woman is so intriguing, “the repellant aspect almost enhancing the anticipation.” Thus starts a frenzy of expectancy for both women: Cecilia connected to James in a merging of pleasure and pain, Dora’s friendship with Elizabeth only adding further frustration to her already sinking marriage. A “Sapphic liaison” is barely compatible with Dora’s harried domestic life as a mother of four.

Melding contemporary with nineteenth-century gothic, Briscoe’s lyrical writing captures the link between propriety and sexual abandonment. Amid river-gurgling madness, bogs and mist and fields, the windswept Dartmoor gives ample sustenance to her characters’ psyches. Early on in the story, Dora commits a critical error of judgment. Her lies, made out of necessity, escalate in desperation. But Cecilia harbors the deepest resentment when she looks back over that period with James more thoroughly than she ever wanted to.

Fragments of recalled joy compete with anger and resentment, while misunderstandings “hang like a force-field” between characters. Filled with the power of illicit kisses, Dora and Cecilia - both bereft mothers - wake to moments of profound clarity as their fragile grasp on evasions and lies crumbles around them.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2011

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