Salley Vickers's new novel, Dancing Backwards, arrived after I finished The Other Side of You. Amazon seemed to have read my mind, but I was the one who pushed the button. I was intent on reading all of Vickers, so ordered this and then got sidetracked. I've neglected contemporary literature lately and become a member of what I call "The Curate Club," reading Oliphant's The Perpetual Curate, Salem Chapel, and The Rector.
Well, I must get back to the modern. The last new book I read was Patti Smith's National Book Award-winning Just Kids, a stunning memoir of her art as a young woman and relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, and, by the way, did you know she had an affair with Sam Shepard? This last detail impressed me because I've loved Shepard since Buried Child, and am fascinated that so many artists convened at clubs in New York before they became famous.
That was a digression.
My first new book of the year is Vickers's Dancing Backwards. I read this luminous novel nonstop and found it entirely wonderful. Vickers's sharp, haunting style reminds me of Anita Brookner's, only colder and less cozy, for lack of a better word. Both have a propensity for writing about lonely people; the characters' epiphanies are moving. Dancing Backwards, set on a transatlantic cruise to New York, is compelling and unpredictable.
The heroine, Violet Hetherington, recently a widow, is taking account of her life and redefining herself. She takes a cruise from London to New York to reunite cautiously with an old friend, Edwin, a gay poet who knew her during a productive but painful period of her youth. Violet, also a poet, hasn't written in years. The cruise gives her leisure to remember and analyze why.
Although I've always thought cruises are for old people, Vickers describes an entertainment that reminds me of writers' conferences. You are forever attending workshops, meals, and poetry readings. You retreat with gentle excuses if you want some time alone. And Vi very much wants time alone.
The novel weaves back and forth between the six days of the cruise and memories of her distant past as a young woman in an abusive relationship with an untalented writer. Vi's interactions with people on the cruise establish her as a charming woman with good social skills, so that her sad memories do not define her. Vickers understands the balance between contentment and grief, ordinary life and tragedy, functioning and withdrawal.
The social encounters on the cruise are fascinating. In the opening chapters, Vi casually befriends Captain Ryle, a retired cruise ship captain, Miss Foot, a surprisingly insightful woman who believes in auras, a theater critic known for his scathing reviews, retired couples, and a couple with a four-year-old child. She manages to limit the intensity of the relationships, a healthy woman who doesn't want to get over-involved. At the same time, she wants to please people. She ends up taking ballroom dancing lessons because of the enthusiasm of her attentive steward, Renato.
The dancing is a catharsis for Vi and others on the cruise. There is much about silver shoes and going barefoot. Vi lends her silver shoes to a woman in flipflops and then dances barefoot herself. The silver shoes suggest a kind of Cinderella, or reverse Cinderella, experience, perhaps. There is another scene in which Vi throws her shoes into the street during a fight with her first husband.
But we also see the people behind the scenes on the cruise, unscrupulous dance hosts who take advantage of the women customers. Dino (whose real name is Des) comes from a poor background and is grateful for the job. Although Vi is pleasant, he also sees her as a potential mark.
Between social engagements and cruise activities, Vi analyzes the time of her happy friendship at Cambridge with Edwin, her gay best friend, roommate and editor of a poetry magazine. Through Edwin, she meets her first husband, Bruno, a writer of bad poetry who is working on an anthropological book about voodoo. She marries Bruno, though Edwin advises against it. Bruno is a bully who is furious when she wins an award for poetry and gradually breaks her spirit. After a traumatic separation, Vi marries a decent, kind, wealthy lawyer, Ted, and has children.
Was this for good or ill? Why hasn't she written poetry?
Vickers writes beautifully and I HAD to keep reading this. A day in the rocking chair with a book. Great!