When I posted about Rosy Thornton’s Tapestry of Love a few weeks ago, I put it in the context of “comfort reads,” “books that I reread when I want to wander mentally away from home without feeling adrift, to be distracted without being distraught or dismayed.” (Other writers with books this category are Anne Tyler and Joanna Trollope.) In the comments, I was pointed to Salley Vickers, who sounded like someone whose books I would also enjoy, so when I happened across a copy of Dancing Backwards at The Jade *W* on Friday I picked it right up. It turned out to be just right for weekend reading: like Tyler, Trollope, and Thornton, Vickers writes with understated care, her focus primarily on characters in situations requiring more reflection than action. Dancing Backwards is not demanding reading, but it’s intelligent, particularly in its development of the main character, recently widowed Violet Hetherington. She is taking a cruise across the Atlantic to New York that is at once a literal journey and (of course) a mental voyage, in her case through her past. She is on her way to visit an old friend; her separation from him took place under circumstances that have haunted her conscience, and in fact for “comfort” reading, the story of Violet’s past is actually fairly uncomfortable, as Vickers quite grippingly portrays the emotional bullying and abuse that destroyed this friendship and left Violet unable to continue writing poetry. There’s a particularly painful scene in which Violet’s fiancé, himself an aspiring (but, Violet thinks, not very talented) poet lambastes her for winning a prize for her book. “I don’t know how you could have done this,” he leads off;
“How could you enter for a poetry prize and not tell me? Unless it was that you didn’t want me to compete.”
This was dreadful. She did not say, You couldn’t have entered, or been entered (for it was not her idea after all but the publisher’s), you’ve not published a collection of poems, because now, suddenly, the greater terror was not what she might have done to him but that he might recognise that he was not a poet and never could be one.
“I hadn’t realized you were so competitive,” he continued.
They carried on down the hill in single file, tears like acid channeling Vi’s cheeks.
On reflection, I’m not sure that Vickers does enough to explain why Vi would accept this psychological abuse, but she does well showing its lingering effects. The novel is simply but effectively structured, with flashbacks to Violet’s early history intercut with wry, sometimes poignant, sometimes funny encounters with her fellow passengers. The reunion in New York is handled well–again, the best word to describe it is “understated,” and overall I think that’s what I appreciated most about the novel, that Vickers keeps the tone controlled in a way that suits Violet’s self-contained personality. Like Tyler’s novels, this one is character-driven, with no formal complexities, and works on a very small scale. But it’s important not to underestimate how interesting that kind of careful attention to people can be, and how morally significant small individual problems and choices can be when taken seriously. So Vickers was a good recommendation; I’ll definitely look for her other novels.
As a side note, I’ve always wondered about cruises. I worry that I’d feel a bit claustrophobic, and also that I’d have trouble going to sleep with the thought of all that water underneath me. I also don’t much like being organized by other people, and I’m not inclined to join in group activities. Still, maybe it’s just all those episodes of The Love Boat when I was a child, but there’s something alluring about the idea. Maybe one day I’ll do one of those river cruises along the Rhine or the Danube…