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Polly Samson, Perfect Lives – TLS

05/12/2010

Polly Samson is such a creature of the moment that if she didn’t exist, someone in the publicity department of a major publishing house would probably invent her. Married to a rock star, mother to eight children, voted one of the UK’s most beautiful women, she’s all over the internet, until recently as glamorous appendage, but now, with her third book from Virago, in her own right. In an earlier life she lived with Heathcote Williams and was, indeed, head of publicity at Jonathan Cape. Her latest novel comes adorned with puffs from Ali Smith, Maggie O’Farrell and John Banville.

All of which would be by the by if the book in question was not such a work of glassy self-reflection, did not have the quality Samson admired in Lavinia Greenlaw’s 2007 memoir: “the constant throb of self-recognition”. Unlike Greenlaw, she’s writing fiction, this time about the lives of several women linked by a piano tuner in a seaside town, their individual stories running together in a novel. It’s a pleasurable form that draws attention to its own making – a reflexiveness deepened by the suggestion that the perfect lives to which the title alludes are self-created traps, cover stories for unresolved trauma.

One such illusionist is Celia Idlewild. Her well-heeled life with “everything as it should be”, is disturbed one morning when an egg drops through the letter box, the words “Happy Fat” written on the broken shell. Like the signs puffed out by the aeroplane in Mrs Dalloway, the meaning is elusive but carries a threat of spoiling. It’s an idea much repeated here: pleasure in a perfect world (“clean as peppermint”, “pristine as chalk”) that’s sullied by dogshit, tattoos, a concentration camp number inked on flesh.

As well as the musical-fluvial imagery, “the trilling ripples of waves”, Samson has the familiar inheritance of the woman writer, Woolf’s “luminous halo”. It creates here an impression of a world on show, “shimmering”, “glimmering”, “glistening”, “glinting”. But Samson is nothing if not knowing, and parodies herself: one woman romps in an orchard fantasising about her lover, the language becoming increasingly tremulous (“dewdrops”, “dewfall”, “diamonds of dew”). The joke is she lusts not after a man, but an “unbearably chic” Leica camera.

The result is a deformation of Woolf’s language of sensitivity. Rather than making us receptive, even to the falling atoms, in Samson’s stories, the writing becomes a sign of contemporary narcissism: the natural world glitters to attract me – like the camera, the “naughty kitten” shoes and the other spangly things a girl wants (but doesn’t want to feel guilty about wanting). This Fall is implied in differences between the generations, from “strong as an ox” grandmothers living through totalitarian regimes, to mothers of the vegetarian, Greenham Common kind; to resentful daughters, not wanting their kids to be scared out of their wits when Granny insists they demonstrate against the invasion of Iraq.

Aurelia, a concert pianist in Hamburg for a recital, remembers her grandmother on Kristallnacht telling her sons to look at “how prettily the glass glistened on the pavements”. Unspoken is the thought that what we once did to stave off fear – making the world into alluring objects – has today become a form of avoiding struggle. In the final story a woman gives in to a husband who annoys her by coming home late and slouching in front of the television. Urged on by a witty cat, voicing her misgivings, she thinks of attacking the box with a steak hammer but is distracted by her husband’s smile, “dazzling” in the firelight, then further seduced by an actor in a favourite movie. She knows the house is a shambles and that her husband has out-manoeuvred her, but the kids are fine and she snuggles contentedly on the couch. Is this collusion or finding joy in a necessarily imperfect life? Samson’s novel is so finely tuned it’s impossible to tell.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the TLS as ‘See How it Shines’, on 26.11.2010.

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