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Putting the ha back in Ithaca

26 October 2002

12:00 AM

26 October 2002

12:00 AM


Peter Owen, pp.262, 10.95

‘Yes,’ writes the eponymous narrator of this exceptionally clever, vivacious account of sibling rivalry, ‘there are many wax dolls on the shelves of my memory and I make sure I still twist the pins now and again, in passing.’

The dolls most vindictively pierced are those representing her twin sister and her mother. There are intimations of grandfatherly child abuse and a hint of Electra complex. The family’s exotic and rancorous family history is recorded, not altogether veritably, on her laptop by Cassandra at the age of 39, a cosmopolitan, embittered Englishwoman dying of cancer in a mental asylum on Ithaca. Sounds a bit grim? Strangely, it isn’t. Shrewd psychological insights, vivid, sensuous observations and verbal felicity make this first novel, sentence by sentence and in its overall effect, an unusual pleasure to savour.

The twins were born in a hospital in Hampstead on an ominously stormy night. We are led to believe that they were physically and temperamentally entirely dissimilar. Cassandra, first out of the womb, describes herself as black-haired, dark-eyed, gross and raucous, and the daintier, less arduously born Helen as blonde, blue-eyed and demure. Beauty wins all the mother love; the Beast is shouted at and unfairly punished. Cassandra warns her laptop that she will ‘lie a little. Sometimes a lot.’ However, her envy and resentment are sincere. She seems to be telling the truth when she declares that her ‘task was to become a larger-than-life caricature of a Big Bad Baby’.

Helen, with an innate talent for acting, is an acclaimed success by the age of 21. Cassandra, more slowly, becomes a successful photographer, inspired first by the morbid artistry of Diane Arbus. Cassandra travels widely, taking pictures for magazines and galleries. Characteristically hyperactive,

In one three-month period alone I did projects on prostitutes, plastic-surgery patients, caravans, butterflies, blood, dwarves, beaches and car-wrecks

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