Nicholas Lezard

Poison and parsnip wine

Nigel Williams’s editor should have returned R.I.P. with the words ‘do it again’

First, a quote from the novel under review. The context: it is a flashback scene of the behaviour of a character at a birthday celebration for her aged mother. She is confessing her bulimia to a crowded room:

‘I make myself sick! I vomit! I vomit! I vomit! I lock myself in the lavatory while you’re all stuffing your faces and I put my fingers down my throat! I vomit! I vomit! I vomit!’ she had cried aloud, as she waved her long, prehensile hands in the air.

We shall skate over the use of the word ‘prehensile’ to describe hands, which are all, unless deformed, prehensile anyway, and concentrate on the character’s speech. Somewhat histrionic, would you say? A little bit unlikely? We all know bulimics, but in the vast majority of cases we do so unknowingly, for it is a condition that is suffered in shame and silence. As for the rhythms of speech, has anyone ever heard anyone talk like that? And, for your information, the character’s name is, hilariously, Frigga. Ever met anyone called that?

It is the novelist’s job to spin a new world out of recognisable elements. Even if the novel is set in another galaxy, or another dimension, there must be some connection to the reader’s experience of the world. And there should be a degree of expertise, enough knowledge about certain systems to encourage plausibility. So when, as happens here, we meet a practising doctor so incompetent that he can only, upon examining a corpse at 8.45 a.m., determine the time of death as ‘some time between 12.30

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