Fiction – hardcover; Fourth Estate; 261 pages; 2009.
Is there anything more blissful than reading a new Salley Vickers‘ novel? This one, a birthday gift, was gobbled up rather greedily, and already I’m feeling a little bereft that the book I waited so long to read has now been finished all too quickly. It could be a long time before another Vickers’ novel comes along…but, as ever, the wait will be worth it.
Having read all of Vickers’ back catalogue bar one, I had high expectations for Dancing Backwards. It didn’t disappoint. Once again, it’s another delightful tale with Vickers’ trademark gentle intelligence stamped on every page, every sentence.
It tells the story of Violet Hetherington, a widow with two adult children, who goes on a spur-of-the-moment transatlantic cruise to New York. It is here that her pal from university and one-time poetry tutor, Edwin, resides. From the outset, it’s apparent that Violet, or Vi as she likes to be called, is nervous about her Manhattan rendezvous and has a back-up plan in place should the visit turn sour: she’ll simply get back on the Queen Caroline and continue the cruise to Acapulco, no harm done.
As Vi settles into her six-day voyage, she finds the time and space to reflect on her past, and it is these reflections, told in a simple but candid prose style, that allows the reader to come to understand her “undefined” relationship with Edwin and how it shaped much of her life from the late 1960s to the present day. You learn how they met, how they moved in together and, tragically, how their friendship fell apart.
And all the while, Vickers never resorts to the cloying sentimentality to which other writers (I’m thinking Maeve Binchy here) might succumb. Instead, she builds up a subtle, bittersweet tale that has a gravitas that only makes the story more real, more affecting.
Along the way, she also spins an entertaining tale about Vi’s time on board the ship; how she lets go of her natural reserve to make friends with unlikely fellow passengers; and learns to ballroom dance for the first time in her life. These interactions prove to be subtle life lessons for Vi, helping her to shake off the tired domesticity of her former life as wife and mother, and rediscover what it was like to be young, carefree and with her whole life in front of her.
I’ve not read any reviews of this book as yet, so I’m not sure how it’s been received by the world at large. While it explores many of the same themes — paths not taken, lives only half-lived, self-discovery and the possibility of change, regardless of age — apparent in Miss Garnet’s Angel, this is an entertaining and thoughtful read. I enjoyed it immensely.