Author, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, Publisher, Salley Vickers

‘Dancing Backwards’ by Salley Vickers


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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Perennial, literary fiction, Publisher, Salley Vickers, Setting

‘The Other Side of You’ by Salley Vickers


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 271 pages; 2007.

Salley Vickers’ Miss Garnet’s Angel was my favourite book of 2006 and so it was with some trepidation that I picked up The Other Side of You on a trip to Italy for some much-needed poolside reading: would it live up to expectations?

As you will see from the five-stars above, the answer was a resounding yes.

The tale is told from two perspectives: Dr David McBride, a psychiatrist, and his patient, Elizabeth Cruikshank, a failed suicide. Essentially it is a story about their relationship and how, over time, trust grows between them. But The Other Side of You also tackles some bigger, yet more subtle, themes, including how the decisions we make impact on the rest of our lives and how we never really know the people we are closest to.

During one of his sessions with the normally reticent Elizabeth, David confesses that “there’s no cure for being alive” and that the only thing to do is to “find a way to live”. Having lost a sibling as a child, this is exactly how David has lived his life, keeping the pain buried deep within but sometimes imagining he could “bring him back by willing it”.

But it is only when the pair begin to discuss a painting by Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus — which depicts the moment when the resurrected Jesus reveals himself to two unsuspecting disciples — that Elizabeth begins to open up and reveal the hidden pain that caused her to attempt to take her own life.

Age and disease and death may destroy our physical being but it is other people who get inside us and damage our hearts and minds. My work has occasioned ample examples of this but it was Elizabeth Cruikshank who really made me understand it. […] That long winter afternoon, which grew into evening, while I sat with Elizabeth Cruikshank and she told me her story, I abandoned all the accepted methods of working.

What follows is a riveting tale about a tragic love affair, which swings between London and Rome, so beautifully and exquisitely told (by Vickers) that the reader must give up all hope of putting the book down. In fact, I read it in one sitting and by the end of the marathon reading session — some 270 odd pages — I felt utterly devastated. The story lingered in my mind for days and weeks afterwards, but its aftermath felt so “raw” I could not bear to review the book, knowing I could never do it justice. Even now, I realise how meaningless this review sounds compared to the beauty, wisdom and intelligence of Vickers’ prose, where every page has at least one sentence — or paragraph — that truly resonates.

The Observer described The Other Side of You as “a compelling mediation on love” but I think the Independent summed it up best: “There is something rare and special about Vickers as a novelist. She manages to touch something buried deep in all of us.”

In my humble opinion, I think this is a remarkable, utterly engrossing book that cannot fail to move any reader, no matter how hardened they might be to the myriad emotions associated with art, death, life, love and loss. I cried buckets when I got to the end, and I rather suspect you might too.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Collins, Publisher, Salley Vickers, Setting, Venice

‘Miss Garnet’s Angel’ by Salley Vickers


Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 342 pages; 2000.

Set in contemporary Venice but with a decidedly old-fashioned ring to the writing style, Miss Garnet’s Angel is one of the most delightful books I’ve ever read.

In this startling original debut novel by Salley Vickers we meet a just-retired school teacher who has lived a fairly staid and sedate life, a natural introvert who lacks self-confidence despite her fierce independence.

When her housemate of 30 years dies, Miss Garnet finds herself truly alone. When she takes an extended six-month trip to Venice, Italy, to come to terms with her loss little does she realise the changes — spiritually, emotionally and mentally — that she is about to undergo.

In alternate chapters, Vickers also tells the ancient story of Tobias — a man who embarks on a treacherous journey unaware that he is accompanied by the Archangel Raphael — which mirrors Miss Garnet’s voyage of discovery. While I sometimes felt this interrupted the flow of the main narrative I began to understand how it enriched and illuminated what was happening to Miss Garnet. Quite a clever device, really.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, although it took me a little while to get used to the prose style which seemed slightly stilted and stuffy. But once I was immersed in the wonderful world of Venice and got to know Miss Garnet and the friends she makes along the way I truly did not want this book to end.

The beauty of the story is not so much the pitch-perfect descriptions of Venice’s ruined grandeur and her wonderfully evocative past, but in the “growth” of Miss Garnet who goes through some kind of slow metamorphosis from a shy, retiring spinster who is cut off from her emotions to an assured woman not afraid to experience life, even if that means she might be exposed to pain and heartbreak in the process. As her “frozen” personality begins to thaw, you very much warm to this delightful character.

A wonderfully warm, inspirational book, this is sure to become a contemporary classic.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Harper Perennial, literary fiction, Publisher, Salley Vickers, Setting

‘Instances of the Number Three’ by Salley Vickers


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 307 pages; 2001.

Your 62-year-old husband dies in a car accident and then, not long afterwards, you make friends with his mistress. You also meet a young homeless friend of his for the first time and, taking pity on him, allow him to move into your home as a lodger-cum-housemaid. Meanwhile, you buy a house in the countryside, where you spend your weekends rediscovering life as a single woman while trying to come to terms with your loss. But when your husband reappears as a ghost, you begin to wonder if you might have lost the plot entirely…

This is a snapshot summary of Salley Vickers’ delightful Instances of the Number 3, which is set in West London (Fulham and Turnham Green, to be precise) and Shropshire.

Bridget Hansome is a successful businesswoman often too caught up in tracking down antiques on the Continent to bother dealing with her husband’s roving eye. When he dies, the full extent of his infidelity becomes clear when his mistress, Frances, contacts her. But instead of anger and recriminations, Bridget decides to get to know  the woman her husband also loved.

At the same time, a beautiful but mysterious Irianian boy, Zahin, who claims to have known her husband enters her life — and her home — and together the three form an unusual trio of mourners confronting their loss but finding new beginnings in the process.

What I loved most about this novel is Vickers uncanny ability to tap into human emotions and to examine what makes people do the (sometimes strange) things they do. Her characters are well-rounded and believable. And the plot, which unfolds gently, mirrors, in many ways, the plot of Hamlet (Vickers is a Shakespearean scholar), right down to the appearance of a ghost.

But while I absolutely adored her debut novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, I did not feel that Instances of the Number 3 was imbued with the same level of genteel magic. Sure it’s witty and beguiling, but I wasn’t quite convinced by the storyline and guessed Zahine’s secret long before it was revealed.

And while I know I should let things wash over me and just enjoy the superb quality of the writing, sometimes I found the pacing too slow and wanted to hurry things along.

Reading about an older age group — most of the characters are in their 50s and 60s — was also a new experience for me, one that felt slightly strange, as if I’d put on the wrong size of shoes by accident. I’m not saying this was a bad thing, just an unfamiliar one.

Ultimately, Instances of the Number 3 is an uplifting tale about self-discovery — and second chances — in the face of unexpected loss. It’s also a novel about the shifting nature of relationships and what it means to love and be loved. It’s a happy, elegant read, classy and thought-provoking and perfect fare for the depths of winter.