Book review: Every Contact Leaves a Trace

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The novel has something in common with other university tales, such as Brideshead Revisited and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

Alex, the narrator, a lawyer in his thirties, and his wife Rachel, return to their Oxford college (Worcester) for a dinner. Late that night Rachel is murdered in the college gardens. Though the two were contemporaries at university, and even had a brief love affair one summer, they moved in different sets and didn’t know each other well then, Rachel breaking off relations after that summer fling. Then they lost touch for years, recently met again, fell in love and married. All the same, the first two sentences of the novel read: “If you were to ask me to tell you about my wife, I would have to warn you at the outset that I don’t know a great deal about her. Or, at least, not as much as I thought I did.” Learning about Rachel is as important to the narrative as finding out how and why she died, and who killed her.

The novel has something in common with other university tales, such as Brideshead Revisited and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. A rather dim or conventional student becomes involved with a group who seem fascinating. The experience is enlarging or disturbing and changes his or her life. In the case of Elanor Dymott’s novel, the change comes years later, though Alex has retained vivid memories of Rachel and his friends, Anthony, who comes from a lower middle-class background in Manchester, and Cissy, a striking American girl who coxes the college boat. The three, all studying English literature, form an exclusive group, joined in mutual admiration. Yet, as we learn, the self-confidence they display conceals uncertainty, rivalry, jealousy.

Alex is not alone in being fascinated by them. Nor, is he the one most damaged by his association with the trio. Their principal victim is Harry, their tutor, the man who eventually will unravel the mystery of Rachel’s death.

Harry, recently widowed that second year when they were all at Oxford, taught the trio, all studying Robert Browning as a special subject. He delighted in their intelligence and the way they struck sparks off each other. But then in one tutorial the mood changed. It was as if they were ganging up against him, withholding something from him. And then anonymous letters started appearing in his pigeonhole. Passages from Browning were followed by the suggestion that Harry, like some Browning characters, had killed his wife.

Which of the three was responsible, or were they all in it together? It would be years before Harry could be sure of the answer; meanwhile, an incident at the college’s Commemoration Ball sees Anthony and Cissy expelled, and Rachel first in hospital, then disowned by the strong-willed and unlikeable godmother Evie, who has brought her up. She is bereft, but Harry comes to her rescue and her career flourishes – until, eventually seemingly secure, she marries Alex , and then …

Alex tells the story hesitatingly, obliquely. There are flashbacks and ruminations on what is gradually revealed. But, he wonders, is what is revealed reliable? Is Harry to be trusted? What should he believe of this story which presents a Rachel whom he did not know, a Rachel who was secretive, dishonest, and manipulative? As for Harry’s account of the course of events that led to her murder, is this no more than plausible?

Dymott’s way of telling the story, unpeeling layer after layer of the narrative, presenting the reader with possible interpretations which do not exclude other ones, suggests that she is a student of Ford Madox Ford, that master of indirect narration, and notably of that great novel, The Good Soldier. Like Ford she takes her time over it, demanding the reader’s close attention. One may occasionally be weary of Alex’s manner, of his self-absorption and self-pity. One may also question whether he is as troubled by what he learns of Rachel’s character – often peculiarly unattractive – as perhaps he should be. One may even condemn him for the narrowness of his sympathy, and his refusal to acknowledge the enormity of the wrongs Rachel did to Anthony and Cissy. Yet I suspect Dymott is herself well aware of this; it is a mistake to identify the author with the narrator.

There are moments too when one may think that the novel, compelling as it is most of the time, might have benefited from more stringent editing, especially in those passages in which Alex dwells on his unhappiness and disorientation; he is indeed rather a bore. Harry, who often irritates and puzzles Alex, is a more sympathetic character. But Alex’s inadequacies scarcely detract from Dymott‘s achievement. She has written a highly intelligent, sometimes moving , and, for most of the time, gripping novel.

Every Contact Leaves A Trace

by Elanor Dymott

Jonathan Cape, 369pp, £12.99