A chrysalis is a pupa, that is, according to Chambers Dictionary, a creature in an intermediate state of development. Catherine Deveney has taken a fashionable subject – transgenderism – and written a novel which is both a mystery and a love story. It begins in a small town in the South of France, in what the locals would consider a louche bar. Its back room is a meeting-place for gays, lesbians, transvestites and transsexuals. An English couple – Marianne, a lawyer, and her husband, Raymond, an art teacher – who have a holiday apartment in the town are among the bar’s clients. Raymond is perhaps having an affair with the bar-owner, Patrice. Then Patrice is murdered. Marianne claims to have been in
the alley beside the bar and seen him at his bedroom window with a blonde woman. This is what she tells the police, and it may or may not be true. They return to England, and know they can’t return to France, though Marianne doesn’t sell the apartment.
The novel leaps forward in time. Marianne is an awkward and bad-tempered old woman, confined to a care home which she detests. She despises the staff and they dislike
her. There is one exception, a charming and gentle young man called Zac. She senses he is unhappy and ill-at-ease, and recognises in
him what she knew in Raymond. From now on the novel is in alternating time-scales: Marianne’s memories of her life with Raymond and her attempts to accommodate his dissatisfaction with what he is and the life this imposes on him; her developing relationship with Zac whom she encourages to be true to what he believes himself. This will culminate in a return – Marianne in a wheelchair – to the old apartment in the South of France, to the Bar Patrice, to a reunion with old friends, an exploration of her past for Marianne, an exploration of what he is and what his future might be for Zac. The question of the unsolved murder is re-opened; the ending is rightly left open. In the last chapters, Marianne, having suffered a stroke, wanders in her mind, and what she plays over and over again may be the truth, may be fantasy.
Marianne is at the heart of the novel. She is not likeable, has perhaps never been likeable, and yet she has – one is persuaded – acted with rare and loving unselfishness towards Raymond, ready to let him go, and still keeping him at the centre of her otherwise narrow, even stunted, emotional life.
In Zac she sees Raymond returned to her, and yet she seeks to free him too, not to hold on to him. Eventually in her disordered mind, Raymond and Zac will become a single person. Deveney’s sympathetic portrayal of the otherwise selfish and embittered old woman gives the novel its energy and driving-force. Marianne appears strong because she is decisive, but, as Zac is told, people don’t like her: “She never belonged. Not anywhere really”.
Deveney might be accused of sentimentality in her treatment of Zac, unhappy, confused in his identity, and yet kind and unwilling to hurt anybody. His family is a bit of a cliché too: stern and uncomprehending father embarrassed by his girly son, ever-loving and understanding mother, brightly sympathetic sister, even a girlfriend who, while puzzled and hurt, remains attached. All a bit easy for him, you may think. And yet he’s convincing. Someone who is confused about his own nature, and uncertain of where he stands or what he can make of his life, may nevertheless be kind, caring and lovable.
The real falsity might be to portray him simply as an emotional mess, as someone unable to cope in any way with his sense of who or what he is and should be.
This is a well-written and sympathetic novel. Deveney is good on place and mood, good at giving us conversations in which the real significance is to be found in the silences, in the spaces between the speaker’s sense of what is being said and the other’s understanding or sometimes incomprehension. She handles her shifting time-frame deftly, and in time present there are echoes, sometimes disturbing, sometimes consoling, usually illuminating, of time past. It’s a polished and pleasing piece of craftsmanship.
The Chrysalis by Catherine Deveney, Old Street, 297pp, £8.99