Book review: What the tide washed up - The Rowing Lesson by Anne Landsman

The Rowing Lessonby Anne LandsmanGranta, 279pp, £12

STRAIGHT FROM THE SINUOUS opening something dramatic, malign and deliberate seems on the cards.

Catch its tone, deadpan, stalking through each sentence: "I can hear the dirty blood inside you, the way that old fish, the coelacanth, spins on its head and can hear the heartbeat of its prey. I can hear the sea sweeping up onto the beach and back out again, as you breathe, and with it comes all of your past, the good and the bad, washing up around us like empty Coke cans and bits of driftwood and dead jellyfish."

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You can hear the Sylvia Plathness there, in the sinew of those sentences. Here we have Betsy, talking to Daddy on his deathbed, in his coma, the family gathered to pronounce.

Note the Coke cans (empty), the back-wash of wafting dead jellyfish and the wily, twisting coelacanth (the narrator) playing tricks to ensnare her prey. Daddy, now helpless, was not always so. Dr Harold Klein, to his Afrikaans patients, was "Docktor God", but he never rose high enough to please himself, ever jealous of others' achievements, a sad South African provincial.

This novel recalls his life, not necessarily the facts. This is the version disclosed by Betsy and, right to the grandiose pulse of the language bursting forth in its final sentences, it is unclear if Betsy is imagining events or simply reviving them from a version Harold has told her.

The story flicks between scenes in the hospital and scenes from Harold's life: his dysfunctional childhood; the way he disregards others' feelings; his high-flown notions of himself. He has several lovers, becomes a doctor, meets Betsy's mother. Here the intimacy with which Betsy recalls the past becomes fundamental to our judgment of her relationship with Harold. She either imagines his intimate life or Harold has shared with his daughter its details. Either way the impression is that personal boundaries in the household were no thicker than a membrane.

Harold comes across as an unreconstructed misogynist and narcissist. Women (including his sister) are sexual objects. His brother Bertie is the hated younger sibling: "There's nothing that he hasn't taken from you," hisses Betsy. "He's the sprat on your plate, the flea in your bed…" Worse still: "His spot on your mother's lap is your place."

The story is a strikingly convoluted one, dark, unrelenting; and its telling is just as remarkable. Landsman's style can be densely poetic, lovingly bleak, seeking out sombre metaphors for the secrecies of life. She deploys the second person: "You are scared when you open the creaking gate …" or "The food is cold, your mother says, and she's shaking with rage …" The second person lends power and assists her in blurring the edge between present and past; it allows her to bleed together the narrative of her father's life and her own, in which she claims to have been abused by her mother's tongue and her father's medical assaults.

It's a bracing read, and at times a challenge to follow the sequence of events. There are beautiful passages of pastoral description; there is, too, the fact of Betsy's pregnancy and her poignant realisation (tinged with relief?) that Harold will never see his grandchild. Characters drop through the story like chimeras, then out again. There is no explanation, as though the logic of the novel is that of dream, the logic of deeply felt emotions poured through events, creating their own compelling force.

The end, like the beginning, is a forcefield: "There are red tears streaming down your cheeks. I can't stop now. I'm wading in the river, pulling the broken boat up through the carotid artery and it's choked up with … all the mess that's collected in every corner of your body."

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This, in essence, is a love cry, a paean to loss. Landsman makes you earn the final sentences with their enthralling, tragic music.