Eileen Battersby - She lives in her head and fills her thoughts – and days – with science, horses and art. The more intently she begins to observe her remote, detached father, the more she learns about her place within the rarefied world she inhabits. Rebellion leads her from America to Europe on a disturbing path dominated by chance and an evolving self-realization
Eileen Battersby, Teethmarks on My Tongue, Dalkey Archive Press, 2016.
This most unusual coming-of-age novel with its impressive characterization, humor and vivid sense of place takes its clever, if barely street-wise and increasingly obsessive, teenaged narrator on a physical as well as psychological journey towards an astute, hard fought, and deserved, maturity.
“This is the whole world of horses, of Americans in Europe, of love and laughter and tragedy, told with brio and complete mastery. The heroine is compelling, delightful―and unique! The passion of this novel is expressed through its expert construction." (Edmund White, Huffington Post)
"Competitive rider, aspiring physicist, brilliant and pertinacious teenager: Helen Stockton Defoe takes her place among literature's unforgettable deadpan narrators. . . . A perceptive, keenly intelligent bildungsroman, well marbled with dark humor, about inhabiting one's own life, body, and emotions despite upbringing and uncertainty." (Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews)
"A remarkably accomplished work." (Irish Times)
I WAS AT BOARDING SCHOOL with a gangly, bespectacled girl nicknamed Horsey. When we were in a particularly friendly mood, we simply called her “Horse.” She didn’t seem to mind — she assumed the name referred to her passion for stables and riding. But it was more a reflection of her demeanor, the way she walked with equine purpose, neck extended and eyes blinkered. Occasionally she snorted when something startled or amused her. To be honest, I don’t recall ever having a full conversation with Horsey. She was given to pronouncements that bewildered me, and when I think of her now, I see her peering into the middle distance, mumbling something I don’t quite catch and probably wouldn’t understand. She was the class nerd — both a gifted poet and a budding scientist — while I was the class show-off: thin on talent, big on melodrama. Horsey stayed in the background, not quite friendless but surely a loner. She gave the impression that she preferred her own company to that of giggly adolescents. We never teased or taunted her. Perhaps this was because of her extraordinary height or the soft certainty with which she spoke, or the fact that while we agonized over our budding breasts and mysteries that could happen “down there,” Horsey wrote poems to Nature. She lived on another, calmer planet, and part of me envied that.
I haven’t thought of Horsey in 40 years — not until I started reading Eileen Battersby’s debut novel, Teethmarks on My Tongue. She came to mind as soon as I met the novel’s teenage protagonist, who goes by the lofty name of Helen Stockton Defoe. Like my boarding school cohort, Helen is horse-crazy, solitary, and blessed with a brilliant mind. She is also both socially awkward and garrulous, lacking the antennae to notice that her fact-filled pontifications induce glazed eyes. To be honest, the prospect of 400 pages in Helen’s company without the reprieve of chapter breaks — there is almost no white space in this book — left me wondering if I had that kind of fortitude.
But after the first page I suspected I was in it for the long haul. The fact is, Battersby — a literary critic for The Irish Times with several awards under her belt — has brought us a thoroughly original narrator: a pedant and self-proclaimed prig who sweeps the reader along by sheer force of her quirky insights, deadpan humor, and disarming honesty.
The story gets off to a dramatic start. Helen’s mother has just been murdered outside a department store in Richmond, Virginia, by a deranged lover. The crime was caught on camera, and Helen watches the footage on television. She doesn’t scream or cry, as one might expect, but watches the event unfold with the same keen observation and mild interest with which she approaches all of life:
Mayhem, that word, kept dancing in my brain. My only clear response was … mayhem. Only I couldn’t visualize the word; I had forgotten how it looked written down. Then I noticed the white dress and it was slowly filling up with red, as the woman on the television in a slow motion free fall, dropped the big fancy box she had been carrying even though it seemed so light and it drifted on the air, weightless.
And moments later:
So many bullets; most likely six. Did I count? Perhaps? I’d like to think I didn’t … It takes six shots to empty a gun, but she was dead and all with the very first one.
Even after the shock of it, her mother’s murder evokes in Helen little more than muted regret. “I felt real sorry for Mother,” she says, “and I wished I’d known her better.” She recognizes this isn’t normal, and worries that she might have inherited the same detachment that she finds abhorrent in her father. “We three had shared a fine house,” she says, “but we were not a family. Not out of ill will, just ill timing, ill fitting.”
She goes on to describe their household as:
Three loners who just happened to coexist in our particular solar system without forming a unit; Mother had not understood what she was entering into when she married Father. And Mother’s little ramshackle world of nervous smiles and sentiment and pretty clothes did not include being a wife or a mother, Father had noted that and did not forgive her for it.
After an uncomfortable funeral, Helen returns to her pampered daily life on the estate, where her veterinarian father keeps thoroughbred horses and treats her with amused aloofness. Despite large teeth and mismatched eyes that her mother once said “absolutely ruin your face,” life for Helen is easy and full of pleasures: learning to ride a bad-tempered gelding named Galileo, studying the night sky through one of her telescopes, listening to her prized collection of classical music, eating enormous quantities of cakes and pies made by the grimly dedicated housekeeper, Mrs. Faulkner.
It takes another death — this time of a horse — to seriously fracture the household and send Helen on the odyssey that forms the bulk of the book. The stableman whom she adores disappears in a fit of grief; her father, too, is heart-broken at the loss of his brave, arthritic horse. This is the first time Helen has heard her father use the word “love,” and suddenly he appears human to her. But not for long. His bereavement quickly turns to bitterness — and what better target for his dark mood than the unsuspecting Helen. In short order, he robs her of the two main certainties of her young life: he ridicules her ambitions to become a scientist, and sells Galileo, informing her that he wasn’t her horse in the first place. Helen swallows her violent thoughts — “I longed to smash his glasses and grind them into his eyeballs.” Instead, she stares into her father’s fish tank and soothes herself by imagining her favorite painting: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, the high priest of German Romanticism.
It’s a peculiar response, even for a confessed oddball, until we see the painting through her eyes: a man gazing into a fog-drenched valley surveying the distance he’s traveled, or the journey ahead of him. Helen reflects on it and says, “Yes that’s me.”
In many ways, it is. She is standing on a summit of sorts, at the end of high school with her future shrouded in mist. She decides that, like Friedrich’s wanderer, she has to set out alone. She buys a first-class ticket to Europe with her prize money from a science project and is on her way.
Battersby divides this coming-of-age novel into four parts, each set in a different place. The first is on Helen’s father’s estate in Virginia, followed by sojourns in Paris, the Loire Valley, and, finally, Germany. Helen is an opinionated traveler, not above judging a city by the quality of its hot chocolate, to which she is addicted. She throws barbs at Parisians — “a tribe of intolerant egotists” — and laments the “canyon-wide gulf” between speaking French at her school in Richmond and “attempting to address the natives.” In Paris — the strongest of the European sections — she fixates on the Louvre and spends most of her time looking at its paintings of horses, buying horse postcards to send to her one and only friend in the United States, and drinking endless cups of cocoa. When she does have an evening out, it is with a man who turns out to be mentally unsound, not to mention a thief and a would-be rapist. Helen is a hopeless innocent and knows it, and she reports her experience with wry exactness.
But for all the adventures in each of the locations, it is Helen’s inner journey that carries the novel — a search for self, but also for love. She finds it in an old, cloudy-eyed, deaf dog with a squashed-in face who seems abandoned, or lost. For the first time, Helen has something of her own to love, and Hector, as she calls him, becomes her charge, propelling her to leave Paris and seek refuge on a horse farm in the Loire Valley.
The place is magnificent and charming, with a turreted chateau, an old stone farmhouse, and a drawbridge over a moat. On these idyllic grounds, Helen has a brief affair. We are told that she has found her perfect match, and yet the relationship seems more one of friendship than passion. It certainly lacks the ardor that Helen bestows on her dog, as she does here, for example:
Hector’s fur smelled of fresh-baked cookies. It was warm and helped me gather my thoughts as we sat on the mattress, me holding him close, on my lap, his paws in my hands, my knees drawn up as if forming a protective buffer around him. Us alone; us together. He gazed into my face. I wondered what he could see of me.
The final section of the novel is set largely in Germany, and it is the darkest. Helen is soul-weary and full of despair, and her own grief merges with the pain she sees in Germany — in the bullet holes in its buildings, in the ruins of a church, in the fear and dreariness that pervades East Berlin. (The novel is set in 1980s, before the demolition of the Berlin Wall.)
She is on a quest to see the paintings of her hero, Caspar David Friedrich, and in particular to find the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. When she finally stands before the original, she wonders:
What was going through the mind of the wanderer as he gazed out over the abyss? His life, his future … eternity, or was he just realizing how far he had climbed?
It is, of course, Helen’s climb that we have followed for the last 400 pages, and now that she has met her alter ego, surely her pilgrimage is complete. After all, she has come so far, and is a changed person who can now see her father and her old self clearly:
Father placed too high a value on intelligence and only existed through ideas and history the way I used to. But I had discovered how to love and how to feel and that it hurt for sure, no denying, but at least I was capable of loving.
But there is a final twist that the author has in store for us, and it’s head-snapping. Battersby clearly enjoys making sharp turns in plot, sometimes at the risk of straining credibility. The bigger challenge of the novel, however, is following Helen’s digressions about art, classical music, horses, literature, and whatever fact she is compelled to share. “Facts, facts, facts,” she says at one point, “as always, historical detail, enter the class nerd.” She just can’t help herself, but that is part of her charm. Battersby offers us an entertaining ride with an extraordinary narrator who is both eagle-eyed onlooker and the main act. - Jean Hey https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/a-wanderers-journey-on-eileen-battersbys-teethmarks-on-my-tongue/
Eileen Battersby, the Literary Correspondent of this newspaper, is the author of two previous books: Second Readings, a collection of essays and reviews, and Ordinary Dogs, a memoir of two of her beloved companions. Now she has written a novel, entering a field where literary critics go at their peril, their particular gifts not usually conducive to telling a story so much as, say, ideating one.
The good news is that Battersby’s Teethmarks on My Tongue is a fine work for the most part; the odd news is that it is the third significant novel published this year that concerns itself with a woman and a horse. (The others are CE Morgan’s The Sport of Kings and Margot Livesey’s Mercury, the latter out here next month.)
The book opens in 1986 with the teenaged narrator, Helen Stockton Defoe of Richmond, Virginia, an only child, watches her mother shot to death on television by an unhinged lover, an event caught on camera and shown to the world.
It is a terrible thing, though it must be said that, disappointed in her daughter’s horsiness and disregard for feminine trappings, Helen’s mother had pretty much withdrawn her maternal attention. Though a native of the midwest, she had taken on the flibbertigibbet ways of a Southern belle, complete with a “fey Scarlett O’Hara warble”.
Helen’s father, a distinguished equine veterinarian and owner of a number of horses, is a chilly, disparaging man, cuttingly critical of his wife and specialising in devastating forms of mental cruelty towards his daughter. He repulses any approach to intimacy and mocks Helen’s aspirations, seeming to find satisfaction in dismantling her view of herself.
Helen, reticent both by nature and in protective retreat, lives in her own world of astronomy and Renaissance astronomers. Her chief occupation, aside from schoolwork, is training one of her father’s horses, a difficult, ill-tempered thoroughbred whom she calls Galileo. She feels no sentimental attachment to this creature whatsoever: “Had I tried to hug him he would have bitten me for sure.”
Still, Galileo is something special, and Helen pins great hopes on him as her mount in equestrian competitions. She takes private instruction from a former Olympic equestrian, only to have her father, with her instructor’s connivance, sell the horse to the French Federation.
This double betrayal comes on the heels of Helen winning the state science competition with a project on the astronomer Galileo, a work which her father dismisses as “history masquerading as science”.Just when we’ve had about all we can take of this badness, Helen makes a break for independence and heads off to France.
In Paris she discovers another level of alienation: She can neither understand the people nor they her. (“What kind of French had I been learning at school? All those A’s . . . ”) Very quickly Helen gets herself into a squalid and degrading situation with a truly repulsive man, and her ever-present capacity for self-loathing achieves new dimensions:
“This wretched little skunk, so devoid of honor yet how easily he had fooled me, the girl voted by my school as most likely to win the Nobel Prize, he had categorized me as an idiot and that stung me hard.”
At this low point, Helen is adopted by a lost, very old, and, as it happens, incontinent dog. She calls him Hector and begins to shape her life around his requirements, “wondering,” she tells us, “where to head for in mainland Europe with my elderly bed wetter.”
Thus starts a funny, moving relationship, among its challenges being an attempt to purchase a rubber sheet in a French shop, “miming puddles and catastrophes until a small crowd of staff and random customers reached a communal agreement as to my chronic incontinence”.
Until Helen finds Hector, the chief emotions she has experienced – or allowed herself to experience – have been rage, grief and humiliation; now she feels love and purpose, overwhelming and fulfilling. A stroke of luck and her own determination secure her a job at a horse-training establishment in the Loire Valley and a new set of relations develops as does another love – this time with a man.
I shall leave the plot there, except to say that it holds further stunning betrayals, debilitating grief and (lest you think of bailing out) joy, as well as tonic doses of humour.
The novel’s excellence lies in its deftly emblematic detail, dark wit and, above all, psychological astuteness. Battersby gets across a young person’s sense of tragedy and loneliness, the feeling that setbacks and losses are unrecoverable. And she shows the formation of character: Although Helen’s mother is dead and her father remains back in Richmond, the two are always present in her head.
We observe Helen’s own sense of self developing out of a welter of resistance, ambivalence, and identification, until finally she sees her parents’ own tragedies of personality and predicament and comes into herself. All this is conveyed in the context of actual events and experience, amid life’s daily doings – which is to say, not as purely abstract ruminations.
Teethmarks on My Tongue truly is a bildungsroman, so much so, in fact, that it even ends in Germany. Helen travels there to view the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, with whose Romantic loneliness she identifies.
Still, the book stumbles at the end in a most unaccountable way. For nearly 400 pages, Helen has made us privy to her every deed, thought and emotion, and has kept us apprised of her bruises, sprains, exhaustion and impressive array of gastrointestinal disturbances. But when we arrive at the second to the last page, we discover that we have been kept ignorant of a critical development.
Are we expected to believe that our narrator was ignorant too? Perhaps, but I guess we just won’t. It makes a most puzzling finish to a remarkably accomplished work. - Katherine A Powers https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/teethmarks-on-my-tongue-review-darkly-witty-tale-of-a-girl-interrupted-1.2838280
Competitive rider, aspiring physicist, brilliant and pertinacious teenager: Helen Stockton Defoe takes her place among literature's unforgettable deadpan narrators like Meursault and Oskar Matzerath.
In this first novel by Battersby (Ordinary Dogs: A Story of Two Lives, 2011, etc.), the literary correspondent for the Irish Times, Helen lives a charmed if lonely life of elite Southern privilege on her family's Richmond estate. Living amid her veterinarian father's thoroughbred-filled stables, she is kindly treated by her classmates but mostly friendless, wanting for nothing but emotionally disconnected from her arrogant, brooding father and frivolous, detached mother. When her mother is publicly shot by her crazed lover, Helen joins her father, who, like her, values animal companionship over human, in shrugging with bewilderment—and a touch of indifference—at her mother's violent and ignoble death. Helen is largely content to tend to her passions, science, art, and horses, until her father's beloved racehorse dies, leaving him awash in the bitterness and grief that failed to appear after his wife's murder; he denounces serious and disciplined Helen as a mere dilettante, bound not for a life of invention and discovery as the scientist she has always dreamed of becoming but that of a historian, an eternal observer. In disgust, she flees to Paris but, after a perilous incident with a loathsome stranger, regrets having chosen a city she'd never much cared about over Berlin, a place better suited to her character. Helen is saved from mounting self-loathing, despair, and aimlessness by an elderly lost dog who "wail[s] like a Confederate widow" and gives her a renewed sense of purpose. Her mission, to stay in Europe long enough to find a way to bring Hector back home to Richmond to die, leads her to a training yard in Amboise and to true passion, love, and sorrow.
A perceptive, keenly intelligent bildungsroman, well marbled with dark humor, about inhabiting one's own life, body, and emotions despite upbringing and uncertainty. - Kirkus Reviews
I had no idea what to expect from Teethmarks On My Tongue when I opened it, since it had been written by an American woman in Dublin, someone I’d met and liked, the chief book critic for The Irish Times. She’d given the thumbs up on all but one of my books, but I wasn’t sure what I’d think of hers.
When her daughter, Nadia, was a child, the unmarried mother, Eileen Battersby, had no family in Ireland and she dragged the little child along. The management of the hotel had us sit in the stairwell of the Shelbourne. Battersby seemed wonderfully intense, extremely affectionate and intelligent, slightly mad. She lived in the country and could never leave her horses for long. Once she interviewed me in a little roadside hotel halfway between her farm and Dublin.
She was a very sensitive and curious critic, known for reviewing foreign titles in English translation, something most journalists were encouraged to avoid. She is open to every sort of literature of quality, even the most obscure. I sat over dinner last night with a French and a Malaysian novelist and they both had been reviewed brilliantly by Eileen Battersby, felt grateful to her but had never met her.
My books are usually given to women to review; if a man takes one on, he’s either well-known to be gay or he starts his piece with “I, a heterosexual…” Just in case.
And isn’t the cliché that critics are disappointed novelists? And first novels are supposed to be autobiographical, aren’t they? Happily, there was nothing disappointing or autobiographical about this book, save for an unusual affection for horses and dogs, but since I share those attachments, “Teethmarks” seemed utterly natural to me.
It starts off with high-octane intensity. Susan, a rather dizzy and eternally cheerful mother (one of Battersby’s best and most multi-dimensional characters) feels neglected by her veterinarian Southern husband and begins a dalliance with a younger man who, in a fit of jealousy, shoots her to death. The daughter (the narrator, Helen) was always too much the tomboy to get along with her self-dramatizing frilly mother (a Yankee with an exaggerated Scarlet O’Hara accent) but after the woman’s death the step-daughter volunteers to sing at the funeral. Helen, reflecting on Susan, her deceased mother, thinks, “Was she happy it was finally over and that at long last she wouldn’t have to try so hard to be happy?” (p41). There are moments in this Virginia sequence as brilliant as those in James Salter’s All That Is.
Battersby is a subtle and convincing psychologist, not just for human beings but also for these one-ton gods in our midst: horses, and for those creatures that have evolved in step with us: dogs. Her people are good, too. Here she traces the portrait of the cook in a French stately home:
“She was a cheerful soul, motherly, careful not to step on the cats as she carried dishes out to the table; she referred to those squalling parasites as ‘mes enfants’ and never lost patience with the way, for all their stateliness, they’d grab at everything. The skin on her face made me think of wizened apples, lined and soft, flushed pink on sallow.” (p 259)
Through a series of lucky accidents the narrator ends up in France with a stray dog, Hector, which she loves, and she is asked to work on a horse farm; in an oblique way Helen recreates a better version of her American adolescence with a kindly horse breeder, Monsieur Gallay, and another sketchy American beauty, nicknamed Lone Star, as vain and frivolous as Helen’s long-gone mother but a lot more hostile. There’s also a handsome, eligible man…
I admire Battersby’s comic sense, which never deserts her, her firm grasp of French social reflexes, customs and cuisine. Her heroine has a drunken Parisian encounter with a totally sketchy man, but we’re intended to laugh at the American’s naiveté not the man’s beastliness. This book is the sentimental education of an intelligent but unwary girl, who’s in love with astronomy and animals but doesn’t know much about the ordinary terrestrial life in between. She’s called Helen Stockton Defoe , and like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe she endures the strangest adventures while remaining fundamentally solitary.
What do I know, but the horse world always struck me as oddly egalitarian; the ability to train and ride and care for the animals outweighs the social status of the equestrians. (The heiress marries the stable boy, the lord of the manor dines with his trainer). Some of this egalitarianism rubs off on the observing Helen. She sees the people around her with a true sense of their worth and, like a child, she is entirely indifferent to their worldly importance.
For all her indifference to status, Helen is well-informed about the arts and especially her own fetishes, such as Caspar David Friedrich, the German Romantic painter of loneliness; Helen makes a special trip to Berlin to see his works. She is also taken with Van Gogh and with the Elizabethan poet Thomas Wyatt. References to these artists are never prestigious instances of cultural bric-a-brac but genuine dramatic turning points in the plot (the Wyatt poem, for instance, is cited during Susan’s funeral and it is not lost on the reader that Wyatt was accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn, just as Susan herself has died in a terrible adulterous mishmash). Culture—like the love of horses—is to be lived viscerally, seriously, morally. - Edmund White https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/review-teethmarks-on-my-tongue-by-eileen-battersby_us_58f103c3e4b0da2ff8605158
Eileen Battersby, literary correspondent at The Irish Times, has written a fine debut novel that is peppered with high-cultural references and yet manages to be a thumping good yarn, despite the fact that the first person narrator isn’t altogether likeable.But what saves Helen, a spoilt American teenage horse-mad nerd, obsessed with the solar system, is her growing self-awareness. Set in Richmond, Virginia, where her remote father is a leading equine vet and horse owner, Helen is no southern belle.
This oddity is androgynous, has two different coloured eyes, and relates more readily to animals than humans.
As well as riding horses, she likes nothing better than peering through her telescope from her comfortable bedroom.
The novel, set in the 1980s, gets off to an auspicious start when Helen’s glamorous mother is gunned down on the street by a man who transpires to be her lover.Helen sees the murder on TV. It attracts media attention — but you wonder where the novel can go after such a dramatic start.
But it’s a good if rather extreme device for revealing Helen’s lack of emotional engagement, as she describes how “a cold helpless feeling” came over her after witnessing the crime.
Helen is conscious that she and her father “were equally repressed” and utterly self-reliant.
However, it becomes very clear that while Helen is her own woman, she is not at all streetwise.
When her father sells Galileo (the name Helen gave a difficult horse that she looked after), she is bereft and cuts loose, going to France, the country to which Galileo has been sold. She is nicely set up having won $10,000 in the State science prize.
Alone in a Paris restaurant one evening, Helen is picked up and plied with booze by a ‘struggling artist’ called Marc. What follows is a description of utter sordidness.
Helen is lucky to escape from this odious man. She was naive enough to think that he was concerned about her welfare when she vomited all over herself and gratefully went to a ‘party’ with him where he promised he would wash her clothes and tend to her.
Animals turn out to be a safer bet. An ailing dog attaches himself to Helen. She christens him Hector after the Trojan prince in Greek mythology. And he turns out to be a trusty companion that gives Helen a purpose.
She gets a job in a large stable in Ambiose in the Loire Valley. And it is there that this girl, given to “daydreaming about horses or space and just living in my head” learns what it is like to love and to lose.
Later, having left her job, Helen makes a pilgrimage to East Berlin to see the work of the German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedlich. She credits this artist with helping her to understand what it is to be human.
And that is what this odyssey is all about. The physical journey that Helen undertakes is mirrored by her spiritual and emotional awakening.
Helen’s cold father, with whom she has very little connection, looms large in her consciousness.
He stole her dream of being a scientist, having told her that she’s more interested in the narrative story of the scientists she admires than their discoveries.
He has her marked down as a historian, a lesser profession, he implies.
This enjoyable novel ends, however, on a strange note. But it has a curious aesthetic symmetry about it, a karmic quality that sees Helen coming to an understanding of her mother and feeling sympathy towards her and her need for emotional drama. - Colette Sheridan http://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/artsfilmtv/books/book-review-teethmarks-on-my-tongue-445510.html
Eileen Battersby is best known for her championing of fiction from outside the Anglophone world and for the bracing honesty of her literary criticism. She has been known to ruffle some well-groomed Irish reputations. Her first novel is quite the heavyweight at almost 400 pages but despite being replete with references to literature and high art it canters along in an entertaining way. It's a classic Bildungsroman. We follow the emotional education of the narrator Helen Stockton Defoe (a resonant surname for its solitary heroine). In the character of Helen, Battersby has created a memorably monstrous prig. While her classmates were listening to Dylan and Neil Young she was listening to Bach and Schubert. She sneers at their trite music essays which are applauded enthusiastically "While my celebration of Bach's pioneering use of counterpoint ...might not have been." Following a squalid sexual encounter in Paris our brave heroine bemoans her fate: "How easily he had fooled me, the girl voted by my school as most likely to win the Nobel Prize". Her redeeming feature is her occasional expression of rueful self-knowledge: "even a prig like me couldn't miss this".
Helen grows up in a "fine residence", complete with stables, in Richmond, Virginia. Her austere and intellectual father is a distinguished vet who breeds horses. Her mother is a shallow, social-climber who, Helen tells us, "Father regarded as a domestic pet". Helen has little affection for either of them. She is offended by her father's "sneering smirk, his pompous voice" and by her mother's persistent slights about her appearance. She was born with different coloured eyes and her mother once informed her that: "Those eyes, they absolutely ruin your face". The story opens with the mother being shot by a spurned lover. It doesn't seem to have much impact on the impregnably self-absorbed Helen, apart from her having to suffer the tedium of the funeral and watch the female mourners flirt with her father.
Helen runs off to Paris after two traumatic events. Her father sells Galileo, her favourite horse (not the Galileo that is the corner stone of the Coolmore stud), and Billy Bob, her Man Friday at the stables, disappears. In Paris she spends most of her time at the Louvre giving us the benefit of her wide knowledge of European art. Then, following her sexual misadventure, when she is at her lowest ebb, she meets Hector: an old, half-blind, scruffy and incontinent dog. She is immediately smitten and touchingly indicates what's at the heart of her plight - the absence of any love in her life: "Most of all he really liked me". From then on Hector is the centre of her universe. She can't return to the USA because of quarantine restrictions so she decides to make her life in France. An unlikely encounter at Longchamp leads her to a job at Monsieur Gallay's racehorse training establishment in the Loire Valley and to her first real romantic encounter (not counting Hector).
Ms. Battersby knows her way around a tack room and is familiar with the routines and equipment associated with riding. But she clearly knows little about the world of horse racing and the book contains a number of howlers. A race horse can be a gelding or a colt but not both at the same time. Horses have prep races or trials but not practices. A jockey that rides at Longchamp (a flat racing course) is never going to ride in the King George VI (a steeplechase) at Kempton. Also, her heroine's throwaway comment about Nijinsky is just plain wrong. She claims he was "too high strung to settle in an atmosphere as carnival-like as that of Longchamp on Arc day". Nijinsky won the Derby at Epsom - a far more carnival-like milieu. He probably lost the Arc because of a very hard race in the St. Leger not long before. But these are quibbles about detail that will just bother racing buffs like me and leave most readers unmoved.
Helen's rural idyll continues for a while before a series of tragedies sends her off on the road again - alone and bereft. She heads for Germany in pursuit of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and with thoughts of suicide swirling through her mind. She identifies with the character in Friedrich's famous painting "Wanderer over a Sea of Fog". She even takes a risky journey into East Germany (it's set in the mid-80s) to find the artist's grave. Her downward spiral is arrested by an event which comes as a major surprise not only to our heroine but to every reader of the book. You can make up your own mind whether it's a wonderful coup de théâtre or a ludicrous non-sequitur.
When a longstanding book reviewer publishes a debut novel, it can certainly be seen as an instance of, to quote the popular idiom, ‘putting your money where your mouth is’. Of course, it is hardly a prerequisite of a good critic that they should also be good at doing whatever it is they are criticising (although, that said, most of the best literary critics tend also to be practicing creative writers): horses for courses, etc. Nevertheless, the production of an embarrassingly clunky tome can seriously call into question the writer’s credentials to be passing judgement on the work of others. Unfortunately, Eileen Battersby’s first foray into fiction does just that, and can only harm her reputation in her other, chosen field.
Set mostly in Virginia in the 1980’s, the story attempts the classic bildungsroman form, told entirely in the first person by Helen Stockton Defoe, a horsey girl whose other passions are astrophysics and painting (specifically that of Caspar David Friedrich). The daughter of a flibbertigibbet, faux-Southern Belle mother, who is unhelpfully gunned down in a Richmond street by a crazed lover, and a remote, detached, world-renowned veterinarian father, Helen is starved of affection and emotionally stunted. When her father undermines her identity and self-confidence by selling the horse she was using, and declaring that she is more of a historian of science rather than an actual scientist, she takes off on an odyssey of self-discovery, first to France and then Germany.
Alas, this narrative breaks several of the basic rules of Creative Writing 101, and not in a good way. It doesn’t show, it tells, so that there is a paucity of tangible scenes furthering plot and revealing character. Everything takes place in Helen’s head, with the result that other people, even her best friend Mitzi, are alarmingly insubstantial and unrealised. Indeed, animals fare better than humans in this regard, as demonstrated by the affection Helen pours out on Hector, the stray dog she adopts in Paris. Furthermore, it tells us what we already know, to the point of insulting the reader’s intelligence. Try these snippets for size: ‘Paris is a big city’; or ‘Turner, the famous English painter’. Plus, we all know that Eileen Battersby is a Paul Simon fan (hell, so am I, considering him to be a songwriting genius), but does Helen have to drag his lyrics in at every turn? It is also in the public domain that EB loves horses, and dogs. Autobiographical, some? It is, finally, difficult to work up much sympathy for a heroine who thinks so hierarchically as to opine, on being invited to a jazz club in Paris, that: ‘It wasn’t Bach yet it was an improvement on ABBA.’
In ‘63 Words’, from The Art of The Novel, Milan Kundera defines Irony thus: ‘Irony. Which is right and which is wrong? Is Emma Bovary intolerable? Or brave and touching? And what about Werther? Is he sensitive and noble? Or an aggressive sentimentalist, infatuated with himself? The more attentively we read a novel, the more impossible the answer, because the novel is, by definition, the ironic art: its "truth" is concealed, undeclared, undeclarable.’ Sadly, the truth here is glaringly self-evident, due to the patent lack of irony. Although not entirely bereft of self-knowledge, e.g. ‘Lord knows I am stiff and stuffy’, Helen’s chronicle is self-involved and repetitious, to the point that it resembles listening to someone running off at the mouth with a bad case of logorrhea.
When it transpires in the final pages that Helen has been pregnant for many months of her travels, giving birth to a baby girl conceived with her French lover Mathieu, it comes as much as a surprise to the reader as it does to Helen herself, as there had been no description of their physical relationship. Did she not notice that she had stopped menstruating? Or had a bit of a bump? Or was Battersby just too lazy to go back and fix up the text? In any case, there is a dearth of, and curiously Puritanical reticence about, physicality in general throughout the whole novel, unless it involves horses, dogs, or vomiting.
Dalkey Archive is a venerable and prestigious imprint, whose boutique roster includes such eminent names as our own Flann O’Brien and Aidan Higgins, and international stars of the calibre of John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Robert Coover, William Gaddis, Janice Galloway, William Gass, Henry Green, Hugh Kenner, Manuel Puig, Raymond Queneau, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. So it is difficult to account for the drop in quality control standards in taking on this amateurish effort.
Maybe Battersby should stick to what she knows best: book reviewing. When it comes to fiction writing, she definitely needs an editor. - Desmond Traynor http://desmondtraynor.blogspot.hr/2017/02/teethmarks-on-my-tongue-by-eileen.html