Monday, March 06, 2006

The Art of Writing at its Best

Woman’s World, a novel by Graham Rawle is endorsed on the cover by Joanna Lumley: ‘As mad and believable as a dream’. This description is so accurate she deserves a medal for it, and the author deserves something better than the Booker Prize and Turner Prize put together. The novel is a real work of art.

I’m apparently unusual because I can read this whole book where the typeface varies in size and style from word to word or more. It’s like a book of ransom notes. The text is put together in a collage of words and letters from women’s magazines. It was hyped up as an object of curiosity at its launch in the broadsheet papers in the autumn of 2005, which was what made me put it on my Christmas List. When I showed it off as a prize gift from my husband people looked at a few pages and said, “God, I couldn’t read a whole book like that!” I put my ability to do so down to being used to all manner of manuscripts. How lucky I am, this novel has restored my faith in good fiction as art.

The narrator is Norma Little who calls herself Norma Fontaine and is the epitome of femininity. She shows us this from page one and reveals herself to be a highly perfectionist, narcissistic lady of leisure with a housekeeper and a brother whom she adores. “…My entire day is filled with womanly pursuits and the house is alive with feminine appeal.” You soon get used to her exaggerated self-admiration and over-the-top obsession with all things feminine. This is, after all, the early 1960s, after the oppression of the war years and emergence into the colourful freedom of red stiletto shoes and bright artificial flowers. One feels an immediate rapport with this woman’s dedication to escapism.

I settled happily into reading each page as it came with this in mind; and the sudden explosions of words like Soap Pads! next to, ‘an intimate portrait of a modern woman’, or Hovis just kept me riveted. The artist makes wonderful use of snippets of advertising copy, beautifully woven into the narrative giving Norma’s voice a fascinating edge of dreamlike déjà vu. Anywhere else it would seem contrived but here it simply adds to the escapism, you’re compelled to read on because you know there’s more to Norma than the pristine make-up and hair. After all, she describes in astute detail the road accident scene in the first chapter so that without gory language or resorting to horror we know she’s ready to tell the truth.

There is something fabulous about the prose in this book, even though it’s so artificial and Norma is so vain. I cannot replicate the styles of fonts but believe me there are many, including an Ecclesiastic design in the excerpt that follows.

‘She always has to know everybody’s business. I’d a good mind to stare back at her in defiance, but the postman was vying for my attention.
“A parcel for the gentleman of the house,” he announced, eyeing my neat but generously proportioned figure with sharp blackcurrant eyes.
“My brother, Roy, isn’t here. He’s in the Himalayas, daring to pit human courage and skill against Nature.” I wasn’t quite sure why I’d said it; it wasn’t strictly true.
The postman’s goggling eyes were the deep blue of two enamel pans in the sink, and in his eyes there was frank admiration, cleverly masked by a keen look of indifference.
He leaned down and picked up a parcel from his postbag. “I’ll need you to sign for it,” he said, holding out a fountain pen. “But first give me your name.”
We continued to stand and stare at each other, until he said again: “What’s your name?”
“If you want to know you can guess,” I retorted playfully.
“Quite the little spitfire, aren’t you?” The amusement in his tone stung like wasps on a baby’s bottom.’

What appeals to me especially about this book is its surreal use of images and ideas. Not being a Guardian reader I knew nothing of Graham Rawle as an artist/illustrator but whilst reading I was in no doubt that he’s also a very skilled writer. Characterisation, pacing, prose, suspense and satisfaction – it’s all there and when I got to the end I wanted more! In recent months I’ve had a malaise over reading fiction. Nothing grabbed me, gave a thrill of excitement or intrigue and I wondered if my profession had killed it for me. Not so, I have found a book that I’m sure I’ll read again, perhaps year after year, for its sheer entertainment value.

If you’re not sure you’ve the dedication to attempt the book and haven’t yet met this man’s work I urge you to visit where you’ll get a taste of his wonderful humour.

Woman’s World by Graham Rawle, Creator of Lost Consonants is published by Atlantic Books, hardback. ISBN 1 84354 367 2

1 comment:

Ivy said...

I am a Guardian reader and I am familiar with Graham Rawle's Lost Consonants cartoons. Very good they are too. I had not heard of this book but loved the extract you quoted. Even in that short bit I got a flavour of the heroine. Let's hope I can cope with the layout.