Sophie Ratcliffe, an English don at the University of Oxford, has a bag full of sticky pennies, pencil shavings and her children’s half-eaten snacks. But the memory of an old affair with a famous photographer is still rattling around in her heart, setting something in her apart from the mundanity of modern marriage and motherhood and allowing her to forge a spiritual communion with Russian literature’s most famous adulterer, Anna Karenina. The consequence is this peculiarly compelling little book, a rattle bag of beady-eyed literary criticism and personal memoir so startlingly exposed it’s no wonder the subtitle is: An Exhibition of Myself... But I loved the honesty of this book and the way Ratcliffe reminds us that the most intimate details of our lives can all come to light at any time, left behind or stolen on trains, lost properties of love.
A hybrid book of this kind depends for its success upon two things: the intelligence of the writer, and whether or not we like them. Ratcliffe is clearly super-bright. The pages crackle with her cleverness and she has a genius for concision. And, yes, she is extremely likeable. She’s witty and original, but also human: she gets bored making fish fingers for her small children and longs to escape motherhood to find time to write. She thinks about her former lover more than she probably should. Above all, she has all sorts of ideas about things. She sees surprising connections and makes interesting links. She would be the perfect person to find yourself sitting next to on a train. With this book, you almost can.
Fascinating though they are, the literary/historical strands and the personal memoir don't always sit well together. You're just settling into one when the train lurches off from the station and you long for the stop you've just missed.
It's sad but irritating when Ratcliffe wonders (again) why she spends so much time away from her children, instead looking out of train windows and writing. You feel like giving the exhibitionist a couple of books on gratitude and mindfulness.
Most chapters have their own epigraph and the profusion of quotes from books and songs becomes a touch overwhelming. I wish Ratcliffe had trusted in herself enough to let us hear her voice more clearly without the continual soundtrack and endless interruptions from everyone from Joseph Conrad to the Pet Shop Boys. There’s not a dull word, but the overall effect is dizzying and the book can’t make up its mind what it is supposed to be about. Still, that’s a quibble, a consequence of there just being so much stuff rattling around in Ratcliffe’s mental luggage.
Ratcliffe’s description of loss, which she lugs through the next 30 years, is wonderfully done. She describes her particular version as having grey pilled fur and webbed feet. Her loss is clammy and smelly and turns up to spoil everything that is supposed to be good – Christmas, sex, conversations with new friends (her loss has a weakness for alcohol and a tendency to overshare)... There is a trend at the moment for books in which swotty women consult classic literature to help them through the growing pains of middle age... In this book Ratcliffe, an Oxford English don, tries to do even more, straining – and it does feel strained in places – to produce a text so capacious that all the lost things of her life, of all our lives, can finally find their proper place.