Saturday 17 March 2018

Books: Some Hanky panky at high-brow book club

The Woman & The Rabbit, Michael Feeney Callan, Pentheum Press; tpbk, €12.99, 218 pages

Frenetic: Michael Feeney Callan’s novel is fast - paced
Frenetic: Michael Feeney Callan’s novel is fast - paced
The Woman & the Rabbit.

Ben Quinn

Michael Feeney Callan is one of the few writers in Ireland who can make a living out of writing. His poetry hasn’t made him rich, but his TV dramas and showbiz biographies have been very successful in the USA. His book on Robert Redford, one of the world’s great stars, has made a lasting contribution to what is usually a transient genre.

Movies and celebs bulk large in Callan’s new novel. On the first page, Gwyneth Paltrow, Natascha McElhone, Donna Karan and Norah Jones are namechecked. If you’re too old to know who they are, you won’t understand Patricia, the book’s heroine. She’s cool but she has reached the dreaded 50.

On the other hand, this is not a novel for your average reader of Hello! magazine. Patricia, a teacher in Kent — though it feels more like California — is a member of a decidedly high-brow bookclub.

On her bedside is a tome on quantum physics and she wants the club to read the German poet Rilke. Her friends, too, have an intellectual bent: one of them |has a “Lacanian thing” (that’s Jacques Lacan, the obscure French psychoanalyst).

Patricia is remarkably down to earth: she likes, for example, the smell of her own armpits, because it reminds her of “babies’ shit”. She is married to David, a world-famous TV authority on birds, a bit like David Attenborough. David has “the taut, fine skin of a Mauritian marlin-fisher” — for some reason he wants these words inscribed on his tombstone — and he knows what “a red-vented bulbul” is (a bird and a euphemism for his guess-what).

The other women in Patricia’s bookclub are pretty exotic, too. There’s Deborah, who, probably because she’s high on cocaine, says of herself, “I’m a digestive biscuit”.

Then there’s Alva Swanpoele, a black South African, “a tall, animal-smelling presence, a whiff of shifted space as bewitching as a warm breeze”. Alva and Patricia end up in bed together but, thankfully, the experience is maternal, or so it would appear, because Patricia “smelled the baby in her armpit and fell asleep”.

It shouldn’t be taken from this that Patricia is a prude. When she goes to a nightclub, a nameless man bumps into her on the dancefloor and there and then they engage in a graphically described “animal action, hard, wordless and urgent”.

Unfortunately, hanky-panky leads to Patricia losing her job. Another member of the bookclub, Agnes Brownlyn, who runs a leprosy mission (in Kent?), is seen having it off in a car with her toyboy. The Peeping Tom tells Patricia’s headmaster, whose name is Schumacher, that the slut was Patricia. So Schumacher gives her the boot.

Patricia retreats to the south of France. But bad things continue to happen. She sees another bookclub member, Kitty Swilly — known as Titty Kitty because of the size of her bosom — having sex with David the bulbul man. But James, Alva Swanpoele’s husband, is there to help: “He waited through her silence, an epiphytic fusion like moss on rock…”

There’s more, much more, in a novel that reads like a cross between Danielle Steele and Will Self on speed. As such, it’s hugely entertaining.

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