Bernardine Bishop’s “Unexpected Lessons In Love”
This is a very fine book, and well merits the comparison with the writing of Penelope Fitzgerald, which Adam Mars-Jones drew in his Observer review. It’s a comparison as to both classiness and type, and I hadn’t made it, which was dumb of me, since I have been reading and loving Fitzgerald..
It is 40 years or so since I last heard Bernardine Bishop’s voice, and yet I feel as though recognise much of the language of this, her first novel for around 50 years; the first since a youthful clutch of two produced in the 1960s; and the first of three produced before her death last year. This is a novel about a psychotherapist (which Bernardine was) and her new friend, a novelist; both are well over 60 and both have had go-rounds with cancer. So both are under that special sense of the possibility of death which comes to those for whom the grim reaper is not merely a spectre coming up the garden path, but a reality whose knuckles have rapped on the door and who may well appear at the window again soon.
When I picked it up, I assumed the novel would be more or less autobiographical, and that it was perhaps the kind of thing a dying woman might need to produce as a testament, or an expiation, or an apologia, or – more simply – as a release for some of the intensity of her situation. About a quarter of the way through, I stopped thinking in those terms, and instead let Bernardine’s work and voice do their stuff.
One begins to see the book as a sort of thriller: the writer is a John le Carré of the complicated ruses and subterfuges, the revelations and the secrecies, which people use for and against one another, and within themselves. There are bags of plot twists and turns, some of them visited on our cast by the fates, some as a consequence of their own actions, wise and unwise, witting and unwitting. These events are plausible, even when they are very dramatic. Nothing seems forced.
All the while, Bernardine Bishop is pulling off the trick which all very good novelists can achieve: she has produced characters we can believe in, and populates their thoughts and speech with just the remarks we hear and recognise in ourselves and others. Sometimes, one winces, and sometimes one chuckles, but both reactions bespeak a recognition that what is gong on is precisely and sharply observed.
There is no bitterness in this book: none of the characters is wholly good, and none are anything like wicked. The imminence of her own death has not brought cynicism to the author’s own voice, which we assume to migrate between those of the psychotherapist and the novelist. Rather, she seems warm as well as sceptical. Her fears are real enough, but she mostly wants to explore the business of love in a world of uncertainty, and the nearer death comes – the faster she senses it coming down the path toward her – the more she feels the bonds she’s going to have to let go.
I have not talked here much about the cancer and the colostomy which run through these pages. They are centre stage and they are graphically present. But they are like war in a Graham Greene novel, or money in an Austen, or the church in a Trollope, or the USSR in a spy thriller: big, real, energising; not a device, exactly, more a backdrop to the drama. And I forebear to go about these subjects here – about cancer and shit – because they have a capacity, like the “n” word or the other “c” word, to crowd out the rest of any discussion. They are not the be all-and end-all of this book, by a long chalk, but they are boldly addressed.