fri 19/04/2024

Lavinia Greenlaw: In the City of Love’s Sleep review - curated lives | reviews, news & interviews

Lavinia Greenlaw: In the City of Love’s Sleep review - curated lives

Lavinia Greenlaw: In the City of Love’s Sleep review - curated lives

Falling in love in middle age and the complexities of responsible lives

Lavinia Greenlaw© Isaac Hargreaves

Iris is a museum conservator with a pair of pre-adolescent daughters and a failing marriage. Raif is a widower and an academic who, since writing a book on curiosity cabinets a decade ago, has quietly sunk into a kind of irrelevance. Both have established lives that are slowly and undramatically falling apart; both are well into middle age. They meet by chance at an evening event at Iris’s museum. Nothing out of the ordinary happens, but something more than words is exchanged. Together, separately, they experience “a turning towards one another as natural as waking,” a sensation as familiar as it is wholly new.

Each of their lives is in flux. The way is open for choices to be made and decisions taken  but they merely exchange cards. Iris walks off out of sight into the darkened gallery. Watched over by the artefacts for which she cares, “the jealousy glass, the cloud mirror, the merman”  she breaks into a run. She runs because she saw that “her body was ticking and had she asked and had he followed she would have done anything, so sharply did the space between them fall away”. She runs because she feels herself broken open by sudden unexpected promise. She runs because it’s terrifying to be reminded that at any moment you can be made to feel different. She runs because she’s terrified to be reminded she’s alive.

In the city of love's sleepThe novel dwells on the accretion of history. It’s visible in the buildings and vistas of the city, resides in objects and accrues in people’s bodies and minds. It leaves traces so that occasionally, particular moments become visible like rings on a tree. Iris suffers panic attacks on the tube because she was once thrown by a sharply braking train, which recalled a time she was punched. Raif lives in a beige flat and cooks food that tastes of nothing because his dead wife Liis decorated it that way and he learned how to cook for her. He has inherited his grandfather's name; she, a sense of inchoate trauma from her grandmother. Bodies, behaviour and surroundings uncontrollably throw out unconscious meaning, while also repeating "things we've never known". When Raif asks Iris what she is working on, she tells him about the skates made from a horse’s cannon bone, and how when the Thames froze over they were used for entertainment. Further north they became the only means of winter travel. The leap between object and human is deft: “Bone, which looks so rosy and lithe when cut from the body, dries into something coarse and dull. Is it animal? Mineral? The thing we’re strung upon is the part of us that appears least live.” The skates tell us about mediaeval Britain  they are also a memento mori.

The progress of their relationship, which follows a wayward course is stalked by death and obsolescence. After a stroke, Iris’s husband David becomes a sad husk, Raif’s mother ages away from her own mind. Liis, who Raif hardly knew, is dead. Yet the impression is not of tragedy but elegy. The sharper ends of grief are held back in favour of a wider perspective. After giving a talk on an anatomical model of a horse, Iris is told by another academic that because for conservation purposes it can no longer be touched “it’s obsolete,” mere “varnish and paper”. Raif defends her, saying “The model teaches us what this man at this time thought a horse was  which is as important as what a horse is”. Because he recognises its meaning, the horse retains relevance  what is worth salvaging is a matter of choice, of being able to see. Yes, he says to her at that moment, I pick you.

Her daughters Kate and Lou are learning this too. Iris takes them to the stores on a dreary weekend and shows them items that haven’t been picked for display. Fifty dentist chairs, weird furniture, a replica Babylonian animal liver used for predictions. “Why would a museum want a copy?” asks Lou, “To fill the gaps in a collection,” Iris says. “Even if it’s not the real thing?” She replies. Her response leaves Lou unimpressed  “It’s very hard to say that anything is the real thing. Everything turns out to be a version of something else or a version of an idea”. Yet since David left she and Kate have been collecting together little mementos of him, as if by having their own store they can preserve him as they remember him  an activity that takes on particular poignancy after he becomes the hospitalised familiar stranger they both keen for and renounce. Iris too is shocked at this new version of her husband who “hasn’t outwardly changed. But her mind insists it’s not him because it doesn’t smell like him.”

Greenlaw’s narration cleaves to no single person. It roams between characters, dipping into their lives and leaving holes. It replicates the sensation of intimate contact that is intermittent, and includes the erasures and the never-beens  like the texts Iris and Raif exchange that they draft and redraft until the words sound normal. The effect is to see Greenlaw’s characters as specimens narrated by a voice which expands into grander truisms  “perhaps falling in love in middle age is in part the desire to experience fixity again, to take hold of another is as to put ourselves in place”. At first this is disconcerting  particularly in the first instance: “She’d been reminded of something by the way he unbuttoned his coat. That was all. She waited. Neither could later remember how their conversation began.” Between “waited” and “Neither” is a new paragraph like a missed step or prose enjambment which switches from Iris's perspective to one which combines hers and his. But after the initial jolt, Greenlaw’s narrative voice carries us through. Turn towards it and allow it to happen. What, after all, is a novel but a curation of lives?




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