Wednesday 9 November 2016

My Counterfeit Self by Jane Davis

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: Jane Davis’s sixth novel, My Counterfeit Self, has three main characters and three interweaving story strands.

The first strand is the story of a lifelong relationship between a poet, a critic and a photographer – the complexities of which reveal themselves, layer by layer, as the novel unfolds.

The second is the story of an extraordinary mind emerging out of a struggle with both childhood neglect and childhood polio.

And the final strand is an account of the British anti-nuclear movement, starting with the Aldermaston march in 1958, and in particular of the fight for justice for the professional soldiers and National Servicemen whose lives were wrecked when they were ordered to act as observers in Britain’s nuclear test programme in the central Pacific in the 1950s and 60s.

Davis’s central character, Lucy, is an ‘activist poet’ – and in later life, ‘our greatest living female poet’ and someone in grave danger of being considered a national treasure. Davis wisely refrains from attempting to write poetry that lives up to this, and apart from a few stanzas, gives us just a glimpse of Lucy’s juvenile efforts – ‘Machine Girl’, the verses she wrote about her time confined in an ‘iron lung.’

“Underneath this layer of skin
This sitting down girl is made of
Pinking shears
A garden rake
Bicycle chains...”

Lucy was one of the lucky ones. She survived polio with only a chronic weakness in one leg to show for it. Deceptively tough, she has a lifetime putting herself in the way of controversy and risk, and of eschewing convention and risk. She reminds me of a childhood heroine of mine, the Canadian painter, Emily Carr, author of Klee Wick. Almost certainly not an easy person to live with in real life, Lucy is a joy to spend time with between the pages of a book.

My Counterfeit Self is a book that packs a punch beyond the realm of fiction – a piece of ‘activist fiction’ to stand in for Lucy’s imagined activist poetry.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler; The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories about childhood illness

Perfect Accompaniment: A cafetiere of coffee with a jug of warm frothed milk

Genre: Literary fiction, activist fiction

Available on Amazon

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