Wednesday 4 January 2017

An Unknown Woman by Jane Davis

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: An Unknown Woman is a novel about the mutability of identity.

What happens to our sense of self when every material thing that defines us is taken away? We may not think that possessions matter all that much, but how many of our memories are captured in objects that remind us who we used to be?

Anita and Ed have been living together happily in a quirky old house in Surrey for years. But when a sudden and devastating fire destroys their home and all their possessions, cracks appear in their relationship. And when Anita flees home to Liverpool to find solace with her parents, she finds not everything there is as she supposed, either.

Davis takes the ‘unknown woman’ of the title, twists it and turns it and imbues it with shifting meaning like a poet playing with the stress in a line or a musician changing keys mid-composition. Is she the mysterious portrait at Hampton Court, where Anita works, who may or may not be Queen Elizabeth I? Is she Anita’s mother, revealing more or herself than Anita is ready to accept? Or is she Anita herself, facing a reflection in the mirror she no longer recognises?

As ever, Davis's vivid writing plunges us into the midst of scenes – whether watching a house go up in flames, or laying out the last remnants of childhood on a bed.

The relationships in this novel feel real and recognisable. And Anita’s crisis is one that could engulf any one of us. Reading it throws down the challenge: when everything you think you know has been destroyed, how do you find yourself again? And can you ever carry on where you left off?

You Enjoy This If You Loved: Margaret Forster’s Keeping the World Away; Penelope Lively’s Family Album

Avoid If You Dislike: Delicate explorations of ordinary lives and relationships

Perfect Accompaniment: Bushmills. No ice.

Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

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