This is another one of those posts that starts off with a disclaimer, I’m afraid. I first met Sarah Salway a few months ago when she bought me lunch at Waterstones in Piccadilly, but we’d been in touch for a while before that, emails that covered a lot of shared ground and that gave me support when I most needed it, for which I’ll always be grateful. Any claims I might make to critical objectivity are therefore unlikely to be taken seriously, so I’ve decided to come clean and call this piece an appreciation, a flag-waving if you like, something that marks out an event and draws the attention of others to it. Because attention is what Sarah Salway deserves. Each of the three novels I’ve read by her is, in its own way, a startling and original piece of work. Tell Me Everything, the second to be written, but the most recent to appear on the shelves in a spanking new edition from The Friday Project, is typical – if only in the counter-intuitive sense that it does something the others don’t.
Sarah’s good with titles, taking scraps of everyday language and holding them up to be looked at more closely, not entirely trusting them, certainly not at face value; it’s a technique she stretches to the limit within the books as well. Tell Me Everything is no exception. It’s an imperative, and it has a touch of threat but also a sense of wheedling. We’re asked to be told everything by inquisitors and by lovers, by children who can’t get to sleep and think we may have the magic word that will make that happen. We tell people everything because we trust them or because we’re afraid. But everything isn’t always synonymous with the truth. In the end, everything might just be the story that best fits the bill. Molly, the sixteen-year-old heroine and narrator of the novel, learns in the first few pages of the novel that stories have the power to change lives, often unpredictably, and that the people to whom they’re entrusted aren’t necessarily always worthy of that trust. What follows may look like a textbook case of unreliable narrator, but Sarah makes it more interesting, and less textbook, by letting us in on the secret, at least in part. Molly knows when she’s lying – the stories she tells have a very specific role to play in her new life, which depends on their ability to charm as much as Scheherazade’s once did. She’s making herself a new life by making up an old one. At the same time, her ability to see what’s happening around her is clouded by what parents tend to call an over-fertile imagination, as though that were possible. Everything is grist to the ever-grinding mill of Molly’s creative remodelling of the world as one story tumbles over, and changes the nature of, another. The best stories are often produced by withholding information, and that’s something else both Molly and her creator know full well. Everything, in other words, in its own good time. Even, as the last resort, the truth.
Molly has things in common with Verity, the narrator of Sarah’s first novel, Something Beginning With (another simple, and brilliantly apposite, title). She’s young (though not as young), looking for love, and friendship, and purpose. The basic material the novel draws on isn’t that far from the world of Bridget Jones, but the novel couldn’t be less like BJ’s Diary, or anyone else’s. Whatever the packaging might suggest (and Sarah was signally ill-served by her original UK publisher; the edition pictured here is, once again, published by the Friday Project), nothing could be less chick-lit(e) than this novel, from the epigraph by Barthes (“The alphabetical order erases everything, banishes every origin”) to the Reading Index at the end, which, like the book itself, is both playful and thoughtful. Barthes’ comment is relevant not only to this novel (arranged, for those who haven’t read it, in alphabetical order), but also to the way in which Molly uses stories to cancel her past and start again. Stories, like the alphabet, find structure where otherwise no structure would exist. And there’s something arbitrary about both until they suddenly become natural. What makes this novel such a joy, among other qualities, is the fact that the story structure is woven so skilfully into the anti-narrative structure of the alphabet. The first three entries are Ambition, Ants and Attitude, the last three Zest, Zoology and Zzzz. Even better, these entries cross-reference to other entries further down or up the line. At the end of Attitude , the reader is invited to see Dreams, Impostor Syndrome, Wobbling. It’s hard to resist, and, finally, how you read the book depends on the kind of reader you are. Whatever you do, from the moment the choice is offered, you find yourself obeying Barthes’s injunction: ‘Cut! Resume the story in another way!’ Verity (and the irony of the name will not be lost, or side-stepped) is self-deluding and astute at the same time; like Molly she’s both the artificer and the victim of her fate. The structure of the book, so arbitrary on the surface and yet so subtle, also provides the sort of intimacy one might expect from a diary or letter, as though we were being enabled to watch the actual process of Verity’s making sense of things, or trying to, from the disparate scatter of objects she finds in her head. One of the unexpected bonuses of the book is the way its form allows what appear to be digressions: nostrils and weaning in Japan spring to mind – in one sense the book looks like nothing but digression – and yet everything is pertinent, everything pulls its weight. Not a word – or letter – is wasted.
Sarah’s most recent novel, Getting the Picture, was first published last year. It’s an epistolary novel and makes more than a passing nod to one of its most illustrious predecessors, Les Liaisons dangereuses, not only in the epigraph, but thematically as well. Like Laclos’ great novel, it contains more than a simple exchange of letters (intimacies?) between two people. It’s an interesting form to choose, and it’s not hard to imagine – on the basis of Sarah’s earlier novels – the kind of fun that can be had with it, the possibility it offers of stories that fail to mesh, or that mesh all too well into something none of their tellers might have contemplated. Getting the picture is the hardest thing in the world to do when what we are is an integral part of that picture. It’s the old ethnological problem, but it’s intrinsic to the nature of story-telling as well, and the letter is – or was – perhaps the most basic unit of written story-telling available to us. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the lengths to which Sarah takes this. Epistolary novels generally involve dialogue between two or more characters, but what this book contains, almost entirely, are letters that are never answered, often for very good reasons, or whose answers are concealed from the reader, only becoming visible through the filter of those who receive them, and respond, not always happily. This creates enormous scope for humour, misunderstanding and intrigue, all of which are exploited to the full. The book is a kaleidoscope of contiguous, closed elements that nonetheless play off – and with – one another, to comic and moving effect. The full picture, denied to the characters in the book, gradually comes into focus to its reader. There’s a gentle humour to some parts of the novel, and a genuine malevolence to others; and it isn’t always clear which is which. It’s the darkest of the three books, and not because it’s set in a residential care home; perhaps the darkness comes out most insistently, and creepily, in the book’s portrayal of obsessive love, something that – it occurs to me now – is at the anxious, over-eager and possibly unworthy heart of all three books’ main characters. Together, they’re a great achievement, as dense and light – and deceptive – as the perfect tiramisu.