Janet Davey's fourth novel begins in the 1980s of Anita Mostyn's childhood with her older brothers, Mark and Barney. "The two Mostyn boys had inscrutable faces. Pale and oval with neat little mouths and firm jaws – like male Madonnas. When the telephone rang: 'Leave the room, Netticles. This will be a private conversation,' though, more often than not, retreating, Anita would hear the words, 'My mother is out.'"
The syntax isn't showy or faux-archaic, it's crisply contemporary; but it's complex and promises that nothing offered for our interest will be blatant, or banal. There's so much packed in there – class (the nickname, the boys' precocious vocabulary and phrasing), comedy (those inscrutable little boy-faces), relationship (Anita's exclusion – and perhaps the hollowness of what she's excluded from).
The novel will be Anita's story first and foremost, sliding in and out of her original, skewed way of seeing; but we know from the first sentence that Davey claims the whole freedom of her omniscience (it can't be the little girl Anita who sees those male-Madonna faces). So the novel's narrative mode isn't the more familiar one – clingy close-third-person. There's even a scene much later, at Barney's second wedding, when we believe for several pages that we are watching Anita through the eyes of Barney's new father-in-law, encountering her for the first time. ("She was a bit of a rebel maybe. He had that impression.") Then we realise, as he realises, that the girl he's looking at isn't Anita at all, he has made a mistake.
No perception is for certain, in Davey's world. The flow of consciousness as she renders it is "never a clear pane of glass", explaining things, binding them together in a meaning. It's characteristic of the lovely indirection of the novel – and of its heroine – that Anita goes to have an adventure in Bulgaria and comes home, defeated, after only a few days, but continues to send texts and photographs as if she's still there. ("All good. Loving your apartment.")
At first sight, the Mostyns, bankers and solicitors, are an awful family, snobbish and conforming and oblivious: poor Anita. In place of intimacy, her brothers and her parents exchange displays of cleverness and information. Anita collapses before Barney's wedding and spends two days in bed: when she gets up her father greets her with "How was Bulgaria? Did you get to see the Thracian tombs?"; he tells her at length about Herodotus.
Their mother Veronica is overbearing, favouring her boys, disappointed in her daughter ("Will you be any good at negotiation?"). The brothers are locked in bitter rivalry (which Anita, drowning in her own inadequacy, only half registers); Barney is duller, Mark is more complex, cleverer, and perhaps gay (we're never sure, because Anita isn't sure). He can't surface out of that childhood when he was all promise of future brilliance; his performances of angst – he crashes his hands down on the piano: "I can't bloody play any more"– are self-dramatising and heartfelt at once.
Underneath this comedy of social types, so exact and so funny, Davey catches deeper truths about how the Mostyns live, through smells and textures and effects of light. In their mews flat in London, her parents eat joylessly in a windowless dining room: "Howard manfully chewed the pieces of the previous day's roast potatoes that his wife had chopped up and added to the cauliflower [cheese]." Surfaces are cluttered and sticky in their Hampshire country house; after Christmas it's filled with the vapour of boiling turkey stock. But when disaster comes – as it does, on the eve of Barney's first wedding, blighting the family – at least their habit of confident control gives them something to do: it's Anita who goes to pieces.
And nine years later she is stranded in her 30s, single after a succession of unsatisfactory love affairs, in an unsatisfactory job, and pretending to be in Bulgaria. Yet in this novel of shifting perspectives, we needn't trust that Anita has the last word on herself. She thinks she's inconvenient and disregarded and at best acquiescent; but to the others she might appear elusive, evasive – she might look like the one who got away. She might be wilfully, or helplessly, oblivious to real possibilities of connection that come her way (with Mark, with Mark's friend Nick Halsey).
The end of the novel is beautifully nuanced, without forced resolution. Davey (pictured) captures the strangeness of our ordinary days, and the heroism of what Anita Brookner calls "the mighty task" of keeping oneself afloat. We're lucky to have such an intelligent chronicler of our present – and of the dirty, noisy beauty of contemporary London.
Tessa Hadley's novel Married Love is published by Janathan Cape.
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