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52 Books #3: Repeat It Today With Tears

January 25, 2011

It’s 1972, and Susanna, 17 year-old protagonist of Anne Peile’s debut Repeat It Today With Tears (Serpent’s Tail), is about to meet her father for the first time. Susanna and her older, overconfident sister Lin have been raised by their mother, after their father left the family, and as soon as Susanna conceives the idea of meeting her father it becomes a toxic obsession. Because when she does meet Jack, she lies about her background and sets about seducing him.

This is, of course, pretty risky territory, and even if Peile’s pitch to publishers was striking, I imagine several would have recoiled from the transgressive subject matter. Yet Repeat It unfolds so seductively itself, and is told in such glacial, measured tones, that it never becomes as OTT as the pitch would suggest. Instead, we are so ‘with’ Susanna — the ugly duckling teenager ostracised by the rest of her family, only now realising that she can use her sexuality to grab attention just as her sister does (as does the vampy, orgy-fond mother of her [unconvincingly straight] male friend Julian) — that the seduction scenes seem to happen quite naturally and without being sensationalist. An exceptionally bright student, Susanna is put forward for the Oxford University entrance exam by her school, but fails to respond to the invitation to study there, nor indeed to return to school at all once the affair with her father has begun. To Susanna, this is the most important thing in her life, squaring a circle that has been necessary for a long time. The discomfited reader, lulled, has no choice but to go along with it.

Inevitably, the status quo can’t hold, and eventually Susanna’s mother discovers where her daughter has been — not at school, not at her part-time jobs. A brief, violent interlude puts paid to the affair for good, and from there not only does Susanna’s life, rather perversely, take a turn for the worse, but so too does the book, surrendering the clarity and focus of the first hundred pages in favour of an extended coda exploring Susanna’s subsequent life in care for, we gather, much of the rest of her life. The coolness of the first part gives way to a more febrile but much less engaging tone: she hectors her doctors, plots self-harm, interrogates herself in lurid but uninspiring paragraphs, and has a series of strange, balancing-act conversations with Olive, Jack’s second wife, who is under the impression that Susanna’s psychosis has been occasioned by losing a father rather than a lover. There’s not as much danger in these conversations as in the Susanna/Jack scenes, where we are constantly waiting for disaster of one sort or another; Olive is so benevolent, we feel that she might simply absorb information about Susanna’s relationship with Jack, rather than rail against it, but in any case (helpfully) Susanna keeps schtum.

Repeat It reminded me a lot of M.J. Hyland’s novels, in which dangerously cool — to the point of sociopathic — characters become caught up in outré situations and then in their consequences, treating both their successes and failures almost as events befalling some Other. Peile’s crime-and-punishment structure here is reminiscent most strongly of Hyland’s This is How, whose protagonist is likewise unwilling or unable to take responsibility for his appalling actions. Peile’s book is a shorter and perhaps neater take on similar subject matter, but where Hyland is able to sustain her narrator’s coolness of tone throughout, Repeat It Today With Tears opts for contrasting tones, diminishing the impact of its uncanny first half.

Other reading in Week #3

Joyce Tyldesley Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt (Penguin Allen Lane)

Yasunari Kawabata Thousand Cranes (Penguin Classics)

Juan Machado de Assis A Chapter of Hats (Bloomsbury)

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