Opposed Positions by Gwendoline Riley (Vintage - May, 2012)
The writer George Saunders sagely identifies a common fault in fiction writing:
We all try to skip around the heart of the story. It is a form of avoidance that all of us do. I don’t know quite why, but I see it all the time – in my work and in the work of my students. It’s very odd, and very universal.
Opposed Positions, the fourth novel from former Manchester expatriate Gwendoline Riley, is not guilty of this; it makes an incision early on, then cuts straight through to its core.
As the old year disappeared and I reviewed my 2012 reading, I found myself haunted by the memory of this elegant dissection of flawed human relationships. It is a simple concept. We follow thirtyish Aisleen Kelly through a review of her life’s significant players, beginning with her father, via friends, family, and lovers before returning to the central mother-daughter relationship.
Though we are indoctrinated never to judge a book by it, when I picked up Opposed Positions, the cover seemed all wrong. It shows a close-up of a young girl's face, half exposed, her hair drawn back into a knot. It reminded me of the covers of a Noel Streatfeild series I loved as a child about young girls who take to the stage. The narrator of Opposed Positions is older and wiser than the girl in the portrait, and has long left the lofty ambitions of a Streatfeild heroine behind. Instead she decimates in turn those who have been close to her, whether by blood or design.
If this sounds incredibly solipsistic, it is. The voice is incredibly personal. You feel as though you are right there inside Aisleen’s head, giving the feeling of an audience member invited to see the world as she does, to understand how her psychology allows her to move through the world she is at odds with. Aisleen is, nonetheless, a likeable guide to the oft avoided terrain of mothers and daughters. Specifically she deals with the division and derision of the child by the parent as their defence mechanism against a perceived rejection of their values.
In conventional plot terms the book is small. It follows an emotional arc, rather than a narrative one. Aisleen, a novel writer, who goes away to Indianapolis whilst reflecting on love, returns to pay what may be a final visit to her mother and stepfather on The Wirral. Howard is a particularly odious character, representing the opposition to the life Aisleen has chosen and the commensurate of what she does not want.
This is a cold book; a clinical dissection of a woman’s growing up and becoming older than she ever imagined herself to be. The artistic distancing of oneself from a beautiful youth is always to some extent difficult. The ice in her veins courses through from the dissolution of her relationships that have become impossible to maintain - wedges becoming building-sized gulfs in mutual understanding, shutting down communication.
Something spoke to me from this novel with its clear view of the world so directly it was as though Aisleen were somehow ventriloquizing my own experience.
At the centre is the struggle with other people interfering in decisions, not letting each other be. A child choosing the thorny, sometimes impoverished life of an artist is shown here as difficult for a parent to accept and the inability of her mother to grasp this as a lifestyle choice - something with longevity and seriousness, not a phase she will grow out of - causes an irreparable rift.
Aisleen’s conversations with her mother expose how it’s possible for two people to rewrite their separate versions of a collective memory in such conflicting ways it makes it impossible to coalesce. What Aisleen also does is query the truth of the world - why pretend you’re having a great time when you’re not? Are most family relations built on dishonesty, when we’re taught in all other aspects of life to be the opposite? At times I shuddered with pain of recognition - some of the dialogue is verbatim from my own with my mother - the struggle with artistry, the seeming looks of distaste, the berating about why you can’t just be normal? “Pretend to have a good time like everyone else.”
Identifying generational failures and how breakdowns in communication occur is surely how literature can open our eyes to viewpoints other than our own. In the third section of Zadie Smith’s 2012 novel NW the character Keisha’s sister says of their mother, “You’re difficult for her to understand.” Keisha, (who has changed her given name to Natalie) says astounded, “What’s difficult about me?”
Opposed Positions is a beautifully sparse, sad book that offers at its end hope for being on your own in the peculiar, precarious poisonous world. The novelist MJ Hyland pleads her writing students to – ‘tell me something true’ - a deceptively simple request. Attempts to transcribe the world often result in obvious, clichéd analysis and emptiness. What Opposed Positions is brave enough to conclude is that time doesn’t always heal; instead the rift can deepen. Growing up is allowing those ways to part, an acceptance that to go your own way that takes courage and can break your heart. It offers the possibility that love continues to exist between people without the toxicity of physical contact. Like loss, you carry it locked deep inside, wherever in the world you are. This is something true. Reminiscence doesn’t band-aid the past.
I’ll re-read this book in future and it will be a reminder that even every-day tragedies can carry an unbearable weight of loss, we just have to live with that.