The Sound Mirror starts on such a high note that one wonders how the author will ever manage to sustain it. After an opening sentence such as “She is going to kill her mother today” – with its nod to Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Ann Quin’s Berg – the only way is down, surely.
Against all the odds, Heidi James rises to the challenge, parlaying this expository gambit into an exhilarating, heart-rending work that is full of surprises. The main motif, crudely put, is the past in the present; the collective in the individual. It is introduced in the first chapter and reprised in the last, but what may have come across as theoretical is now so emotionally charged that the words resonate in the pit of your stomach, bringing tears – of joy as well as sorrow – to this reader’s eyes. Quite an achievement.
The pre-emptive incipit notwithstanding, James is a mistress of suspense. Chapters alternate between the three women – Claire, Tamara, and Ada – whose destinies are limned from the second World War to the present day. It is not giving too much away to reveal that Claire and Tamara are related, although this is only established at a late stage – a few pages, in fact, after we finally discover how Ada’s life intersects with the other narrative strands. The first clue that Claire and Ada’s paths are about to cross – a dead horse blocking the road (possibly evocative of Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin) – is so unobtrusive that it could easily be overlooked.
Time is out of joint in this hauntological saga, and not only because of the parallel lives and abrupt flashbacks. Tamara’s mission – as the last female in her family line – is to erase the past after cancelling the future. The chapters devoted to this character are narrated by a Greek-style chorus composed of all her female ancestors. “What we are,” they declaim, referring to a long history of hurt, both endured and inflicted, “is the story she is made of”.
Tamara’s tinnitus, like the trauma encoded in her DNA, is but a manifestation of this collective voice: “The body remembers what the conscious mind will not.”
James’ fourth novel is dotted with references to mythology and tragedy: it is the chronicle of a death foretold, free will is locked in battle with fate; Persephone crops up twice, not to mention matricide and incest (already contained in the Nabokovian name Ada). The most striking feature, however, is the figure of Tamara as conduit: “She’s a recording, a medium the past speaks through.”
This condition is usually associated with oracles, rhapsodes or Aeolian harps, not the head of communications for a high-street bank, hence the giddy feeling that one is reading a contemporary feminist novel composed by Sophocles’ sister.
In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that the realm of poetry can only be accessed through the madness of the Muses. The “family sickness” Tamara has inherited “like a tarnished heirloom” is also a form of madness – that of generations of women “trapped and raging and muzzled like beasts”, their horizons “snipped small”. One of her ancestors describes it as just a kind of “second sight” but the boundaries between past, present and future are now “leaking and mixing and contaminating” at an alarming rate (mimicking the convergence between the three plot lines).
The disease turns out to be degenerative: “She is a translation. A bad one. The code has been perverted. It will, having been replicated too many times.”
Language – at the heart of the tension between atavism and “unbelonging” – is another code that has been corrupted by overuse. Claire, who justifies her venomous tongue by claiming to speak as she finds, only happens upon hackneyed phrases as clapped out as her husband’s nag. Like Tamara, she is ventriloquised. Her cockney patois (that remains just on the right side of Dick Van Dyke) will prompt her daughter to belittle her own offspring for dropping her aitches. Racist shopkeepers pretend that they cannot understand Ada because she was born in Calcutta, recalling Claire’s father’s attempts to eradicate all traces of their “eyetie” origins.
Language is also a means of reinvention. A posh word like “marvellous” fills Claire’s mouth “like a sweet heavy cream”. Throughout their lives, all three women try out different versions of themselves, but are borne back ceaselessly into the traumas of the past.
James should be commended for not writing the pain away. The pathetic fallacy Tamara expects, following the climactic event, fails to materialise: “There’s no magical sign from the universe. No portent, no natural phenomenon she can misread.”
This defamiliarised family saga ends with a ray of sunshine: in spite of everything, love can be found between “what was and what will be”. We are “stories in transmission” – and the saga goes on.