A review of A Partisan’s Daughter by Louis de Bernières

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

A Partisan’s Daughter
by Louis de Bernières
Vintage (Random House Australia)
March 2009, $23.95aud, softcover, ISBN 9780099520283

Chris is a man in classic midlife crisis. His marriage is loveless, and his salesman job more or less meaningless. At least that’s the picture the reader is presented with at the opening of A Partisan’s’ Daughter. When Chris meets Roza, a woman he mistakes for a prostitute, he falls into a kind of obsession that sees him returning again and again to listen to stories from her past that she uses to keep him coming back. It’s an odd kind of almost virtual love affair predicated on repression and sustained desire that you might find amongst Internet couples. But this is London in the early 1970s, and there’s no Internet to speak of. Chris is already ‘passed it’ as far as his hip daughter is concerned, and his participation in Roza’s crazy narrative is as voyeur only.

The story is written in alternating first person narratives between Chris and Roza, each in the role of memoirist, recounting this brief dalliance in a larger life. One chapter oddly breaks into alternating paragraphs between the two characters, with playwright styled headings for each, much like the “Circe” chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses. It sits uncomfortably in the midst of what is otherwise presented as a seamless narrative, but perhaps, like finding Roza researching her own supposed history in the library, it’s another signal that all is not what it seems. de Bernières puts the reader in the role of Chris, a hapless visitor lacking either the tools to determine where the truth lies or the ability to move forward. The relationship between truth and fiction remains a nebulous one, especially set against the historical context out of Roza’s past, and the confronting childhood she reveals in such a nonchalant way to Chris. On tops of this is her shifting accent, and her “admission” that she gets pleasure out of shocking him.

Roza’s stories are a mixture of touchingly mundane – the stuff of all childhoods – and deliberately sordid, showing off de Bernières talent for describing torture. Real or imagined, the stories draw the reader in. Although A Partisan’s Daughter is built around the ennui of both key characters, there is no sense of drag. Instead, the plot is driven forward by the increasing parallels between these two characters – their stories so different but their impulses identical:

I didn’t need any money and I’d never tried getting it from streetwalking. Perhaps I was bored. I used to et bored with myself sometimes. I’d get this feeling that I ought to be running down mountains and singing, like in The Sound of Music, waving my arms about and being joyful, and instead I’d realise that I was sitting in front of a quiz show in a condemned building, smoking cigarettes and drinking black coffee that made me feel bitter in my mouth. It wasn’t my ideal life. So I’d get an impulse to do something to put the flavours back on my tongue (12)

Certainly there is something a little icky about Chris’ confessions to the reader, and about Roza’s desire to keep Chris wanting her while also frightening him. It’s a game of truth or dare that the reader is unwittingly drawn into, and that tension keeps things moving.

There are other characters in the story, from Bob Dylan Upstairs or BDU as Chris refers to him: an easy going youth whose pleasure in Roza’s stories and disinterest from a sexual point of view makes him a good foil for Chris’ intensity. There is Chris’s wife, the “great white loaf”, and one wonders, as the story progresses, what her story would be if we had that viewpoint. Roza makes it clear that she’s heard about this type of concocted “frigid, shitty wife” from nearly all of the punters at the hostess club she works in. We never see or hear from the “loaf”, other than through Chris’ unflattering references. Like BDU, she serves as an unnamed counterpoint to Roza: the faithful, safe, and unappealing woman at home. In Chris’ fiction, she is as much a fictionalised invention as Roza’s men (and woman). Behind both characters are the events of the late 70s, the “Winter of Discontent” with its strikes, litter and shortages, Tito’s Yugoslavia that Roza left behind illegally, and the “present tense” of the story which is today.

While neither Chris nor Roza are particularly likeable or trustable as characters, they are recognisable. The missed moments, the fumbling, and the odd and mostly ineffective way they use fiction to try and get at a deeper truth will strike a chord with the reader. Overall, this is a sad novel which hints at the uncertainty in all of our posturing; our inability to get at the kernel of who we are; and the difficulty of moving beyond our fantasies into a sustainable reality. Nevertheless, it’s an easy read, smooth and well written, and ultimately one that will nag at the reader beyond the pages of the book. The admirable self-control shown by de Bernières as he probes into these two characters enough to leave the reader, like Chris, simultaneously hungry, unsettled, and resigned at the end.

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast www.blogtalkradio.com/compulsivereader.