A novel of one-sided letters…

How You See Me by S.E. Craythorne

how you see meThis is the last of my reviews of books I finished reading in 2015; I thought I’d better get a few thoughts down before the memory of reading it fades too much.

As Susan said in a recent post, ‘I have a weakness for debuts’ – you never know what you’re going to get.  In How You See Me, we get that relative rarity – the epistolary novel, but done in the style of We Need to Talk About Kevin – we only get to read one side of the conversation.

Daniel Laird is the letter writer. He’s returning to his ailing father’s home in Norfolk to look after him. He’s not been there for nine years.  As the novel starts he is leaving Alice to set off on his journey home:

From the pillow next to yours 

[…] You’ll say I should have woken you, but there’s too much to say. Too much I haven’t said. A father and a sister. A whole life to explain. I’m sorry I’ve not told you about any of this before; we’ve had so little time together. I’ve probably lied to you. That’s habit. I lie to  everyone about my family. […]

Missing you already, my darling.

Your Daniel

At the start, the letters fall into two kinds. The first are love letters to Alice, whom we soon find out Daniel met at work – she was patient of his boss, Aubrey, a psychiatrist; Daniel is his receptionist/secretary. The second concern family matters and practicalities to his sister Mab in which he complains about Maggie the care-worker who pops in frequently, about the house, about his frail father – well he moans about everything to Mab really. Daniel also writes some letters to Aubrey. They obviously do not have a normal employee/boss relationship.

Daniel’s father was – is – a celebrated artist, a painter who went through a series of muses and models when Daniel was young. It’s a shock to Daniel to see him reduced to a husk of his former self, but it does give Daniel a sort of power over him that he never had before. ‘…like it or not, I’m home.’ he says as he settles into a life of domesticity and walking the dog.

It is the discovery of a hidden cache of his father’s paintings that provides the turning point in this drama, and the faint air of unease starts to take a more sinister tone. Daniel had left home for a reason, and the exhibition planned of the new paintings brings all the hidden tensions to the surface. Daniel has been hiding from himself. Aubrey reinforced that, and Mab – well she hides behind her masks (she’s an artist too). We finally begin to see Daniel as everyone else does when events unravel his life.

I don’t know what it is about books about artists, but their oft-tortured and free-loving souls make for great drama. The descriptions of Daniel’s father in his productive years rather reminds me of the randy Uncle Ralph in Bethan Roberts’s child abduction drama Mother Island (which I reviewed here). As for Mab’s masks – the sheer idea of interpretive dance in masks just makes me squirm (almost as much as the singer Sia with her strange dancers).

The one relief we get is when Daniel takes his father on a holiday to the coast – it seems to refresh Daniel, but the effect is short-lived. Otherwise the tension and unease creeps steadily upwards to the shocking climax.  This portrait of a broken mind makes for a powerful debut well worth reading. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.

S E Craythorne, How You See Me (Myriad editions, August 2015) paperback, 190 pages

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