‘DAMAGE’ by Josephine Hart, 1991

So this is a bit of a departure from the usual crime fiction I tend to pick, but as I read it I realised it has many hallmarks of old-fashioned noir – sexual obsession, a feeling of dream-like displacement, and a prevailing sense of doomed fatality running through. Like all good crime fiction, it also arrives like a slap to the face. I found a copy of this innocuous 200-odd page book on my way, and by the time I got to the office, I was seduced.

            Written by the late Josephine Hart, the spouse of one of the Saatchi clan, ‘Damage’, her debut, tells the story of an affluent cabinet minister, Stephen Fleming, who begins an affair with his son’s fiancé which soon becomes a thing of uncontainable force. The book’s title is entirely fitting.

            I vaguely remember the 1992 film adaptation with Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche, which I found daft and contrived – writhing pseudo-erotic love scenes ’, and Jeremy’s looks of strained, constipated desire, all seen through a hazy, soft-focus lens. Little did I know that the film was based on this unforgiving novel which came out the year before and was a surprise success.

            Before getting into the nitty-gritty, a word or two on the prose of ‘Damage’. Now I am not a literary expert in any way; my predilections in prose go towards simple, punchy texts, and a good fifty per cent of the classics I read go over my head and lay unfinished; however, what I can state with a degree of confidence is that the writing here is at times poetic, and is frequently quite beautiful.

            We are taken inside the mind of our narrator with deceptive ease: Stephen not only paints for us the landscape of his external world, with all the trappings associated with pucker middle-class indulgence; but he also delivers the seismic change in his internal world, where we witness the rupture of his tempered emotional state upon meeting the young woman called Anna Barton, his son’s girlfriend, and the target of his lust. Hart does not try to explain the genesis of Stephen’s desire – instead, it becomes a thing of nature that spawns into existence, and from that first encounter, it snowballs into a form Stephen cannot reign.

            In less skilled hands, this kind of sexualised terrain would be clunky, pretentious, sordid smut. But to me, Hart’s book is nothing less than a mini masterpiece – albeit a nasty one – that drives home the uncomfortable truth, that somewhere within us all exist these rabid, animalistic drives.

            The sex scenes are refined, symbolic rather than gratuitous, and neither hinder nor slow up the plot. The narrative tends to flit between Stephen’s external world and his interiority, and the growing divergence between these two states becomes all the more apparent as the story unfolds.

            In a similar vein to Siri Hustvedt’s ‘What I Loved’, I particularly liked the bravery of Hart to write first-person narrative from a male viewpoint, particular so when the character is so immersed in lust. On this, I found Stephen’s voice to be neither clichéd or unrealistic – on the contrary, Hart showed that rare literary gift of being able to make her narrator’s voice sound both eloquent and plausible.

            I was reminded of Iris Murdoch and Ian McEwan reading this book – on the one hand, it paints a fluffy picture of conservative middle England, all wrapped up in delightful velvet ‘True-blue’ bed sheets: but beneath those sheets, ‘Damage’ exposes us to the murky, ugly desires that we never talk about at the dinner table. It is an aggressive, penetrating work that makes no concessions for the harm it describes.

            From a psychoanalytic perspective, there is much to praise here: again, I’m in no expert, but I can clearly see the forces of Eros and Thanatos at work, as Stephen desperately tries to reconcile his compulsions to love with the risk of destroying everything he has built over the last fifty years.

            As said, the language is terse and punchy – not a word seems wasted, and Hart gets to the point clearly and succinctly. In particular, I liked her tendency to begin chapter’s with dialogue, encouraging the reader to decipher who’s who, and to keep sentences short, and paragraphs brief. I have already skimmed through the book a second time, and would be keen to ‘dissect’ it in order to figure out some of the devices she uses to make ‘Damage’ read so fluidly. I’m sure there is a lot to learn here.       

If I’m to poke a criticism, I suppose I could say I found Anna’s character somewhat contrived at times, and her submissiveness to Stephen slightly questionable. We learn that her brother’s suicide had a profound effect on her pubescent mind, following which she turned into a nymph, seeking out anonymous sexual encounters to feed a hunger left by the loss. I do like this idea in principle– it is Freudian, undoubtedly, all tied up (pun intended) with neurotic desire – but I couldn’t quite make up my mind whether I was totally convinced that Anna existed three dimensionally in ‘Damage’ in the same way everyone else does for me. But maybe that was intentional by Hart. Was Anna meant to be more symbolic? Who knows? What I am pretty sure about is that here was a writer with supreme control of word and imagery, and provocation.

            From the offset and the noir-like tone of the book, we know that all will not bode well. As Stephen takes ever-increasing risks, the stakes get raised. Suspense is layered, and the final fifty pages are as gripping as any crime story I can remember. The denouement is bleak  – we have cause, and then we see the effect on Stephen. The damage has been done, and he is testifying to it, left a broken man, beyond repentance.   

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