Repeat It Today With Tears, Anne Peile, Serpent’s Tail, 2010.
After enjoying Great House so much, I went through the Orange Prize long list and picked out a few more books that sound interesting. I was intrigued by the description of Repeat It Today With Tears, but was not sure I would like it. A novel about an incestuous relationship between a father and daughter could be extremely distasteful and tawdry, and I was not sure that I wanted to read about this subject. However, I downloaded the book to my Kindle and began to read.
Peile captured my attention with her first sentence, and I just kept on reading until I finished the book. The writing is beautiful and evocative, and although the narrative deals with a difficult subject, Peile handles the plot with such skill and care that I felt I was in a safe pair of hands as I took the journey with Susie and Jack.
Susie is seventeen when she finally meets the father she has never known. A brilliant student, and a beautiful girl who has only recently discovered her sexual power over men, Susie plays a dangerous game with herself, spinning a web of fantasies about her father which take her away from her hum-drum existence with an emotionally distant mother and sister. When she finds her father listed in the phone book, she embarks on a quest to meet him, and finally, her dream comes true.
What follows is a beautifully rendered tale of two lost souls finding one another. It is also a tale of obsession and infatuation; Susie knows exactly what she is doing, and it is she who holds the advantage over Jack, rather than the other way around. I found both characters totally believable, and although intellectually and morally I knew their relationship was wrong, I could not find it in me to condemn them.
The second part of the book is equally riveting, and gives a searingly true insight into grief, despair, and madness. Susie, the sexy school girl, with her shiny hair and pouty lips, is broken and damaged and considered insane. She self-harms and will not admit to the sin she has committed, so she is locked up in an institution and abandoned by her family. Her life has turned completely upside down, but her love for her father has not diminished and she longs to be with him. I found this part of the book much harder to read, because Peile’s depiction of Susie’s despair is so honest and real.
I can imagine that some people would dismiss this novel out of hand because it deals with incest. The social taboo against father-daughter incest is so strong, that even to think about it is repugnant to many people. I did have misgivings before I started reading Repeat It Today With Tears, because incest is morally wrong, and distasteful to think about. However, in Susie, Peile has created a wonderfully smart and witty character whose sharp observations and tender loyalties linger in the mind long after the last page of the book is turned. And Jack, who as a young man wantonly squandered his talents and advantages and abandoned his children, made me feel sad. His unquenchable thirst for “more” has not served him well in life.
So, I did like this book very much, despite my initial reservations. I think it was the assured writing that kept me hooked; Peile re-creates 1970s London with almost forensic precision, and we are steeped in the zeitgeist of Clapham and Chelsea, with the river flowing between. This is a telling metaphor: Susie crosses the river to be with her father, and if we are willing to set aside our preconceptions and go with her on the journey, I think this very fine novel offers us profound insights into some of humankind’s flaws and frailties.