If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail N Rosewood
Both girls’ childhoods are blighted by deprivation: our narrator’s the lack of her mother’s attention and her friend’s material poverty, inappropriate paternal attention and the absence of a mother at all. But our narrator’s parent is able to put her research on pause momentarily to recognise this is no life for a child. Whether her decision to send her, at twelve, to stay with various relatives and acquaintances in the USA, and to bury her Vietnamese identity as soon as she gets on the plane, is the right one, is difficult to judge. But it’s fair to say that, when we pick up her story again in New York City, she doesn’t seem the most adjusted of young adults.
Still following the script of her childhood, she pulls out the stops to find an apartment in the same building as a stranger who resembles her soldier and falls in love with a married woman who reminds her of her childhood friend. When she signs up to have a baby as a surrogate, it’s the start of a journey that will lead her back to Vietnam.
Abbigail N Rosewood’s lyrical debut is a fresh take on dislocation and insecure attachment, with a nod to the side of Vietnam tourists never see. Thanks to Europa Editions for my review copy. For a novel about an earlier point in Vietnamese-American relationships, see my review of The Outside Lands.
Poet and Dancer by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
She’s eight when she switches her affections to Lara, her pretty cousin who loves to dance. The girls don’t meet again until they’re young adults: while Angel is still enthralled by Lara, she seems to have forgotten they ever met. But, narcissistically craving attention, she responds to Angel’s doting and they become friends. When Lara begins an affair with Angel’s father, he buys a flat where the girls can live together. They keep it barely furnished on the pretence that Lara will use it as a dance studio, but her talent has stalled, and Angel’s too.
As Lara becomes progressively more disturbed and disturbing, Angel – supported by her father who, as a doctor, but not Lara’s, writes out prescriptions for various unnamed drugs – continues to subjugate her own needs in her cousin’s defence. It seems inevitable that, when Lara plummets, Angel will too.
First published in 1993, and reissued by Abacus this month (to whom thanks for my review copy), Poet and Dancer is about the importance of boundaries and how unconditional devotion to a flaky personality can contribute to the downfall of both despot and slave. If you haven’t read any of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s numerous novels and short stories before, I’d recommend starting with the 1975 Booker Prize winner, Heat and Dust, before this, which I found somewhat underwhelming.