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A Time to Dance, 1990
In a small town on the edge of England's Lake District an unnamed man of 54, obsessed and yearning, begins a series of intense, cathartic letters to Bernadette, a young woman who has cut him out of her life after their love affair foundered on the shoals of distrust and mutual incomprehension. His letters, he believes, are unlikely to be read by his beloved, however much he longs for that, and are not intended to be sent to her; they are his private way of accounting for a sudden upsurge of emotions that altered his relation to the narrow world he knew and a painful confession of what he perceives to be his unpardonable blunders and inadequacies. Yet as he narrates his story and relives its salient moments, he cannot fail to recognize the reality of a prized life-broadening experience, nor can he totally relinquish hope. "There are many worlds we know nothing of until we are forced to meet them. External worlds of knowledge, scientific knowledge, universes of facts and objects outside imagination until they are presented to us, and internal worlds of dreams and intuitions, unknown until circumstances force them on us. Which is why I can think this letter is a form of spell. It is as if I am chanting around a cauldron! Carefully placing the ingredients in the boiling of my unabated love for you. Willing it to get me what I want. What I had."
This is a claustrophobic book in the beginning. The reader plunges unforewarned into the letter-writer's psyche through his secret, lovelorn, erotic outpourings and at first resists their troubling impact by sternly seeking to judge the protagonist, a retired bank manager with an invalid wife, who has inexplicably fallen in love at first sight with an 18-year-old working-class girl, the youngest daughter of the brawling, hard-drinking Kennedy family, whose background is the utter opposite of his own. Aha! snorts the skeptical reader; love, is it? just sex on the sly, you dirty old man--and in so thinking falls in with the common opinion of the townsfolk watching the hitherto respectable banker make a disgraceful spectacle of himself with "that Kennedy girl."
But as the letters continue, telling and ruthlessly analyzing, the reader's respect is regained, for A Time to Dance is indeed a study of love, of the striving of two only outwardly mismatched souls to bridge by any means the distances that divide them: differences in age and in social class, initial misinterpretation of one another's actions and motives, misunderstanding of one another's true feelings. By the end, perusing the last letter, the reader will be earnestly hoping that the lovers' estrangement is only temporary, a crucial phase of adjustment in an ongoing relationship. "We had a life together if only we could take it," the banker insists, "if only our fingers could touch and interlock and hold on across this chasm of time and injury which had forced us apart."
Bragg's novel consists only of the protagonist's soul-searching letters, but in these the banker has reproduced the text of several fundamental notes from Bernadette, as well as a long document addressed to him by his wife Angela on the eve of her internment in the hospital for a serious operation. These female voices take both the banker and the reader aback with their unexpected revelations and deftly delineate the character of both women: the kindly wife, six years older than her husband and dying of cancer, who fell helplessly in love with him, unreciprocated, so many years ago; and the strong-minded, suffering, romantic young woman whose sense of self-respect instinctively rebels against her lover's unreasonable jealousies and the impasse in which their passion and his prior obligations have placed her.
Despite the restrictions inherent to an epistolary novel, the author skilfully develops his difficult theme from its shaky beginnings to its convincing conclusion, employing direct and eloquent language to record the nature of both love and obsession.
© Wordreign, August 1999
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