A Book of Many Roots

Article published on July 21, 2014
Article published on July 21, 2014

A knife with a life, a friend thought to be dead but may not be: with at­ten­tion to whimsical de­tail, the novel Ten­drils re­lates the great themes in life. Dreams and re­al­ity lie close to­gether in Lucy Dug­gan's debut novel.

When I met Lucy Dug­gan in Stras­bourg in 2011, at first I thought she was French. After ten min­utes of Lucy look­ing down at me con­fus­edly from her hos­tel bed, and me just con­tin­uing to bab­ble on in French, the mis­un­der­stand­ing was cleared up - Lucy was a Brit and at that, a Brit that spoke very good Ger­man. No won­der, see­ing as lan­guage is Lucy's pas­sion. When I in­ter­viewed her for Die Euros, she said, 'I like the idea of mix­ing lan­guages up a bit'. Now Lucy has pub­lished her first novel, Ten­drils (Peer Press) and the first thing that stands out is, of course, lan­guage. Lively, po­etic, beau­ti­ful and mov­ing.

THE CITY AS DES­TINY

Ten­drils sounds about right as a title, since the var­i­ous plot­lines are so art­fully woven to­gether that they only grad­u­ally get un­tan­gled, until the crux of the tale comes to the sur­face. But what is this crux? That would be firstly the story of the artists Ochre and Tomáš. They were once best friends liv­ing and work­ing to­gether in pre-rev­o­lu­tionary­ Prague: Tomáš al­ways the leader of the two, po­lit­i­cally ac­tive and bold, ad­mired by the some­what pas­sive Ochre. But those times are long gone, as Tomáš fell from a bridge. Ochre, now in his for­ties, still lives in Prague, drift­ing around in a life still typ­i­cally bo­hemian: 'He would live there in the swirl and flicker of end­less pup­pet shows, and in the ro­mance of an­cient sto­ries. The city was his fate, it was part of him and it was some­one he was al­ways search­ing for.' But one day Ochre's per­cep­tion be­gins to shift, strange things begin to hap­pen, and sud­denly, he is cer­tain that Tomáš isn't dead after all. Bit by bit, he puts to­gether the real story be­hind his friend's dis­ap­pear­ance.

The sec­ond plot­line tells of two friends, Zuzana (Zuzi) and Alena, who grew up in the Mora­vian coun­try­side. Young and hope­ful, they be­lieve noth­ing could sep­a­rate them. Yet there is soon more sep­a­rat­ing them that they could have ever imag­ined. While the ar­tis­ti­cally gifted Zuzi looks out to the world - Mu­nich, to be pre­cise - Alena dreams of life in a lit­tle house with her boyfriend. Or does she re­ally? And why is her mind al­ways on Zuzi?

THE FIGHT FOR in­de­pen­dence

Both sto­ries seem to run par­al­lel to one an­other with no points of con­tact. But layer by layer, a fuller en­tity arises; a tale that in places doesn't dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween re­al­ity and fic­tion, but lets them cross over and fuse into one an­other. Some­times it seems as if it is being told from a fan­tasy world - if one that looks and feels like ours - but small de­tails cause you to sec­ond-guess it. A story that seems to have pre­vi­ously been told on blank pages. A mys­te­ri­ous woman. A knife with a per­son­al­ity.

The themes that Lucy ex­am­ines in Ten­drils are the great themes in life: friend­ship, love, the search for who you re­ally are. This could get old fast if Lucy didn't have the won­der­ful tal­ent of forg­ing mo­ments of po­etic ten­der­ness from sup­pos­edly banal things. When Alena combs Zuzi's curly hair, this is how it sounds: 'Zuzi’s hair is a fo­rest, an­ci­ent, where the trees have grown the way they like, where birds nest like tiny stars in the tree­tops, where a pole­cat his­ses, and wol­ves…'. Com­pletely gen­tle, al­most un­no­ticed, Ten­drils also fo­cuses on the theme of eman­ci­pa­tion. Zuzi in par­tic­u­lar is fight­ing the bat­tle for self-de­ter­mi­na­tion, to no longer to be a pro­jec­tion of those who yearn after her; to por­tray her­self, rather than be por­trayed. Alena tells her, 'There's some­thing about you which can't be soft­ened. (...) Some­thing which can't be smoothed out with brush strokes'. At the same time, the story of a coun­try's eman­ci­pa­tion is being told: the Czech Re­pub­lic. Ochre and Tomàš ex­pe­ri­enced and took part in the Vel­vet Rev­o­lu­tion in 1989. Zuzi and Alena grew up in post-So­viet Czech Re­pub­lic, but they are not un­affected by the past.

A THOU­SAND VER­SIONS OF MY­SELF

Alena asks her boyfriend, 'Haven't you ever wanted to feel a con­nec­tion, the thought that your story has hap­pened some­where else, with vari­a­tions... The thought that there could be a thou­sand ver­sions of you, liv­ing in par­al­lel, sto­ries some­times cross­ing...'. Ten­drils lets us be­lieve that there could be such par­al­lel re­al­i­ties; that the past, pre­sent and fu­ture are one. It lets us be­lieve it is worth the trou­ble to keep going for as long as it takes, un­til the last ten­drils are dis­en­tan­gled and care­fully sep­a­rated from each other - and then clear what be­fore lay hid­den in the copse.

Ten­drils by Lucy Dug­gan, Peer Press, 559 pages, £13, with orig­i­nal il­lus­tra­tions by Jitka Palmer. Lucy reg­u­larly writes very short sto­ries at http://​www.​tinys­to­ries.​es