An ocean voyage from England to America invites all sorts of seagoing clichés. The motley crew and passengers are apt to be types, and the pressure-cooker limits of space and time (in this case, a six-day crossing) frequently set up predictable dramas --- infidelities, conspiracies, revelations, confrontations.
This novel, however, has nothing of Titanic about it, thanks to its author, the disciplined and perceptive Salley Vickers. Although the characters do sometimes veer toward the generic (the sad ex-sea captain, the snotty theatre critic, the opportunistic-yet-vulnerable ballroom dance teacher, the dotty/visionary older lady), the protagonist of DANCING BACKWARDS is so smart and endearing that I didn’t mind.
Vi, short for Violet, is no shrinking flower, but she does have trouble saying no, with unhappy consequences: a disastrous first marriage; a second marriage that was something of a misalliance; estrangement from a dear old friend, Edwin, whom she feels she betrayed. Vi has the misfortune to be sensitive enough to hear her (brutally honest) inner voice, but not always brave enough to pay attention to it. Witness this scene with her first husband:
“I love you,” she announced bleakly.
Fool! said the voice.
“And I love you, Vi.”…
Liars, both of you, remarked the voice.
After Vi’s second husband dies, she sets out for New York City, where Edwin now lives, to see if there is anything left of their former intimacy --- and the journey finds her changing in unexpected ways. Vickers, a British writer of charm and discretion, has produced at least one previous novel about a woman alone venturing onto foreign ground: MISS GARNET’S ANGEL, set in Venice, a book I liked very much. In both cases, the protagonist is subtly transformed, as if being in unknown territory enables her to transcend the past and embrace her true self.
Reading her old notebooks (more jottings than journals) aboard the liner Queen Caroline proves to be Vi’s key to reentering her personal history. The narrative moves seamlessly between then and now, but on the whole I preferred the flashbacks. Beginning with her mother’s early death, DANCING BACKWARDS tells of Vi’s student years at Cambridge, where she meets Edwin (who teaches poetry seminars while writing a thesis on Ovid), and then his friend Bruno, whom she is foolish enough to marry; of working on Edwin’s literary magazine, Mustardseed; of making dinners of end-of-the-day vegetables bought for “rock-bottom prices” at the market; and, most important, of becoming a poet herself --- a vocation she loses in the stuffy confines of her second marriage.
Marriage is not given a rousing endorsement here. Fairly early in the book, Vi’s English teacher, Miss Arnold, says, “I hope you will never make the mistake of marrying, Violet” (Miss A. has nothing against lovers, though). In a sense, Vi and Bruno (his cruelty and competitiveness; her helplessness) make the case against traditional matrimony, while her easy, albeit sexless bond with Edwin, who is gay (happily, Vickers treats this without heavy-handedness), has all the candor, comfort, lack of judgment, and unvarnished happiness of a sound relationship. Vickers describes their connection with tenderness and restraint; she really seems to be writing from the heart.
Vi’s shipboard adventures, in contrast, are a bit lightweight, though often delightful. Vickers is awfully good at dialogue, and I particularly enjoyed her heroine’s conversations with Patrick, a four-year-old child, and theatre critic Colin (witty and scathing toward silly people yet respectful, even sedately flirtatious, with Vi). I also liked the constant presence of the sea. Vi has booked a cabin with a balcony overlooking the ocean, at some expense, and it is in her descriptions of the water (“Before her the ocean stretched, calmly offering nothing but its own vast, limitless, unapologetic being”) that her poet’s sensibility reemerges. It seems to wash her clean.
I was less taken with the mystical subtext of DANCING BACKWARDS. On the one hand, I don’t find it implausible that Vi, a poet herself, would look beyond appearances and be drawn to dreams, spells, and other elusive phenomena (this aspect is underlined toward the end of the book with a splendid quotation from All’s Well That Ends Well that emphasizes the limits of rationality and the impossibility of explaining “things supernatural and causeless”). On the other hand, these themes do not always emerge naturally from the narrative. It seems highly coincidental, for example, that both Bruno and one of Vi’s shipboard acquaintances, an American anthropologist named Baz (short for Balthazar), would have studied traditional African religions at the London School of Economics. Another passenger, the elderly Miss Foot, sees auras, believes in past lives, and makes cryptic spiritual pronouncements about pain and violence, grace and mercy. Vickers is too good a writer to let Baz or Miss Foot become mere mouthpieces, but Vi’s encounters with them tend to be forced and rather portentous, all but shouting “Key moment here!”
Nonetheless, this is a terrific and rather uplifting book. At journey’s end, Vi not only finds Edwin, but begins to write again. The sea voyage becomes her bridge between past and future. Riding the waves in the company of this brave and intelligent lady was my pleasure.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on December 29, 2010