Flyleaf by Finuala Dowling

Flyleaf My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Flyleaf is a tired sigh of rambling detail. Part of its weariness is perhaps the result of the fact that I’ve read this story before, in Dancing Naked at the Edge of the Dawn by Kris Radish. In both novels, a university-educated woman who has unwisely married too young leaves her unfaithful husband and goes to stay with her best friend, giving her a chance to ‘find herself’ and decide what she wants out of life. The best friend is a beautiful, free-spirited, self-confident hippy, in stark contrast to our dull, meticulous protagonist and her insecurities. Yawn.

Dancing Naked at the Edge of the Dawn went to great dramatic lengths with this, as only American novels can, flying off to exotic locations on journeys of self-discovery, while beautiful female sages spew forth New Age pseudo-feminist philosophies. Flyleaf is at least more down-to-earth. The place is Cape Town and its surrounds, the philosophy is linguistics. Middle-class married women take note.

Violet Birkin teaches English literature and designs Adult Literacy courses, but this leaves her exhausted and miserable. The pay is poor, and although she loves teaching English lit, the college is less interested in an appreciation of literature and strictly focused on teaching their clients according to neat pre-defined goals. Violet however, takes a personal interest in her third-year class, and would like to nurture rather than simply teach them. She is envious of all the possibilities lying before them, and wants them to “explore, discover and act upon their full humanity” and realise “just how extraordinary they were” (218).

Violet’s newly discovered passion, however, is linguistics. After leaving Frank she tires of her PhD on doors and windows in Virginia Woolf’s writing, and concludes that “[a]ll i really want to do is write things down on index cards… to record all the wonderful things people say and look at the deep structure of their utterances”. For the narrative, this means that Violet occasionally gives the reader little lessons in grammar using phrases that grab her attention, from a neighbour’s crude retort “Go suck another man’s cock” (25) to the slightly desperate “What are you going to do?” (248).

As an English major, I’m should be the sort of person who should appreciate this: the academic context, the literary references, the lessons in grammar and linguistics. And in other books I have, but in Flyleaf these are all as flat as the story and merely add detail rather than illuminating anything. I didn’t take much interest in Violet’s experiences as a lecturer, or in the depictions of her students, many of whom frustrate her with their need for easy answers and their general lack of interest in English literature. We get snippets of their lives but it seems these are meant to be interesting in themselves, as they have little or no bearing on the story as a whole. In fact much of the novel plodded along indulging in detail for detail’s sake, which would have been fine if this detail were amusing or particularly poetic, but it’s not. Every now and then there’d be a sentence or reference that would make me smile or elicit a nod of admiration, but more often I’d cringe. At one point Violet makes a terrible joke about honking geese failing to read a sign reading “HOSPITAL NO HOOTING” (118). Perhaps the worst moment in the book is when Dowling rips off a scene from the movie American Beauty for a flashback showing Frank and Violet happily in love: “Once in a late night street… we were intrigued by a passing plastic bag. Gusted by the southeaster, it seemed to have a personality of its own.” (39).

And then it becomes ludicrous: “Frank just ran with the idea, delivering extempore the bag’s stream of consciousness as it entered gutters or was briefly wrapped about a telephone pole. He even danced a little way down Belvedere Road in an impromptu pas de deux with the floating filament of plastic” (39). To be fair, Violet mentions a line later that they feel like actors, like this isn’t real life, so perhaps this is intended to be a reference, not just a rip-off, but we’re still left with a man narrating the ‘thoughts’ of a plastic bag and then dancing with it.

Besides being bored with the details and the language lessons, I found nothing engaging about Violet either. She’s mostly quite passive, and instead of empathising with her concerns about being dull, I tended to agree that she was. Her hippy best-friend Marina is also a little too bourgeois. She lives off an inheritance and has no need to work, so she spends most of her time indulging in various hobbies that she discards once she reaches proficiency. Marina actually doesn’t ‘believe’ in employment because it’s “self-defeating” (30). She gives a little speech explaining this while lying in a hammock drinking gin & tonic, just in case you mistake her individualism for a socialist or communist ethic. Marina isn’t wrong about employment and no doubt most of us would love to be free of it, but in Cape Town, in South Africa, with our appalling unemployment rates, Marina’s unquestioned luxury seems rather insensitive.

You might be wondering where all of this goes, but it’s hard to say because there isn’t much of a plot. Life goes on, things happen, Violet agonises over things, then decides what she wants to do with her life, all without too much fuss. If you enjoy meandering through this sort of narrative, then this could well be a good read for you, but I really can’t stand this kind of whine.

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