Total Eclipse of the Heart
By Max Dunbar.
A jarring static of Chorlton tweeness fizzes all over Emma Unsworth’s second novel. The main character is a restaurant critic for some Confidential-style outlet and going out with a chef, so pretty much every chapter starts with the name of a course: ‘Spam fritterati’, ‘Carrot schnapps gazpacho,’ ‘Jamon porridge with mustard nebulae’. Most if not all chapters begin with the narrator being served that particular course, and then switch to flashbacks with clunky segues (Helen will end the section eating a ‘selection of homemade breads’ and the next section will begin with a longago church choir singing ‘Give us this day our daily bread’.) There are a few good insights into restaurant work (there could have been more if she had taken us into the kitchen) but the overall effect is silly, even irritating; food and fixtures described in Batemanesque detail. Every chapter should tell a story in itself, but it is fatal to structure every chapter in the same way.
The book begins with Unsworth’s narrator, Helen Burns, walking out on her boyfriend when he proposes to her. Although Pete the chef is a decent guy and provides security, the fire just isn’t there any longer (if it ever was) and it becomes clear that Pete was her refuge after a passionate but disastrous affair with an unreliable physicist. We are used to the setup – the good one who’s always there but lacks some indefinable charge versus the bad one who will fuck you around but who you love for his certain, well, frisson (or brio). It’s the classic proforma from Jane Austen to Bridget Jones. And not much in the way of instruction. For the world is full of good men who have that frisson, and bad men who are also dull and unattractive.
Still, Unsworth does good and original things with this tradition. The soaring title, the brave and unexpected ending, the playful scattered metafictions: when Helen meets Pete, she shares a recollection from childhood while inside thinking ‘because that’s what you do, isn’t it? You say: Here is a story from my past that gives you an insight into my present character.‘ Helen has happy memories of a romance with the ultimate bad guy, the Devil, who turns up in hallucinatory childhood flashbacks. Even if there’s no real front story, the back story soon becomes compelling.
The exchange of ‘quirky’ dialogue between strangers on a train (I know this never happens in real life, but stick with it) leads Helen to arrange her dependence around the scientist Luke, plus a steady intake of wine and spirits. The alcoholism is particularly well done. Helen is fired from two part time jobs but the narrative remains toneless, because the narrator has no sense that she has done anything wrong. As the relationship accelerates towards its doomed climax, the city observations of dull eccentric families and Manchester hipsterati fall behind, and we are on an open field, gazing at the stars. ‘The fact that the sun will increase in size over this timescale,’ Unsworth writes, ‘makes it even more unlikely that the moon will be able to cause a total eclipse. Therefore the last total eclipse on Earth will occur in slightly less than six hundred million years.’ Emma Unsworth understands the finality of the context of the universe. And she will do great things.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 23rd, 2011.