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A wise and comic eye
Salley Vickers talks about her word-of-mouth success,
Miss Garnet's Angel, and the follow-up.
The surprise success of Salley Vickers' novel Miss Garnet's Angelwhich after a quiet start grew steadily week by week to sell 8,000 copies through the General Retail Market in hardback, and over 40,000 in its paperback edition since April this year* is a tribute to the famous unpredictability of the book trade. Yes, the novel was published to very good reviews, with Vickers' wryly comic style earning her comparisons with Penelope Fitzgerald and Barbara Pym. But who would really have bet on a story about an elderly virgin taking a trip to Venice getting anywhere near the bestseller lists?

Vickers, whose new novel Instances of the Number 3 (Fourth Estate) is due out in August, has her own theories about why Miss Garnet's Angel caught on. "I didn't try to write it to a pattern, but the subject and the setting of the book happened to be two things which have what I would call an archetypal appeal. The story of Tobias and the angel, which I rewrote, is a very old tale. And lots of people have had very magical experiences of Venice; it is a timeless city, and a meeting place between East and West." She thinks her unfashionable heroine was another factor"There was something a bit daring about having a 60-year-old virgin as your central character; it had its own kind of radical appeal"and partly, Vickers believes, readers just liked the feeling that they had discovered the book for themselves, without hype.

Vickers was once a university English tutor but later retrained as an analytical psychologist. She says she found her way into psychology through literature "Forget Freud, forget Jung, the greatest psychologists without a doubt are Shakespeare, Henry James and Conrad"and she believes strongly that literary novels should be accessible.

"I very much dislike the way our culture has divided books into 'literary' and 'popular', because the writers I admire Homer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen were both high literature and also very popular."

She is entirely happy, she says, when she receives letters from readers who enjoyed Miss Garnet's Angel simply as a portrait of Venice. But for those who want to look further, the novel also explores much more substantial themes, ones which Vickers says she has been mulling over for many years. Despite its comedy and, as Vickers points out, "the comic eye can be a wise eye" Miss Garnet's Angel is, after all, the story of an elderly virgin whose emotional life is regenerated by some very mixed experiences, including falling in love with a man who turns out to be a manipulative paedophile.

Vickers says it is the story of how good and evil go hand in hand: "That is one of the things Shakespeare understands. His evil characters are very close to his good characters, so it takes an Iago to understand a Desdemona. The juxtaposition of good and evil in Shakespeare's plays, and in the story of Tobias and the angel, interests me very much.

"In the contemporary story of Miss Garnet I suggest that the capacity to look at and recognise evil is a strengthening and maturing experience: Julia Garnet only goes through renewal and regeneration because she has the experience of humiliation and is led astray by her sexual inexperience."

Her new novel Instances of the Number 3 has a more prosaic setting London and the Shropshire countryside but Vickers' many fans will not be disappointed. This is another unusual and distinctive story, about a love triangle in later life. After the sudden death of her husband Peter, Bridgeta strong-willed woman in her 60s starts to develop a friendship with his mistress Frances. The relationship between the two women is further complicated by the appearance of Zahin, an enigmatic young Iranian student, whose own links with Peter are as yet unclear.

As a tale of multiple erotic and emotional entanglements unfolds illuminated by Vickers' observant eye for human follies and foibles Peter re-enters the story in ghostly form, and it becomes clear that the theme of triads and trinities has spiritual as well as earthly resonances. Think heaven, hell and purgatory or indeed, the Holy Trinity itself.

Again, many readers will simply enjoy Vickers' sharply drawn characterisations, as Bridget and Frances bicker and bond: "I am fascinated by human motivation and I find it endlessly interesting," Vickers says. "I hope I am not cruel in my humour: I think it is admirable that we desperately want to be noble, but of course we can't be, nobility and pettiness go side by side."

But of the return of Peter as a phantom, she says: "I was taking the old Catholic idea of purgatory, and giving it a little cleaning. It is the sense of a space between life and death, which exists perhaps in our memory, when we continue to have a relationship with people who aren't actually here."

There is, she concedes, "a concept of divinity" in the book. "People often ask if I have a religious faith, and I've tended to say that I don't think that man is the measure of all things, that there are other dimensions. I don't particularly want to say how I perceive that. But behind my writing is a sense of other levels, other possibilities within which we live; I think art and poetry have always been about that."

She worries now about having made the book sound "portentous", and recalls some of her favourite comic moments instead. The one which always makes her laugh "which it shouldn't, when it's your own book" is when, in a flashback, the Catholic priest Father Gerard tries to explain the Holy Trinity to Peter, who is stumbling after a sense of faith.

"Father Gerard is one of my favourite characters, I tease him like anything. I gave him this slightly happy-clappy jargon to speak. He explains the Holy Trinity as a Neapolitan ice cream, with three different flavours, each contributing to the ice cream as a whole. At that point Peter can't quite accept it, because he suddenly thinks of the wafer of the ice cream and the communion wafer, and he just can't get past that."

Benedicte Page The Bookseller June 7 2001

*Hardbacks have sold over 15,000 and Paperbacks have sold over 100,000 to date.

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