MARCH 8, 2017
I WAS AT BOARDING SCHOOL with a gangly, bespectacled girl nicknamed Horsey. When we were in a particularly friendly mood, we simply called her “Horse.” She didn’t seem to mind — she assumed the name referred to her passion for stables and riding. But it was more a reflection of her demeanor, the way she walked with equine purpose, neck extended and eyes blinkered. Occasionally she snorted when something startled or amused her. To be honest, I don’t recall ever having a full conversation with Horsey. She was given to pronouncements that bewildered me, and when I think of her now, I see her peering into the middle distance, mumbling something I don’t quite catch and probably wouldn’t understand. She was the class nerd — both a gifted poet and a budding scientist — while I was the class show-off: thin on talent, big on melodrama. Horsey stayed in the background, not quite friendless but surely a loner. She gave the impression that she preferred her own company to that of giggly adolescents. We never teased or taunted her. Perhaps this was because of her extraordinary height or the soft certainty with which she spoke, or the fact that while we agonized over our budding breasts and mysteries that could happen “down there,” Horsey wrote poems to Nature. She lived on another, calmer planet, and part of me envied that.
I haven’t thought of Horsey in 40 years — not until I started reading Eileen Battersby’s debut novel, Teethmarks on My Tongue. She came to mind as soon as I met the novel’s teenage protagonist, who goes by the lofty name of Helen Stockton Defoe. Like my boarding school cohort, Helen is horse-crazy, solitary, and blessed with a brilliant mind. She is also both socially awkward and garrulous, lacking the antennae to notice that her fact-filled pontifications induce glazed eyes. To be honest, the prospect of 400 pages in Helen’s company without the reprieve of chapter breaks — there is almost no white space in this book — left me wondering if I had that kind of fortitude.
But after the first page I suspected I was in it for the long haul. The fact is, Battersby — a literary critic for The Irish Times with several awards under her belt — has brought us a thoroughly original narrator: a pedant and self-proclaimed prig who sweeps the reader along by sheer force of her quirky insights, deadpan humor, and disarming honesty.
The story gets off to a dramatic start. Helen’s mother has just been murdered outside a department store in Richmond, Virginia, by a deranged lover. The crime was caught on camera, and Helen watches the footage on television. She doesn’t scream or cry, as one might expect, but watches the event unfold with the same keen observation and mild interest with which she approaches all of life:
Mayhem, that word, kept dancing in my brain. My only clear response was … mayhem. Only I couldn’t visualize the word; I had forgotten how it looked written down. Then I noticed the white dress and it was slowly filling up with red, as the woman on the television in a slow motion free fall, dropped the big fancy box she had been carrying even though it seemed so light and it drifted on the air, weightless.
And moments later:
So many bullets; most likely six. Did I count? Perhaps? I’d like to think I didn’t … It takes six shots to empty a gun, but she was dead and all with the very first one.
Even after the shock of it, her mother’s murder evokes in Helen little more than muted regret. “I felt real sorry for Mother,” she says, “and I wished I’d known her better.” She recognizes this isn’t normal, and worries that she might have inherited the same detachment that she finds abhorrent in her father. “We three had shared a fine house,” she says, “but we were not a family. Not out of ill will, just ill timing, ill fitting.”
She goes on to describe their household as:
Three loners who just happened to coexist in our particular solar system without forming a unit; Mother had not understood what she was entering into when she married Father. And Mother’s little ramshackle world of nervous smiles and sentiment and pretty clothes did not include being a wife or a mother, Father had noted that and did not forgive her for it.
After an uncomfortable funeral, Helen returns to her pampered daily life on the estate, where her veterinarian father keeps thoroughbred horses and treats her with amused aloofness. Despite large teeth and mismatched eyes that her mother once said “absolutely ruin your face,” life for Helen is easy and full of pleasures: learning to ride a bad-tempered gelding named Galileo, studying the night sky through one of her telescopes, listening to her prized collection of classical music, eating enormous quantities of cakes and pies made by the grimly dedicated housekeeper, Mrs. Faulkner.
It takes another death — this time of a horse — to seriously fracture the household and send Helen on the odyssey that forms the bulk of the book. The stableman whom she adores disappears in a fit of grief; her father, too, is heart-broken at the loss of his brave, arthritic horse. This is the first time Helen has heard her father use the word “love,” and suddenly he appears human to her. But not for long. His bereavement quickly turns to bitterness — and what better target for his dark mood than the unsuspecting Helen. In short order, he robs her of the two main certainties of her young life: he ridicules her ambitions to become a scientist, and sells Galileo, informing her that he wasn’t her horse in the first place. Helen swallows her violent thoughts — “I longed to smash his glasses and grind them into his eyeballs.” Instead, she stares into her father’s fish tank and soothes herself by imagining her favorite painting: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, the high priest of German Romanticism.
It’s a peculiar response, even for a confessed oddball, until we see the painting through her eyes: a man gazing into a fog-drenched valley surveying the distance he’s traveled, or the journey ahead of him. Helen reflects on it and says, “Yes that’s me.”
In many ways, it is. She is standing on a summit of sorts, at the end of high school with her future shrouded in mist. She decides that, like Friedrich’s wanderer, she has to set out alone. She buys a first-class ticket to Europe with her prize money from a science project and is on her way.
Battersby divides this coming-of-age novel into four parts, each set in a different place. The first is on Helen’s father’s estate in Virginia, followed by sojourns in Paris, the Loire Valley, and, finally, Germany. Helen is an opinionated traveler, not above judging a city by the quality of its hot chocolate, to which she is addicted. She throws barbs at Parisians — “a tribe of intolerant egotists” — and laments the “canyon-wide gulf” between speaking French at her school in Richmond and “attempting to address the natives.” In Paris — the strongest of the European sections — she fixates on the Louvre and spends most of her time looking at its paintings of horses, buying horse postcards to send to her one and only friend in the United States, and drinking endless cups of cocoa. When she does have an evening out, it is with a man who turns out to be mentally unsound, not to mention a thief and a would-be rapist. Helen is a hopeless innocent and knows it, and she reports her experience with wry exactness.
But for all the adventures in each of the locations, it is Helen’s inner journey that carries the novel — a search for self, but also for love. She finds it in an old, cloudy-eyed, deaf dog with a squashed-in face who seems abandoned, or lost. For the first time, Helen has something of her own to love, and Hector, as she calls him, becomes her charge, propelling her to leave Paris and seek refuge on a horse farm in the Loire Valley.
The place is magnificent and charming, with a turreted chateau, an old stone farmhouse, and a drawbridge over a moat. On these idyllic grounds, Helen has a brief affair. We are told that she has found her perfect match, and yet the relationship seems more one of friendship than passion. It certainly lacks the ardor that Helen bestows on her dog, as she does here, for example:
Hector’s fur smelled of fresh-baked cookies. It was warm and helped me gather my thoughts as we sat on the mattress, me holding him close, on my lap, his paws in my hands, my knees drawn up as if forming a protective buffer around him. Us alone; us together. He gazed into my face. I wondered what he could see of me.
The final section of the novel is set largely in Germany, and it is the darkest. Helen is soul-weary and full of despair, and her own grief merges with the pain she sees in Germany — in the bullet holes in its buildings, in the ruins of a church, in the fear and dreariness that pervades East Berlin. (The novel is set in 1980s, before the demolition of the Berlin Wall.)
She is on a quest to see the paintings of her hero, Caspar David Friedrich, and in particular to find the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. When she finally stands before the original, she wonders:
What was going through the mind of the wanderer as he gazed out over the abyss? His life, his future … eternity, or was he just realizing how far he had climbed?
It is, of course, Helen’s climb that we have followed for the last 400 pages, and now that she has met her alter ego, surely her pilgrimage is complete. After all, she has come so far, and is a changed person who can now see her father and her old self clearly:
Father placed too high a value on intelligence and only existed through ideas and history the way I used to. But I had discovered how to love and how to feel and that it hurt for sure, no denying, but at least I was capable of loving.
But there is a final twist that the author has in store for us, and it’s head-snapping. Battersby clearly enjoys making sharp turns in plot, sometimes at the risk of straining credibility. The bigger challenge of the novel, however, is following Helen’s digressions about art, classical music, horses, literature, and whatever fact she is compelled to share. “Facts, facts, facts,” she says at one point, “as always, historical detail, enter the class nerd.” She just can’t help herself, but that is part of her charm. Battersby offers us an entertaining ride with an extraordinary narrator who is both eagle-eyed onlooker and the main act.