Magazine article The Spectator

What Voice Can Do

Magazine article The Spectator

What Voice Can Do

Article excerpt

PERSONALITY by Andrew O'Hagan Faber, L16.99, Pp. 325, ISBN 0576195016

There was recently, in the serious and excellent Saturday Guardian review, a short piece on Oor Wullie, a small boy whose cartoon adventures divert the readers of the Sunday Post in Scotland. It was written by Ian Jack, distinguished editor of Grants, the influential literary magazine. The article mentioned a number of things that touched dear places for a Scot, and mentioned too that Mr Jack hadn't a recipe for black bun, a dense cake served at Hogmanay. Along with, it turned out, very many, others, I wrote to him. There is nothing so homesick as a Scot, and nothing, I suspect, as vigilant and quick to take exception.

Andrew O'Hagan, in a much bigger way, will be taking on not only the special interest group who rose to Mr Jack's baking needs, for he has touched in his terrifying new novel on other fairylands than our perfected Scotland, soaked in its destructive sugars.

He has written a book that is about the nature of fame (no; it is very interesting hard to put down, in fact) and about a horrible magic that young women, and some young men, discover that they may bring about themselves, shape-shifting through self-starvation, that is anorexia nervosa.

Less generally, there is the real life from which this novel grew, for it tells a story with its seed in a life already lived, and ended only very recently, in 1999.

Lena Zavaroni - it's impossible to write this review without mentioning her, though one need not know anything about her to feel the novel stand firm - was a ScotsItalian girl from the town of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. She had an enormous voice for so little a girl. She became terribly famous terribly young. For over 20 years she tried to control the uncontrollable appetites of fame and audience and loss by starving. She died aged 35. There is an ugly morbidity in her cult that is no doing of hers and the impression her memory leaves is of a betrayed child, now free. She is separate from her more vulgar fame, as she battled to become separate from the force of it in her own lifetime.

Andrew O'Hagan, who has always written on the borders between fact and fiction in his books, plants his own singer, Maria Tambini, in some of the same earth Scotland, Italy - and gives fictional life, marvellously, to some 'real' people, for example Hughie Green, compete of Opportunity Knocks, the television show that discovered Miss Zavaroni and discovers Maria. There is, however, a violent and surprising twist that may even be redemptive. It is certainly, in a book so many of whose themes and talents touch on this art form, operatic.

We meet Maria disguised as Mary Queen of Scots. It is 1977, the year of the Queen's Silver Jubilee (this, by the way, has led to a really wonderful cover design; if only the same skill had been applied to the hideous and off-putting blurb within) and Maria is with her best friend, Kalpana Jagannadham, who is Elizabeth I. …

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