Making Good Progress

By Blaikie, Thomas | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

Making Good Progress


Blaikie, Thomas, The Spectator


Making good progress Thomas Blaikie SEAHORSES by Bidisha Flamingo, L9.99, pp. 210

Two years ago, when she was 16, Bidisha was a pupil of mine. I was under the impression that I was teaching her English, and indeed she was quite properly handing in essays on `My life in a day' or `Discuss the view of marriage in Much Ado About Nothing'. She was a very good student, but it was nevertheless a surprise at the time to learn in the newspapers that not only had she written a substantial part of a novel, but also that it was going to be published in exchange for a large sum of money. I only really believed the story when I came across Bidisha in the school library, being photographed for the Daily Mail.

Before anyone says that violent bias either for or against can be the only possible result of a teacher reviewing a former pupil's work, let me say that Bidisha was not that kind of pupil. In class she was cool, somewhat reticent, and not at all given to showing off. She only spoke when she had something to say. She commanded respect and objectivity.

Seahorses does have faults, but it is quite plainly the work of an extraordinary talent. Many of the things that are wrong with it are the result of overdoing the things that are right with it. Against a background of crisis-ridden London, where people's clothes are `the colour of burning kerosene' and the streets are blocked with `rubble heaps of brownish snow', the shadowy, brutalised characters undergo eerie metamorphoses into ever more grotesque versions of success or failure. Will, a sleek, ruthlessly promiscuous, designery filmmaker dressed in black, vain and preening, devolves into a vomiting, abandoned failure, while Ian goes in the other direction, starting out fat and in a dead-end job and ending up slim, crop-headed and lethally effective in PR. Bidisha keeps her distance, presenting these changes as faits accomplis, without explanation, like something horrible that has happened in the night. The effect is hauntingly powerful when there is some basis of plausibility: Will's descent into phantasmagorical fin-de-siecle nightmare is convincing, but the sexual abuse at the hands of her father suffered by Pale, the alert schoolgirl Will has earlier deflowered, is baffling and sensationalist. …

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