I had no idea what to expect from Teethmarks On My Tongue when I opened it, since it had been written by an American woman in Dublin, someone I’d met and liked, the chief book critic for The Irish Times. She’d given the thumbs up on all but one of my books, but I wasn’t sure what I’d think of hers.
When her daughter, Nadia, was a child, the unmarried mother, Eileen Battersby, had no family in Ireland and she dragged the little child along. The management of the hotel had us sit in the stairwell of the Shelbourne. Battersby seemed wonderfully intense, extremely affectionate and intelligent, slightly mad. She lived in the country and could never leave her horses for long. Once she interviewed me in a little roadside hotel halfway between her farm and Dublin.
She was a very sensitive and curious critic, known for reviewing foreign titles in English translation, something most journalists were encouraged to avoid. She is open to every sort of literature of quality, even the most obscure. I sat over dinner last night with a French and a Malaysian novelist and they both had been reviewed brilliantly by Eileen Battersby, felt grateful to her but had never met her.
My books are usually given to women to review; if a man takes one on, he’s either well-known to be gay or he starts his piece with “I, a heterosexual…” Just in case.
And isn’t the cliché that critics are disappointed novelists? And first novels are supposed to be autobiographical, aren’t they? Happily, there was nothing disappointing or autobiographical about this book, save for an unusual affection for horses and dogs, but since I share those attachments, “Teethmarks” seemed utterly natural to me.
It starts off with high-octane intensity. Susan, a rather dizzy and eternally cheerful mother (one of Battersby’s best and most multi-dimensional characters) feels neglected by her veterinarian Southern husband and begins a dalliance with a younger man who, in a fit of jealousy, shoots her to death. The daughter (the narrator, Helen) was always too much the tomboy to get along with her self-dramatizing frilly mother (a Yankee with an exaggerated Scarlet O’Hara accent) but after the woman’s death the step-daughter volunteers to sing at the funeral. Helen, reflecting on Susan, her deceased mother, thinks, “Was she happy it was finally over and that at long last she wouldn’t have to try so hard to be happy?” (p41). There are moments in this Virginia sequence as brilliant as those in James Salter’s All That Is.
Battersby is a subtle and convincing psychologist, not just for human beings but also for these one-ton gods in our midst: horses, and for those creatures that have evolved in step with us: dogs. Her people are good, too. Here she traces the portrait of the cook in a French stately home:
“She was a cheerful soul, motherly, careful not to step on the cats as she carried dishes out to the table; she referred to those squalling parasites as ‘mes enfants’ and never lost patience with the way, for all their stateliness, they’d grab at everything. The skin on her face made me think of wizened apples, lined and soft, flushed pink on sallow.” (p 259)
Through a series of lucky accidents the narrator ends up in France with a stray dog, Hector, which she loves, and she is asked to work on a horse farm; in an oblique way Helen recreates a better version of her American adolescence with a kindly horse breeder, Monsieur Gallay, and another sketchy American beauty, nicknamed Lone Star, as vain and frivolous as Helen’s long-gone mother but a lot more hostile. There’s also a handsome, eligible man…
I admire Battersby’s comic sense, which never deserts her, her firm grasp of French social reflexes, customs and cuisine. Her heroine has a drunken Parisian encounter with a totally sketchy man, but we’re intended to laugh at the American’s naiveté not the man’s beastliness. This book is the sentimental education of an intelligent but unwary girl, who’s in love with astronomy and animals but doesn’t know much about the ordinary terrestrial life in between. She’s called Helen Stockton Defoe , and like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe she endures the strangest adventures while remaining fundamentally solitary.
What do I know, but the horse world always struck me as oddly egalitarian; the ability to train and ride and care for the animals outweighs the social status of the equestrians. (The heiress marries the stable boy, the lord of the manor dines with his trainer). Some of this egalitarianism rubs off on the observing Helen. She sees the people around her with a true sense of their worth and, like a child, she is entirely indifferent to their worldly importance.
For all her indifference to status, Helen is well-informed about the arts and especially her own fetishes, such as Caspar David Friedrich, the German Romantic painter of loneliness; Helen makes a special trip to Berlin to see his works. She is also taken with Van Gogh and with the Elizabethan poet Thomas Wyatt. References to these artists are never prestigious instances of cultural bric-a-brac but genuine dramatic turning points in the plot (the Wyatt poem, for instance, is cited during Susan’s funeral and it is not lost on the reader that Wyatt was accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn, just as Susan herself has died in a terrible adulterous mishmash). Culture—like the love of horses—is to be lived viscerally, seriously, morally.