Touched by Joanna Briscoe
”Where is Eva?’ said Rowena as the sun sank in honeyed shadows over the green, geese flying overhead. No one knew.’
Rowena Crale and her family have moved away from London City to the picture-perfect English village of Crowsley Beck. While the green grass and small-town atmosphere seem idyllic, hidden truths, lies, betrayals and repressed memories lurk in wait at every turn. Rowena’s new home resists all attempts at renovation, battling the changes as though it were alive. Walls ooze, ceilings sag and stains seep through, all the while emitting a mixture of perfume, mould and cat’s urine. Strange noises carry from empty rooms, whisperings and shufflings, voices which echo not only through the house but through Rowena’s increasingly addled mind. Then, one by one, Rowena’s daughters begin to disappear…
The narrative of Touched is split mostly between Rowena Crale and her unusual daughter, Evangaline – one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever encountered. Named for her Grandmother, Eva spends hot summers flouncing around in Victorian clothing, chasing after her imaginary friend, Freddy, and lurking in the shadows. She is ‘touched,’ according to her largely absent father, and is to be sent to Ragdell Place in lieu of the secondary school her sisters attend, despite her obvious intellect. Only Pollard, the local handyman, sees something more in Eva, who incites discomfort in others. He and his wife open up their home to her – is this where the girl hides when her mother can’t find her?
While independent Eva is allowed to run awol, Rowena clings to her other children desperately – particularly the pristine Jennifer, whose features delight and charm the villagers. Jennifer, however, does not fool the Pollards, who see a bland girl with empty eyes beyond the china-doll-like exterior. Like the picturesque village, Jennifer highlights the eeriness of false perfection, something reflected again in Rowena’s daily struggle to keep up the appearance of being a good, dutiful wife and mother in the sixties. Real evil, it seems, lies in bright daylight. It grows in the green grass and shows its face, unashamedly, to passersby. Briscoe’s work suggests that unpleasant things are found more often in beauty and pleasing aesthetics.
As life in Crowsley Beck grows increasingly difficult for Rowena, she draws closer to her charming neighbour, Greg, who provides a lifeline for the struggling mother of five. He awakens in her a latent sexuality she had forgotten existed and comforts her when her daughters don’t come home. Rowena soon discovers, however, that there is no escape from the past, from guilt or from the memories of the lady who lived in her home before she did and what happened to her there: ‘Dreams, already shattered, were irretrievable: it was the nightmare now that she fought.’
So many things struck me about this novel, from the haunting storyline itself, to the unique and rounded characters and the beautiful, mesmeric prose. I would go so far as to say that Briscoe’s writing, in its lyricism and poetic beauty, is on par with that of the legendary Fitzgerald. A tale of betrayal, guilt, suppression, desire and lust, Touched is a literary masterpiece which will continue to haunt its readers long after they’ve turned the last page.