Psychic scream

<strong>The Story of You</strong>

Julie Myerson <em>Jonathan Cape, 320pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 02240

If modern novelists are to be believed, the average middle-aged woman exists in a state of permanent anguish. Various reasons are given for this. In Carol Shields's Unless, the anguish of the central character is focused on a daughter's apparent breakdown. In Joanna Trollope's Second Honeymoon, the heroine mourns the fact that her children no longer rely on her to wipe their noses or bottoms. Julie Myerson's The Story of You is narrated by a woman so stunned by sorrow that she is a kind of psychic scream, blurring the lines between reality and imagination.

The root of Rosy's anguish is the worst thing possible. Her tiny daughter has died in a freak accident. Grief has flung her into another dimension. Her partner, Tom, cannot reach her. Unable to face the present or the future, Rosy takes refuge in the past. Twenty years ago, in a scruffy student house, she spent one glorious night snogging a sexy American boy. They kissed and kissed, and nothing more. He is the shadowy figure who lurks in the memories of most women, in the box marked "regrets". He is the "You" of the title, and the story is addressed to him. In the midst of her pain, Rosy finds herself returning obsessively to the memory of that night.

Tom and Rosy go to Paris for a romantic weekend. Unable to sleep, Rosy creeps out of bed and walks the streets. The hotel receptionist gives her a note: "I'm waiting for you, X." She knows it is from him. And when she wanders into a café, apparently by chance, she sees him. He is older, fatter and greyer, with barely a sign of the boy she once loved, yet the two of them immediately connect. They talk about their lives, though Rosy cannot bear to tell him about her dead baby.

And then he vanishes, and Rosy is left wondering - was he there at all? Myerson is a superb creator of atmosphere, and the meeting between the two old lovers is a fascinating mixture of the prosaic and the gothic, thick with unanswered questions. When Rosy and Tom return home, their relationship still twisted grotesquely out of shape, Tom senses that something - someone - is standing between them.

Rosy receives an e-mail from her old lover, with no mention of the meeting in Paris. But if that was only a dream, how does she know so much about him? They plunge into a heated virtual affair, pouring their souls into torrents of passionate e-mails. Rosy is soon welded to her computer, living from message to message while her family disintegrates. Her lover is on the other side of the world, but when he announces he is coming to London, Rosy is already a lost woman - after a mind-fuck of this intensity, physical sex is inevitable.

This is an extraordinary, peculiar, mesmerising novel - the collective wail of middle-aged feminine anguish is brilliantly articulated. "I've never had someone hold me and look at me and say they love me all the time I'm coming," Rosy says wistfully. Could this be at the root of it all - this great howl for love without limit?

This, of course, is the kind of love we lavish upon our babies. The cruel death of Rosy's child has left her pumping out love that no longer has an object, like blood pouring from a severed artery. It is significant that Rosy's lover calls her "Baby". Unlike poor Tom, who has his own parental sorrow to deal with, here is a man who can love and love and love, never losing patience, until the vortex is filled.

Myerson is one of the select few (like Elizabeth Jane Howard and Rosamund Lehmann) who can write convincingly about a passionate love affair, with all its exquisite pains and barbed pleasures.

This article first appeared in the 05 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, False dawn for democracy