“Isn’t it a bit hackneyed to be talking about mothers?” Claire says, bewildered. A silhouetted woman wearing a white coat and carrying a clipboard has just asked her a series of leading (if not misguided) questions: “Your mother was a difficult woman, yes? She was very hard on you, yes?”
Mothers cast long shadows in Frances Leviston’s debut short story collection The Voice in My Ear, but her approach resists cliché. The ten stories all centre around a different protagonist named Claire, and every Claire finds her life clouded by a difficult mother – whether they dominate the foreground or linger slightly out of frame.
At first, these Claires seem strikingly different: the first Claire we meet is a newsreader with shiny hair, the next a university graduate back at home, preparing for a cousin’s wedding at which she is “not maid of honour, not even a bridesmaid”, trying to sew herself a dress that will “upstage the bridal gown without appearing to do so”.
But similarities begin to appear: Claire is often an academic, or a humanities student; often anxious about her interpersonal relationships. There are affairs between a schoolgirl-aged Claire and her teacher, seemingly accepted by her mother. One story about a Claire who reads English at an Oxbridge-like university ends with her at “the Union” surrounded by “black tie and coke”, the next begins with a Claire “studying art history as a pretext for drinking too much” and, when she could afford it, taking cocaine in the “Union bar” – but stark distinctions soon become apparent, too. And there are surprises: in one story, a refreshingly straightforward, unburdened character is revealed to be a robot.
Leviston has a sparse but pleasingly sharp style, precisely observing character: from Dean, Claire’s brother in “Plight” who “wanted to be out in ‘the real world’, which turned out to consist of ripped films and nightclubs and MDMA and bright white trainers, each foreign element an effort to seem less middle class than he was”, to Jacqueline, Claire’s manipulative mother in “Patience” who regularly “declares that life is not worth prolonging” (“‘Dignitas,’ she might say”) and gets into a passive-aggressive impasse with her carer over scones.
Leviston is a keen observer of the ways other people can burrow deep inside an individual’s mind. The name of the collection has a literal enough resonance in the opening story, which shares its title: Claire is a news anchor; the voice in her ear is a producer, urging her to stay on topic when she derails her first big interview by obsessing over “the role parents play in a child’s abuse”. But every Claire has a disembodied voice ringing in her ears. “She knew what her mother would say to that,” Claire thinks reflexively in “Plight”.
These influences are not all mothers: the Claire in “With Them Intercede For Us All” finds herself constantly coming up short compared to the memory of her teenage friend Jane. “Jane would have stayed and talked, she thinks”, or “Jane would have laughed”. The Claire in “Muster’s Puppets Presents…” repeats the Jungian mantras of her life-coach boyfriend Mark. “Oh Claire,” her mother Joan responds. “You don’t even sound like yourself. Where did you get that from?”
Joan suffers from niggling, internalised voices, too: she is irked by “an accusatory note” in her daughter’s tone, Mark’s “permanent smile, as if to say, My life’s wonderful, isn’t yours?”, the “smirks” she reads into the faces of the “impossibly clean and arrogant” couples who stay in her B&B. Many of Leviston’s characters act out of insecurity, and she is alert to the ways defensiveness shapes interactions. “Christ Almighty, you need to learn when you’re being insulted,” says the mother of the teenage Claire in “Would You Rather”, after another parent shows patronising concern towards her. When Claire’s mother and brother in “Plight” suggest that she is deeply unhappy, Leviston writes, “It was a pincer movement: she felt them both advance upon her psychically, lowering their spears, holding up nets.”
The Voice in My Ear is at its best when it neatly captures the knotty, guilty dynamics that can proliferate in families. Claire in “Broderie Anglais” finds herself “obscurely angry” with her mother for persistently offering to sew her dress for her: when Claire capitulates, and her mother runs it up a size too big, it is crushing. The reasons why these characters become so uncomfortably entangled with one another might remain obscure, but the emotional impact of such relationships are, in Leviston’s hands, devastatingly, thrillingly clear.
The Voice in My Ear
Jonathan Cape, £16.99, 272pp
This article appears in the 25 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor