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Practice by Rosalind Brown review – tea, yoga and sonnets

Practice by Rosalind Brown review – tea, yoga and sonnets

This debut novel follows a day in the life of Annabel, an Oxford student writing an essay about Shakespeare’s sonnets. She wakes and makes tea, works on the essay, meditates, does yoga, works a little more, takes walks, has memories and fantasies, eats in the dining hall, talks to her boyfriend on the phone. The book ends as the day ends. For most of the novel, she’s alone in her room. It is an uneventful day in a safe, cocooned, mostly uneventful life.

The great strength of Practice is Brown’s gift for the romance of the quotidian. Annabel is absorbed by the minutiae of her day: the “building roar” of the electric kettle, the growing pressure in her bladder, her ephemeral lust on seeing lines of muscle sharpening in a passing runner’s calves. She takes pleasure in using the same peppermint teabag twice, “As if there might be something in it she missed the first time around … she enjoys riding the spectrum from what is officially peppermint tea through something more like flavoured, tinged water. To travel in a lonely country most people wouldn’t call tea.”

Brown is just as good when she zooms out to show a complex situation in one sharp, gorgeous paragraph, as in this precis of Annabel’s boyfriend:

Dr. Richard French, 36 years old, general practitioner, he did electives in emergency wards and watched people die on operating tables, he prescribes opiates every day and briskly comforts old ladies, and once in his kitchen he took his stethoscope and slid the cold disc under her bra so she gasped, and he smiled – but he’s afraid of her, ain’t that the truth, he fucks her holding his breath.

The character of the solipsistic, over-earnest, pretentious, self-consciously ascetic Annabel is also brilliantly done. She takes herself too seriously, and knows she’s taking herself too seriously, and takes that too seriously. She takes Shakespeare not only seriously but personally, as only a bookish undergraduate can. Her conception of the love triangle in the sonnets blurs into her own sexual fantasies, then into YA romance tropes before straying on into the weirder outskirts of girlish desire. Like many very young people, she is always performing, just a little bit, for herself.

She is also – unusually for a protagonist of fiction – fundamentally happy. In fact, her happiness, and the fragility of happiness, is a theme of the book. Her Oxford is a place of fabulous serenity and beauty, and she’s an affluent, young, white, healthy person from a happy, loving family. Yes, her boyfriend is too old for her, but he’s thoughtful and patient and devoted. Then there’s her pleasure in solitude and reading, a pleasure so keen it’s sexual. Having trouble finishing her essay might really be Annabel’s worst problem. But others’ problems loom into the frame; the mind seeks out the pain in memory; a quiet idyll can become a place where guilt and anxiety sound very loud.

A novel without events is a stunt, much as a novel consisting of a single sentence is. We expect it to have its own artistic logic, a logic that transcends the usual form of the literary novel: we want less to be more. If Practice has a weakness, it’s that, at heart, it’s rather traditional. It builds to a decision with potentially far-reaching consequences for the protagonist, and the decision is not about essay writing, but about erotic love. There is a plot here, it’s just very faint and ambiguous, like Annabel’s peppermint tea.

Brown is a wonderful writer, and she mostly makes this work. But towards the end, I found I didn’t want to read another of Annabel’s sex fantasies, or hear another of her artful pronouncements, and I couldn’t help noticing that the few scenes where she talked to real people or remembered key events were much more interesting than the ones describing her yoga routine. Her ideas about Shakespeare seemed less and less important as the book went on, and I ultimately felt that, if Brown wasn’t going to attempt a Mrs Dalloway or Ulysses, I might have preferred a novel that just told a story in scenes that mattered.

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But I’ve always been a person who likes strong tea. So it means something that, despite my fidgeting, I both enjoyed and admired this novel. It was mostly a pleasure to travel in a lonely country most people wouldn’t even call story, to dwell in the satisfactions and strangeness of less when it’s just less.

Source: theguardian.com