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The Hypocrite by Jo Hamya review – sun, sex, scenery and family guilt

The Hypocrite by Jo Hamya review – sun, sex, scenery and family guilt

Jo Hamya’s first book, Three Rooms, was a polemical novel about middle-class precarity, sophisticated but sometimes bowed by the weight of its thematic concerns. Her second, The Hypocrite, is a novel about a play about a novel. It begins with a mother on a beach in Sicily watching her husband and toddler daughter paddling. The mother doesn’t much like the father, who “worked on his novel in the other room” for much of the holiday. She resents her invisibility. And then we skip to 2020, London, and an autobiographical play cautiously produced in semi-lockdown, in which a teenage Sophia and her father stay in a borrowed villa on a Sicilian island in August.

The stage father is writing a novel, or mostly dictating it for the stage daughter to type. His novel is about a novelist having sexual adventures while taking a holiday on a Sicilian island. While the adult Sophia’s father watches the play, Sophia herself has lunch with her mother. Sophia and her mother discuss, over a lot of wine and some barely touched Italian food, Sophia’s father’s probable reaction to seeing himself and his writing and his relationship with his daughter performed on stage. Sophia’s father is indeed dismayed by her representation of him and his work, and becomes increasingly distressed as he wanders London after the play rejecting her increasingly anxious calls.

It’s all less confusing, though no less tricksy, than it sounds. The various timelines run smoothly and there is no difficulty in distinguishing the present moments of the novel and the play from the past moments they represent, even though we see the versions of the teenage holiday that Sophia and her father remember as well as the versions they present in fiction and on stage: no objective truth here. Father and daughter have incompatible but overlapping memories of the central trip to Italy; we understand that Sophia has not told him about the unpleasant and not always consensual relationship she had with the housekeeper’s teenage son. For both of them, memory lives in uneasy and unresolved relation to writing.

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The young adult Sophia’s play might be revenge for her father’s carelessness and neglect, or might just be art made of life. If it’s revenge, it might be a misuse of art (and funding), or it might be reasonable, natural or clever. To Sophia’s mother, it’s all rather tedious, but to Sophia and her father, the stakes are high, and for Sophia and at least some of her generation, the high personal stakes make the art more important. For her father’s generation, the high personal stakes diminish artistry; it doesn’t matter what happened but how good the writing is. Potential Marxist criticism is anticipated through a young woman, known only as Round Glasses, sitting beside Sophia’s father in the audience. During the interval they converse over cigarettes and Round Glasses complains, “Historically people like you and your daughter have had enough money and attention to last you a lifetime. The kind of suffering you describe doesn’t hold a candle to what I mean … Not everyone has the luxury of writing Hampstead sex romps via holidays in Italy.” Sophia’s father replies that “all of your opinions are rephrased junk from strangers who pour their heart out via globalised American media conglomerates on the internet”.

Hamya’s defensive impulse is understandable – this is a book about the genteel violence at the heart of the bourgeois family and the novel’s engine is the artistic representation of holidays in Italy – but it might work better to own the situation, rather than simultaneously pre-empting and satirising generational difference.

For readers uninterested in or impatient with questions about the ethics of art and life, and the Russian dolls of books about plays about books, Sophia’s mother is probably right. If you enjoy novels about the suffering of the bourgeoisie, part of your pleasure in the tradition is probably the invitation to feel warmth for at least some of the characters at least some of the time. No one here is likable, not, I think, because Hamya fails to make them likable, but because she is satirising her own medium and doesn’t try. If you find sufficient pleasure in satire and meta-narrative to dispense with old-fashioned relationships with characters, and are not put off by a Hampstead sex romp via holidays in Italy, this is a well-wrought and very clever book.

Source: theguardian.com