Susie Boyt's latest is a dazzling, spine-tingling, catch-your-breath-in-awe compilation. The word "unique" is bandied about far too easily , but Boyt's book truly is unique. Where else would you find a sonnet to the author's favourite petits fours rubbing shoulders with a treatise on hunger, food and eating; where else a list of dramatis personae ranging from the Wizard of Oz to Cordelia to Lucien Freud to Johns Berryman and Keats? Bonjela (for mouth ulcers) makes a surreal appearance, to be followed by deep (and deeply fascinating)observations on drug addiction, mourning, and the art of consolation. This book scales the heights and explores the depths, moving from the sublime to the crazy; from the blackest melancholy of personal bereavement to the rainbow-coloured elation of singing a duet with Mickey Rooney in a fashionable West-End restaurant. The writing itself is vivid, original and higly inventive, with phrases such as "vanilla chilblains" and "sugar prayers" making this particular writer stop to relish them in admiration.
I began the book in ignorance and innocence, knowing shamefully little about Judy Garland, and never having been a fan of anyone (except of God the Father in my devout Catholic childhood). Yet I was gripped, amazed and fascinated by the sheer emotion and adoration poured out on Judy by her countless fans, who see her as muse, mentor, goddess, role model, inspiration and even alter ego. Boyt explores the whole nature of hero-worship - its links with obsession, neediness and the wish to live at a higher level- yet the book moves far beyond its subject. Indeed, nothing seems beyond Boyt's scope as she turns her formidable intelligence on a range of issues from eating disorders, the nature of love, the perils of childhood, the rollercoaster ride of fame, the uses of fear, and the joys and travails of motherhood.
Early in the book, she summarizes what she calls her new beliefs, inspired by Judy Garland herself. These beliefs are so wise, subtle and profound that to have drawn them up at the end of a long, long life would be achievement indeed. To have done so before the age of 40 is little short of miraculous.