Lesley Glaister’s first novel, Honour Thy Father, won the Somerset Maugham and a Betty Trask Award. Her last novel, Now You See Me, was adored by critics across the board and yet, nine novels down the line, and she is still in search of that break-out novel, the one that justifiablly sells by the bucket load. The fact that her haunting novels, where a familiar world of bored housewives, frustrated professionals and lonely individuals who skirt the edge of our society are seen through gothic eyes, do not fly from the bookshelves is a crime of unfathamable proportions. Limestone and Clay is one of the early novels now re-packaged along with the rest of her backlist in an attempt to right this wrong. Nadia is a sculptor. She spends her day making things from clay and ruminating her woeful string of miscarrages. Husband, Simon, a geography teacher, finds meaning in his own life through underground caving, squeezing his way through narow tunnels and crevices in his own silent, heart-pounding thrill-ride. He is planning a weekend trip with fellow caver, Miles and ex-lover, Celia. Celia is everything Nadia is not and when she falls pregnant at the drop of a hat and her own husband turns out to be infertile, bubbling jealousies and all-round cattiness rush to the surface. With the now pregnant Celia pulling out of the trip and the weather worsening, it seems that maybe, just maybe, everything will be just fine after all. Of course, it is not and in true Glaister style, the characters set their own course with the smallest of decisions and the pettiest of actions. As a character, Nadia is both tragic and spiteful (and all the more real for it). As we follow her around her mundane life, trying to find meaning in her work and forming an unlikely and unwanted friendship with her clairvoyant neighbour, the delightfully macabre Iris, we pause on every erratic little thought and realise the true torment that can besiege the most ordinary soul. The terrifying and almost absurd episode when is left to babysit a newborn child she has never set eyes on before, is both heart-breaking and heart-stopping. Probably the least-known of all of Glaister’s novels, Limestone and Clay is not one of her best. The ending topples rather disappointingly into cliché and the whole plot seems a little too fragile. However, the Glaister trademarks are clearly evident. Some of the descriptions are pitch-perfect and the reader is allowed to delve right into the darkest recesses of the characters, normal people who you would never normally think had a characteristic worth investigating, let alone caring about. And, as with all her novels, you are left feeling that these stories must surely be as easy and entertaining to write, as they are to read. Not a gem amongst other gems, but surely a stone that still sparkles and entices.
I have always considered Lesley Glaister, b. 1956, to be one of this country’s most under-rated writers. She has an outstanding ability to create incremental tension which is evident in this novella which addresses the diverse topics of female reproduction and caving, probably a first.
The narrative focuses on a young couple, Nadia, a sculptor and potter and Simon, a geography teacher. Whilst the former has reached a block in her artistic development and the latter is dissatisfied with his job, the big problem in their life together is Nadia’s repeated miscarriage of the baby that they both want so desperately.
Simon’s way of dealing with this is to go off on caving expeditions with his friends Miles and Celia, but these activities are complicated by Simon and Celia having previously lived together briefly and Nadia’s resultant jealousy. At the beginning of the book, Simon is at the final stage of planning an expedition to find a passage linking two underground chambers and, whilst Nadia is very much against this which she regards as foolhardy in the extreme, Simon’s determination is increased by the fact that his close friend, Roland, died five years earlier in an ill-conceived solo attempt to locate this uncharted passage.
The book’s title therefore contrasts the minerals associated with Simon’s and Nadia’s activities and compares the unyielding nature of the former with the manipulative character of the latter.
On the eve of the expedition, Celia announces that she and her husband, Dan, are expecting a child and then discloses some information to Nadia that causes a serious rift between her and Simon with the result that she storms off to stay in a nearby pub whilst he drives off to the caves to try to assuage his emotional feelings.
Into this turmoil comes Nadia’s much older neighbour, Iris, an unsuccessful door-to-door cosmetics seller and fortune teller. Whilst Iris is by far the weakest character, such is Glaister’s narrative skill that this does not significantly weaken her story. She writes with the experience of a longstanding cave explorer, perhaps she is?, as she describes Simon’s subterranean journey that, unsurprisingly, does not go according to plan. Here and in a parallel story about Nadia she builds up considerable tension and her creation of Nadia’s emotional turbulence, anger, depression and guilt, is outstanding.
Glaister is also very good at capturing authentic dialogue, especially that between individuals who do not really connect and are unable to give voice to their deepest concerns. Simon’s one ill-judged action, undertaken for conflicting reasons, affects all of the characters in the book, not least himself. This summary does not do justice to a book that, like the caves, has many levels and strata.
All of the characters in this story are flawed but this adds to their realism. Whilst not one of the authors best works, the book was originally published in 1993 and has been reissued, it demonstrates her ability to penetrate beneath the surface of characters under considerable stress.
I could have done without Iris’s filthy crow and, in the face of such sensitive and sympathetic writing, Nadia’s taking charge of an unknown baby seemed an unnecessary plot device. Whilst the ending offers hope, for once I felt a bleaker outcome would have been more telling.