TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 6 April 2017
Three things separate Maria Tambini from the other inhabitants of Rothesay on the island of Bute: her family are Italian; she is the child of a single mother (with depression); and she has, from a very young age, an amazingly powerful and good singing voice, and a complete lack of inhibition about performing. Her uncle Alfredo, hoping to get Maria away from a dead-end life on Bute and her mother's increasingly miserable influence, sends a demo tape of Maria to 'Opportunity Knocks' (this being the heyday of 1970s television talent shows), and an impressed talent scout is soon up on Bute watching Maria perform. Maria goes down to London, wins 'Opportunity Knocks' seven times and launches into stardom, performing on television, in variety shows, at charity events and with popular singers in the USA and the UK and making recordings. But child (or early adolescent) stardom means that she never has enough time to concentrate on her studies at the Italia Conti school or make any real plans for the future, and the narcissistic celebrity world leads her first to turn her back on old friends, and then, increasingly, to starve herself in the hope that she can become ever more beautiful. Soon, Maria is careering fast towards a very dangerous type of anorexia. Salvation appears to come when she meets an old friend from Bute, now based in London - but can his care save her from herself, her family's dark legacy of depression and from the sinister fan who has become obsessed with her?
I bought this (and other O'Hagan novels) in a bid to read more male contemporary authors but it sat on my shelf for a while before I got round to reading it. I wish I hadn't left it so long! 'Personality' is a stunning book in so many ways. It's loosely modelled on the story of the real Italian-Scots child star Lena Zavaroni - but O'Hagan includes much that's purely imagined, such as the young literature-loving Michael who becomes Maria's boyfriend (is he modelled on O'Hagan himself at all?!), Maria's family background, which includes a sinister event related to the Arandora Star tragedy during World War II, when a ship of Italian immigrants was torpedoed, causing multiple deaths, and the Indian family who Maria is close to as a child, so it doesn't merely feel like the literary equivalent of a biopic. O'Hagan writes sensitively and without ghoulishness about anorexia and bulimia, and is very clever in showing both how fame makes Maria at least for some years rather obnoxious (the letters from her increasingly worried Scots-Indian friend Kalpana and Maria's cold responses are chilling) and destroys her, so that she comes to feel that her 'personality' is a totally invented thing'. His descriptive language - about the Isle of Bute, about Maria and Michael's intimacy and the places they visit, even about mundane things such as the inside of a cafe or a station lavatory - is richly poetic and vividd. I loved the way that, rather than tell Maria's story just from her point of view, he gave us multiple voices: Hughie Green the host of 'Opportunity Knocks' (who he managed to even make sympathetic in a funny way), Maria's unhappy mother Rosa, loyal Michael, the working-class lad who found literature led him to an English degree and then to charity work, quiet and mysterious Alfredo, Rosa's secretive very Italian grandmama Lucia - and others. This worked well, creating a whole host of stories rather than just focussing on Maria's bleak destiny. The story is unendingly interesting, and O'Hagan's thoughts on the attractions and the dangers of the celebrity world are astute. I particularly liked the way that he worked Maria's Italian heritage into the story, particularly through Lucia and the account of her love affair with the opera singer.
There were the odd moments where I felt that the narrative very slightly faltered. It would have been perhaps interesting to get a feeling of what precipitated Maria into anorexia (the narrative slightly jumps from Maria as a confident early adolescent to Maria as a fasting performer) - though I suppose this may be clear from 'undercurrents' in the sequence of letters between Maria and her friend Kalpana? It might also have been interesting to hear more from Rosa about why she finally made the choice she had. And the subplot with the stalker, though very effective, felt very slightly rushed in some aspects - it was never made clear, for example, why Maria and Michael didn't go to the police about him. However, I can see why this element was introduced into the plot, and it did lead to a very memorable final scene, which both shocked but, in the end, left the reader with a strong sense of hope.
A very masterful and thoughtful book, stunningly written. I'm looking forward to reading more novels by Andrew O'Hagan.