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Joan Taylor on Prain Damage and Unforgivably Lame Puns

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Conversations with Mr. Prain
Joan Taylor
Melville House

Reviewed by Lara Kristin Lentini

This literary mystery reinvents that most familiar of dramatis personae, the damsel in distress, in the person of Stella, a struggling writer drawn into a peculiar game of cat and mouse with a mysterious stranger. Oddly enough, there is nothing hackneyed in the story Taylor weaves from these well-worn threads.

Our heroine is an ex-New Zealander living in London, eking a living out of selling used books in Camden Lock Market, scribbling poems in her spare moments, staying up late to work on a novel. The mysterious stranger who visits her bookstall to chat now and then turns out to be the owner of a large publishing company; he offers to take a look at her writing, and Stella eagerly takes him up on it. It won't spoil the mystery to reveal that his offer is not the magic opportunity it seems to be, but the opening gambit in a strange and suspenseful give-and-take.

Like young Jane Eyre in Mr. Rochester's dark manor, Stella soon finds herself an uneasy guest at Mr. Prain's ancestral home, where his advantages of age, class and position are overwhelmingly evident. Stella, raised on adventure stories and gifted with a writer's fertile imagination, must find a way to level the playing field, drawing on her resources of youth, beauty and intelligence in a game in which the rules are not quite clear.

It's a mark of Taylor's talent that she manages to make fresh use of such scenes ? faire of the gothic romance without once veering into the sort of self-conscious, arch post-modernism in which narrative conventions are ?appropriated? and you can sense the ironic quotation marks hovering around every turn of phrase. Stella's narrative voice calls to mind Nicholas Urfe in John Fowles's The Magus; her tone is rueful, sometimes weary, with an edge of self-awareness that hints at her own complicity in the plot slowly unfolding around her.

Said plot will draw the reader on, and Taylor doesn't deny us a suitable dramatic resolution, but it's the titular conversations that make the novel memorable. Stella the writer and Prain the publisher are believably articulate on a range of topics from the environmental impact of the publishing industry to the question of what makes writers write.


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