Tongue-twister, Susan Budd

if the tongue fits
Diane Brown
Tandem Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1 877178 47 0

A deliciously original, gloriously hectic first novel by accomplished poet Diane Brown, if the tongue fits takes the well-worn theme of 40-something women in search of love, sex and adventure, although not necessarily in that order, and gives it an enormously entertaining and humorous spin.

No matter how scarred the body or psyche, hope springs eternal in the female breast. Who has not been in a gathering of women of a certain age, or damn it, any age and found that the conversation inevitably turns to the subject of men? Tall ones, short ones, old and young, Adonises or complete dorks, some benighted woman pants for one of them. Venus and Mars are eternally in combat and although her field of endeavour is no longer limited to the boudoir, Venus feels her life to be incomplete without his dirty socks in a corner of the bedroom and rim of whiskers round the wash basin.

Described by one of her friends as a modern Moll Flanders, but less clever, as she wheedles excitement rather than money from her lovers, Moppy is the survivor of two marriages. The first was to a sweet guy who leapt out of the closet after a few years of connubial bliss and the next was to an anally retentive economist who is still hanging round to provide dour criticism of her child-rearing and domestic habits.

Now a solo mum with two sons, she has a part-time job with Just Art Books and constructs her own art works of flotsam and a little jetsam. At her door there regularly appear mysterious poems accompanied by small gifts, extraordinarily apt to her state of mind. This is not enough for a red-blooded woman. On a lonely Saturday night she scans the Men Seeking Women section of the personal columns and a parade of men enter her life.

After a false start with a real estate agent into S & M, she seemingly strikes gold with Vincent, aka Vikram, not quite as sexy as Imran Khan, but a good man. And who wants virtue? Not Moppy. Goodness is boring, boring, boring for her, as for most of us who want a wild man all of our very own.

A host of wilder types follow in his train. Billy the Kid wants a “together lady”. A self-described Marlboro man, he has a yen for the wild blue yonder and a sexy voice, but the rest does not match up. He has a dirty mind and that is where it stays.

And it gets worse: a trendy leftie with few social graces, a golden-tongued lawyer who does not hang around, a Polish psychiatrist with severe commitment problems and last, but not least, an ageing American artist, an ex-ad man seriously into sex and with a nauseating line in seduction patter that swerves perilously between Maurice Chevalier and New Age. He makes life in the suburbs with Corporate Man a dream of the Golden Age.

Meanwhile, Barbara the narrator is getting on with her own life. She, Moppy and Jill are Westies from way back. They met at school and, despite vastly different life experiences, are still friends. Their stories interweave and move in counterpoint to present a comic and occasionally disturbing picture of relationships between men and women in the 90s.

Barbara is a poet who teaches creative writing at Paremoremo Prison. Told that her poetry has a strong narrative flow and that there is more money in fiction anyway, she turns to writing this novel. Still single, overweight without being too hung up about her size, she has fallen in love with Mati, a convicted murderer in her creative writing group. He is a sensitive man with a past of dehumanising violence and abuse. Their quiet, unconsummated love story lends strength and depth to the flashy picaresque exploits of Moppy.

Mati is no romantic hero, nor is he sentimentalised in terms of political correctness. Perhaps because of his limited sphere of action, he is less able to manipulate than the rest of the men in the novel, who receive decidedly short shrift from the writer. In their defence, they are wonderful comic creations and all too believable.

The third member of the triumvirate, Jill, could have wandered in from a Barbara Else novel. She is married to a philandering lawyer, such a style Nazi that even his daughters’ Barbie dolls are ranged in neat rows in their minimalist, architect-designed house. A born Laura Ashley type, she yearns for frills and sprigged flowers, motherhood and fidelity. Her lunches in Parnell with Moppy, their shopping games in exclusive boutiques and the sweet revenge she ultimately wreaks on roving Robert are all stamped, in what must be deliberate pastiche, with Else’s archly satiric style.

Her deliciously sugary Mills & Boon apotheosis is the stuff of dreams. Moppy, too, gains all she yearns for and more, even to appearing on the Holmes Show. What greater fame is there than this? Only Barbara, the narrator, remains curiously opaque. Not knowing her dreams, we cannot know if they are fulfilled. But the writer knows the dangers of happy endings, how they can, unlike fairy tale happy-ever-afters, become unhappy beginnings.

if the tongue fits is a terrific read, packed with wit and wisdom, poetry and poseurs, light-as-air comedy and enough earthy reality to provoke a little discomfort in the reader. It takes two, babe, and never forget it.

Susan Budd is a Wellington reviewer.

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