If there is one thing you cannot say about the Orange Prize long list this year, it is that it avoids experimentalism: either in style or in subject matter. There are quite a few books that deal with controversial and heavy subjects on the list. Repeat It Today With Tears is one of them. The first sentence of the book really says it all:
The first time I kissed my father on the mouth it was the Easter holiday.
And so starts Anne Peile’s impressive story about Susanna, a girl who lives with her mother and her sister and has not yet finished high school, who starts an affair with her father. Moreover, Susanna is not portrayed as a victim. She actively seeks her father out. Pursues him. And never tells him who she really is. Peile makes no excuses for what Susanna does. Oh yes, the circumstances in which she grows up aren’t perfect. Her mother and sister surely do not seem to understand her. But there is nothing inevitable about what Susanna does. She is smart, smart enough to get access to a special programme at a big university. She seems to be able to deal with the world.
And yet, at the end of the book, you realise she doesn’t really know how to cope with the world. When you stop to think about it, you feel like you should have known. Apart from the warning bells that probably start ringing for everyone once they read that first sentence. There is something about the way Susanna deals with her emotions, compartmentalising them, locking them away,
“Because I found it upsetting I put away contemplation of it in a section of my mind that I could shut off. When they discussed the operation I used only part of my conscious awareness, in the same way as you can prevent yourself from breathing in a bad smell.”
and finding a solution and goal in this ultimate act of getting to know her father. There is something very tragic about the book and the story. And at the same time, Susanna, as a character, with her view of the world, challenges our assumptions: she loved her father, is that wrong? She does not understand the love that she sees around her, in marriage, between her mother and her new boyfriend. She sees the way the mother of her friend Julian offers and uses her body to ensnare men. Anne Peile’s choice to tackle the subject matter of incest in this manner is very daring, because she challenges a lot of things along with it (without painting the situation in a way that proclaims Susanna is right. She simply asks us to question before we judge. Or at least, that is part of what I took from this book).
Repeat It Today With Tears was a disturbing read. A powerful read. It wasn’t as disturbing as I had expected, though. Because during the read, I found myself consenting to follow along on this journey [which might make it all the more disturbing - in a way]. And yet there is the inevitable distance you feel towards Susanna, because of the taboo of the subject matter. I cannot tell you exactly if you should read this book or not. It depends on how you feel about an author tackling a subject such as this. I felt uneasy, very uneasy, but I wasn’t disappointed. And yet, I cannot tell you exactly whether I liked it, thought it was okay, or how much I did or did not appreciate it. It left an impression. It made me feel confused and disoriented. And yet, I cannot promise you that by the end of the year, I will still thoroughly remember this story.