CLOSING THE BOOK
 

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1 Bridie McKearn, distinguished founder of the Third World Trust, is dying of cancer. Her lover, Ruth Asher, has nursed her devotedly for weeks. But Bridie's illness has changed her from a woman of enormous intelligence, courage and understanding to a furious tyrant. She yells obscenities at Ruth, claims she never really loved her and throws her lovingly-prepared vegetable soup against the wall. Not surprisingly, Ruth collapses under the strain and sends Bridie to a hospice.

Closing the Book is an exploration of death, bereavement and loss that is never depressing. Sometimes it is heart-rending; sometimes uplifting; sometimes even funny. The unfolding of the last stages of Bridie's and Ruth's five-year relationship, of Ruth's terrible grief after Bridie's death and her gradual, partial recovery, are enthralling because every twist and nuance is believable.

Several aspects of the book's theme are reflected in the enlarging mirrors of sub-plots. The conflict between the longing to keep the loved one alive and the need to let him or her go is searingly dramatised in one scene in the hospice in which a young husband refuses to accept that his deeply loved wife will die.

Pattie's "slender, fair-skinned arms lay out over the counterpane, in a trough of stillness," as her husband charges round the bed, haranguing her, claiming the hospice is making her ill, trying to make her eat chocolates and demanding a notice-board for her cards. Eventually he scoops her up so her head dangles, "a mane of pale hair falling, oddly graceful as the tragic climax of a ballet". When a nurse rushes forwards and tells him he'll break one of her ribs, he lowers her "with all conceivable tenderness ... " and in the expression of his red-rimmed eyes "the hell within him seemed to scorch its way to the surface". It is characteristic of Stevie Davies' writing that she shocks the reader with the selfish brutality of the husband's treatment of his wife and then rends the heart with the understanding of his pain.

She shows the courage of the acceptance of death, and the compassion learned through suffering, in an unsentimental portrait of an elderly widow, Bridie and Ruth's next-door neighbour.

The book explores the theme of the choice between acceptance and defiance as a reaction to the pain and injustice of life as well as of death. The theme is dramatised most clearly in the contrasting personalities of Ruth's two daughters by her ex-husband Gavin: the angry, adolescent Lizzie, monstrously selfish in her insensitivity to all suffering but that inflicted by herself and the compliant twelve-year-old Sarah.

The two girls live with their father and his girlfriend Val; Sarah tries to make the best of the situation while Lizzie does all she can to worsen it. She routinely stands in front of the television when the rest of the family are trying to watch it, tramps mud on the carpet from her terrifying Doc Martens and treats the well-meaning Val with contempt.

But Davies shows us Lizzie's unbearable distress at the suffering of mistreated animals and the atrocities she sees on the television news and her dreadful sense of loss, of her mother but also of something deeper, a loss inherant in the human condition.

One theme interweaves with another. The book shows the drawbacks of sacrificing personal life through devotion to a cause as well as the selfishness of living just for personal satisfaction. Bridie, beloved daughter of an idealistic father, is a tireless campaigner for greater global justice but has, only through Ruth's influence, opened up to sensual and aesthetic delights ... Val is a good sort but to some extent deserves Lizzie's scorn in the shallowness of her perceptions and in caring for nothing but her own happiness.

This is Stevie Davies's fourth novel, following Boy Blue, which won the Fawcett Society Book Prize, Primavera, and the extraordinarily powerful, highly acclaimed Arms and the Girl. She is one of our most interesting, as well as one of our most shamefully neglected writers. Her new novel deserves to swell her reputation.
  Frances Hill,The Guardian

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2 ... Late-30s Ruth has long since abandoned husband Gavin and children Lizzie and Sarah for the older, eminent third-world charity worker Bridie. Now Bridie has terminal cancer. It/she isn't a pretty sight. We first encounter Ruth at the end of her tether, packing Bridie off to a hospice. Pain and fear have turned Bridie into a foul-mouthed monster. The bulk of the book is a harrowing, highly emotional account of Ruth's reactions to her death.

... In conventional terms, there is no family here. Ruth and Bridie consider themselves "married", but never can be. Their relationship has cost Ruth the custody of Lizzie and Sarah, and Gavin has shacked up with his secretary. What there is, is love aplenty, tormented by loss.

The novel resounds with the tortured, outraged outbursts of those who refuse to accept the cruelties of the world. Bridie rails at her fate. Ruth is consumed by "migraines of grief". Lizzie hurls invective at her parents and bombs on behalf of the animal rights movement. For light relief there's the Gulf war on TV: "Refugees processed out of the box's containment and trekked relentlessly across the sitting room night after night."

Nor does Stevie Davies flinch from the realities of Bridie's imminent death. This is painful reading, but it is also richly written and scrupulously honest. And in the characters' stubbornness when faced with so much adversity lies a profoundly optimistic vision of the human's spirit's capacity to endure.
  New Statesman

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3 Few authors would have the skill of courage to tackle the subjects of terminal illness, bereavement, the untidiness of grieving and the pressures that all these things exert on human relationships. It is harder still to imagine who — other than Stevie Davies — could have made such subjects into an exquisite literary experience, a read of extraordinarily uplifting power.

Bridie is 52 and has spent her life devoted to fighting for justice in the developing world. When she is diagnosed as suffering terminal cancer, she stops behaving in such an exemplary manner. Her refusal to go quietly into the night leaves her younger lover, Ruth, in an emotional agony that parallels Bridie's physical pain as the disease eats its way remorselessly up her spine. Not only does Davies show how Bridie's illness affects herself and her partner but the effect that it has on others around them, principally Elaine — Bridie's former partner and co-founder of the Third World Trust and Lizzie — Ruth's 16-year-old daughter who is on the verge of taking her first steps into the world as an individual.

The story is played out against a background of international cruelty and localised aggression. From the thuggish yobs who deride and abuse peace protesters maintaining an anti-Gulf War vigil and the plight of the Kurds being reduced to good TV... to the barbarism that Lizzie sees in society's treatment of animals and finally the two men who rape her, Davies paints a world that is rotten to its male-dominated core. Her own anger at the north's exploitation of the south and of the British government's obstinate and selfish refusal even to meet UN guidelines on minimum aid commitments come clearly through. But while vital to the story, they do not obscure Davies's central theme of death as a part of life. And as surely as she describes the crocuses struggling to life after the dark despair of winter, so the women come to terms with Bridie's eventual death, growing because she has lived and eventually able to take up her legacy of love and anger. Indeed the writing is dotted with subtle religious and natural imagery that suggest life's suffering, mystery and essential power. Davies has avoided the temptation of presenting Bridie and Ruth as pictures of saintliness. Instead she has created two utterly believable women who compel the reader to empathy, sympathy and love.

Closing the Book may well tackle "difficult" subjects, but in doing so it is an inspirational read of rare power, hope and beauty.
  Morning Star

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4 This compelling lesbian love story is the heartrending tale of Bridie and Ruth, who for five years have led an idyllically passionate life, but which nearly ends in rancour and bitterness during Bridie's fight with death from cancer.

But this is no ordinary novel. Although the players are full of courage, depth, spirit and love, Davies pulls no punches with her characterisations. Guilt, blind rage and cruel hurting are all explored here. These women are so real I really wish I had known them!

There are some wonderful sub-plots. Ruth's daughters from a passionless marriage are woven into the tale, and although the book has a sad ending, the rebelliousness of Ruth's feisty daughter will lift the spirits of any flagging guerilla girl!

There are also some wry, intelligent and often witty looks at how society views lesbian relationships. An interesting backdrop to the novel is Bridie's work as a player on the international political stage, as well as being the co-founder of a string of successful Third World shops — she would win the heart of any active feminist. Indeed, Davies herself has pledged to give part of her royalties to Third World aid in protest at our poor contributions. Another triumph from one of our foremost feminist writers — read it!
  The Feminist Library Newsletter
 

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This entire presentation Copyright © Stevie Davies