The Confessions of Edward Day by Valerie Martin

27/09/09, Sunday Telegraph

Valerie Martin is an impressively dextrous writer: from Mary Reilly, a startling retelling of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to Property, her unrelentingly honest Orange Prize-winning novel on slavery and race in the Deep South, she seems to move between worlds and styles with effortless fluidity. With The Confessions of Edward Day, she revisits an old affection, echoing an established classic, in this case, The Picture of Dorian Gray, while trying her hand, for the first time, at a male first-person narrative.

The voice is of Edward Day, a young, handsome, ferociously ambitious actor on the make in 1970s New York. When he is in his freshman year, Edward’s mother kills herself in what is hinted at as an enforced act of liebestod. A few years after this tragedy, Edward is saved from a drowning accident off the coast of Jersey by the sinister, tormented Guy Margate, who has the threatening qualities of resembling Edward physically and of sharing his ambition of making it as a theatre actor. The bond of obligation that results from Guy’s charitable act of rescue is unhealthy from the very beginning, made sicker by the fact that both men are attracted to the same woman, the beautiful, brilliant, unstable Madeleine, also an aspiring actor. As sexual and vocational rivalries are played out over a decade, Martin ratchets up the tension until the dread feeling that something has to give reaches its climax, fittingly, in a theatre, during a production of Uncle Vanya in which Edward and Madeleine find themselves in leading roles. And then, in a coda, still in Edward’s voice, Martin plays her last card, the one that leaves us in no doubt about both the unreliability of Edward’s biased, blind account and his absolute monstrousness.

While it is difficult to believe in the character of Madeleine, the linchpin, even after one makes allowances for the fact that she is a figure wholly mediated by Edward’s poisonous subjectivity, where the book scores is in its stylish, intelligent, unruffled prose, ever so slightly camp and self-conscious, catching the narcissistic self-regard of Edward perfectly while damning him, unbeknown to himself, in the reader’s eyes. But Martin, deft at pacing, controls her information with such consummate cunning that she creates a very gradual slide of the reader’s response towards Edward so that the complete revelation of his unsympathetic nature comes only at the end as a considerable detonatory charge.