Chosen by Lesley Glaister
For this novel, Lesley Glaister has chosen the subject of religious cults. And as many other novels and films have already dealt with the subject, one hoped that Glaister would bring something new to the table, or at least approach it from a different angle.
These cults are yet another way that the young, the exploited, the disadvantaged, and those simply in search of love or an ideal are repeatedly screwed by a system that lauds money and material advantage above all else.
In the first half of Chosen we travel to New York with Dodie and witness the process by which she is drawn into the cult which calls itself the Soul Life Centre. The usual brain-washing techniques are used – meditation, fasting, chanting, sleep-deprivation, general disorienting – and Dodie’s self-esteem and confidence are undermined until she begins to lose her sense of self.
There is something essentially flawed in using this kind of subject in a novel. We want our heroine to be believable and strong, but in subjecting her to these patently crude techniques and seeing her crumble in the face of them, we begin to lose sympathy with her.
Although I am a big fan of Lesley Glaister’s writing, I read the first hundred pages of this novel with a sinking heart.
But in the second part of the book, entitled Stella and Me, Lesley Glaister begins to engage with her real strengths as a writer. The action moves back to the early seventies, and Dodie’s sixteen-year-old Aunt Melanie describes life with her sister, Dodie’s mother, Stella, then thirteen. The narrative begins before Dodie was born. This is Glaister territory, an area she knows probably better than any other contemporary British writer. After a gripping start followed by an attempt to describe an acid trip (why do writers do that?); Lesley Glaister grabs her reader by the throat:
Dad came back just before Christmas. Because he gave us warning there was time for Bogart to clear out. Aunt Regina came too, with a man, Derek, who she’d met at Esperanto. She’d put the pugs in kennels, which made me think he was a good influence. He was kind and beardy and we liked him. Dad brought us presents and we had an early pretend Christmas since, of course, he had to be back with his new children for the actual day.
Aunt Regina brought bath oil and a thousand-piece jigsaw of Mount Everest, for us to share. She’d gone vegetarian in line with Derek. She moulded a sort of roadkill turkey out of Sosmix, and we had crackers and home-brewed beer. Dad spent most of his time on the phone to Saudi. I don’t think he really saw us at all – except as an obligation. He patted us and complained that Stella was too thin, and mended a gutter before he left.
‘Ring me at any time, night or day,’ he said, pressing a fiver into each of our hands. ‘I’m still your father.’
We stood side by side to be kissed. I was aching for Bogart. I hadn’t known how much I loved him till he wasn’t there. He was my new family and his love was making me a new person. It was fascinating to be inside the old one as the changes happened, like a conscious chrysalis. Aunt Regina and Derek stayed on for an extra day and it was Derek, who was a teacher in a Steiner school, who said he thought Stella was depressed.
Before they left, we tipped the jigsaw puzzle out on the coffee table and all sat round cosily, doing the edges. Derek thought jigsaws were therapeutic and had a routine – edges first, working strategically towards the centre. They left as soon as the border was completed. I lost interest once they’d driven off, but Stella loved it. As soon as they’d gone I phoned Bogart, who was staying with Celia and Bruce. It was the day before Christmas Eve and Celia was having a party.
‘Come,’ he said.
‘I can’t leave Stella. Can’t you just come home?’ I hesitated and I sensed him hesitating too, noticing that I’d said home.
He gentled his voice. ‘Later, honey,’ he promised. I went to bed naked, which he preferred to any of my nightwear, and lay in wait. But he didn’t come back and I fell asleep. I woke when the luminous figures on the clock showed four o’clock. I put on my dressing gown and went downstairs. The room was burning hot from the electric fire and Stella was still hunched over the puzzle. She looked up at me with dazed and ragged eyes.
‘Let’s not take drugs any more,’ I said, sitting beside her on the sofa. She nodded and slotted a piece in. The mountain was beautiful, shining and surrounded by a silvery veil of blown-off snow. She wasn’t following Derek’s method though and it was the sky that was missing.
Chosen is a novel about a family, its illusions and misunderstandings, its violence and its love; it is about its coping mechanisms and the different ways that each of its members make sense of the others.
The novel, once it had me in its grip, never let up. It was full of delights, suspense and insight. Glaister is always inventive and I was swept along by a narrative which systematically laid bare each of the main players.