Always You, Edina
196 pages • Ward Wood Publishing • 4 April, 2012
Always You, Edina, is the fourth novel from writer and stand-up comedian V.G. Lee. And it is beautiful. I was introduced to Lee’s writing at a book salon, where she read her short story ‘The Passing Guest’. It is a keenly observed, macabre tale about a woman who, driven by jealousy, locks her lover and another woman in a church, where they remain for days. The following year, Lee was the headliner at Short Fuse where I had one of my short stories performed by an actor on the grounds that I am not good at reading my work. (I have seen too many authors who aren’t and so bore the audience.) Lee is a superb reader of her own stories, which are gems full of insight, humour and astute observations. The warmth, the range of emotions, the life that powers her stories: all are right there in her reading, and the result is mesmeric.
This is the first novel of Lee’s that I have read, and initially I wasn’t sure about it. Her short stories throw you right in. The pace at the start at the novel, in which the fifty-year-old Bonnie Benson visits her 89-year-old grandmother in a nursing home, is slower. It opens the door to the stories that drive the book, and the character of Bonnie’s Aunt Edina. But then, of course it’s slower. It’s a novel. What then unfolds, through the eyes of eleven year-old Bonnie in the mid 1960s, is a portrait of Edina, who is a storm at the centre of Bonnie’s family life. And it is spellbinding.
“Aunt Ed was Gina Lolobrigida and Grace Kelly – fire and ice,” the older and wiser Bonnie recalls. The magic of Edina’s personality, and the sway she had over others, is seen through the eyes of a child in the narrative of the eleven year-old Bonnie. Edina herself is all about possibility, and a character larger than life who consequently guides the lives of others. The ones that love her, the ones that hate her: all are swept up in her wake. Lee tells you right at the start that Edina did not have long to live, and this makes her yet more mythic. She is forever the same in Bonnie’s memory, and in one specific recollection: Bonnie spies her bare-chested father leaning in toward Edina. She asks what he’s waiting for. “Dad’s smile broadens. ‘You,’ he says. ‘Always you, Edina.’”
The England of Always You, Edina is one emerging from the shadow of 1950s post-war deprivations, one that is pulling itself by its metaphorical bootstraps but hasn’t been thoroughly Americanised by television. The television cowboys are there, and they capture Bonnie’s playtime imagination, but it is the aspirational dreams of Hollywood glamour, and Edina’s bleached-blonde hair is testament to that, which still rule.
Bonnie’s family are … lower middle class? I am not really sure if this distinction has much meaning, but it’s nigh on impossible to read fiction that is so thoroughly English and not talk about class. After all, Edina observes of cigarette that they “looked most sexy when first lit; stubs, particularly stubs with ash waiting to drop didn’t look sexy at all, they looked working class. Mum and Ed both shuddered over the words ‘working class’.” Whatever Bonnie’s immediate family are, Aunt Edina is definitely the next scale up. She has distinctly new middle class taste, right from her shift dress – “the latest fashion” – through to her parquet flooring and glass ornaments.
Always You, Edina, is a coming of age story. It follows Bonnie through her school-life, with her struggles to be popular and yet also to stand out, which is of course a threat to that popularity. It is the idea of Aunt Edina that animates this process, from the strength of her personality through the allure of her lifestyle, and her neat, organised, sparkling house. Edina represents aspiration, whereas Bonnie’s everyday life with her unhappy mother and her acerbic grandmother do not. Bonnie has questions about Edina’s relationship with her father because of partial conversations overheard, and she is always squirreling, piecing together the story for herself. This only increases the mystery and the magnetism of Aunt Edina.
Lee has a great gift for naturalistic dialogue, even when the characters are putting on airs. It’s such a keen skill that you don’t even notice it. She hides the scaffolding well, which is what a good writer should do. The exchanges between Bonnie’s mother, grandmother, and Edina tell you all you need to know about them with no need for authorial commentary. And it is in the conversations that the emotion of the book lies.
Always You, Edina, is deeply moving, and also deeply satisfying. The threads that come together at the end, both in young Bonnie’s story and what she learns about that story in the present day, bring it all into perspective. In the tragedy there is life and there is hope. Lee’s ability to make the reader feel that, and feel it keenly, is a testament to the power of her storytelling.