A Case of Knives by Candia McWilliam

This week I’ve been reading a book my son gave me. Published in 1988 and winner of a Betty Trask prize, Anita Brookner called it – ‘Poised, startling and innovative, A Case of Knives marks the debut of an astonishingly accomplished new writer’.

Written against a background of animal rights activism and the AIDS epidemic this is a fascinating book, told from the point of view of four of the main characters. The language is sharp and invigorating and McWilliam is able to develop and  sustain metaphors for whole paragraph without ever ‘overwriting’. Describing Lucas Salik’s first experiences of sex – ‘In the white laundry, among slapping towels, tents of sheet, eight osier chariots full of dirty white linen, and the rolling surge of industrial washing machines, the slippery floor gritty with fragrant blue Daz and my eyes stung with bleach, I embraced and was embraced.’ Which is more or less the effect the novel had on me. Although at the end I was left with a sensation of having read a very clever, very dark book, where nothing is quite how it seems.

The poet Anthony Thwaite once described Candia McWilliam as ‘ a connoisseur of uneasiness’. Les liaisons dangereuses crossed with The Line of Beauty perhaps. How’s this for ‘uneasiness’ – ‘She said nothing at all, but picked up a brown ball from the counterpane and nipped it with her teeth. Then, with the concentration of one peeling layers from their fingernail, she removed the skin, with its silver pink lining, of what must be a lychee. She put the jellied fruit into her mouth.’

I’d never heard of this writer but am keen to read more, but there isn’t very much. McWilliam went on to write two more award-winning novels and some shorter fiction, then in 2006 was struck down by blepharospasm a visual impairment where the eyes are permanently shut. She had suffered from writers block and alcoholism for ten years, but during the experience of blindness she found her voice again and dictated a memoir to a friend; in 2009 she had pioneering surgery to restore her sight and published the memoir What to look for in winter the following year and is again writing fiction. I’m looking forward to reading her memoir, and can’t wait for the next novel.

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