Reading “The bloater”, a novel of less than 150 pages, is like sipping a glass of sparkling champagne after been deprived of the drink’s recuperative quality for too long.
Its air of easy frivolousness feels life-enhancing, as does the wickedly delicious prose of Rosemary Tonks in her novel of 1968 which now, having been mostly forgotten, has been reissued.
Drinking can also bring an uninvited deflation of spirits, sometimes with the potential for self-disgust at the thought of faking it, not to those you know but to yourself.
The anti-climax that often comes after a good occasion is expressed by Min, the story’s central character, when she arrives at a destination: “Ah, parking! The graveyard of so many good evenings.”
Min, a married woman, is going to the opera with her lodger, nicknamed The Bloater because of his large body and insatiable desires.
Spoilt with his beneficence, she knows that a sexual favour will be expected when she returns home with him later in the evening.
Min is as conflicted with herself as she is with men. There is the small matter of her husband but he remains largely invisible, maritally and visually; she turns lights off in a room, not noticing he is still there, leaving him to eat dinner in the dark.
She tells herself to consummate the passion she has for another man, Billy, but as Jennifer Hodgson says in a fine essay about Tonks this would mean facing up to “having a body, having to contend with the bodies of others, being seen, being known”. She finds it difficult to terminate the overtures of The Bloater.
The night at the opera builds up to a scintillating scene in her own living room (with her husband asleep upstairs) and here, as throughout the novel, the prose describing it flows with witticisms that Oscar Wilde would have applauded.
As with Wilde, a deadly seriousness lurks behind the light-hearted humour and seemingly casual observations are capable of carrying philosophical and social truths.
Jenny, who works with her at the BBC as an audio engineer, is Min’s best friend and their conversations are peppered with remarks pregnant with meaning. Discussing make-up – how much powder should be used on the face? – Jenny tells her: “I don’t think you should look into someone’s face too deeply. Just take the whole thing as a going concern.”
Min sees the good sense of this and carries on with dressing up for a meal with Billy: with a black strapless bra fitting perfectly, it’s ‘tartiness personified’, she is shocked by her own thoughts: “Good heavens, how worldly I am! I’m so well finished, I feel as though I’ve been dipped in some sort of classical French ennui and crisped before serving.” She maintains a blitheness but anxiety about self-deception lurks beneath the surface.
“The bloater”, by Roseemary Tonks, is published by Vintage.