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The Best Way You Know How

by Christine Pountney

Here’s Hannah Crowe, that peculiar type of Canadian who moves to London to fix her life and find fulfillment by marrying a British man. Where does this impulse come from? The call of the floppy hair? The promise of a hint of Colin Firth in every English male? Here’s Hannah Crowe believing the city will solve her problems instead of handing out more.

And then, not too long after her arrival, here she is at her own wedding in Camberwell, in the depths of South London. On a little more than a whim Hannah is marrying an Englishman she met while looking at the Damien Hirst floating shark exhibit, which hints at the lifelessness and stasis of their future relationship. But not to get ahead of ourselves.

At first, Hannah embraces her husband’s London lifestyle, which includes the communal pub drink-ups, the boozing, and the occasional tipple. The strangest image comes from her wedding reception, when she wishes she could marry all his friends as well. A charming thought; a warning for what’s ahead.

And what does lie ahead? London does not open up to Hannah. Marriage doesn’t agree with her either. She becomes dulled and misses her old flirtatious ways. She reveals herself as a self-involved not-so-innocent abroad who soon sees the shortcomings of this man with whom she shares a council flat.

Her husband’s name may be Daniel Steel, but that’s about as close as he comes to melodrama and romance. Daniel is the limp floating shark. He can’t provide the sex she needs and is described, in one image of emasculation, as sitting down to go to the toilet. Meanwhile Hannah can’t stop looking for the fizzy feeling that comes from the attention of other men.

Soon after the wedding she falls for her husband’s friend, Lyle, a rock-and-roll wannabe who doesn’t return her affections, setting in motion a series of never-consummated flings. Hannah calls them dalliances. She doesn’t see anything wrong. Daniel implodes nearby. She has never, she explains to Daniel, gone all the way, never slept with anyone else. At least, not that she can remember.

And there you basically have the novel. The predictable pendulum swings of Hannah Crowe’s life take over the rest of The Best Way You Know How. She goes out, gets drunk, almost has sex, and comes home to hear her husband say forgiving things like “I kind of like the fact you’re a little crazy.”

Watching marriages melt down can be a wonderful spectator sport, but this marriage, with its boundless passivity, doesn’t provide the kicks we might get from a George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or even an arguing couple through an apartment wall. After her drunken close encounters, Hannah repents and wonders why she can’t enjoy her English husband. She’s grateful he’s so forgiving. The problem with a forgiving husband, English or otherwise, is that forgiveness becomes a licence to sin some more.

But here’s the issue: so what? Hannah has a bad go of her marriage, but this alone should not justify her presence as a main character in a story. All her London friends come with charming patter, but most are thinly sketched witty Brits who wouldn’t be out of place offering tips in a Bridget Jones film. Hannah’s sexual experiences might be good fodder to retell in a pub, but they come across as tame on the page. Her experiences are not erotic or exotic, nor do they come close to prying open Hannah Crowe’s character and revealing something unexpected or interesting.

Is she going to take us down into some deep furrow of sexual degradation? Is she going to find ecstasy? Is she going to examine what the definition of marriage can mean for two confused people? Is she going to vaguely complain about her lot in life and have another drink? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Pountney’s first book, Last Chance Texaco, was a road novel, and her latest character tends to wander in and out of focus. If Pountney was dedicated to building Hannah Crowe’s London into a fully realized world, she wouldn’t move this book along at such a nervous pace. Whenever Hannah’s life begins to drag, Pountney slides in a new locale – Mexico, Toronto – with as much conviction as a hired stagehand pushing new scenery onto a stage. Her heroine acts the same in the new places. Once the get-drunk-come-close-to-screwing-feel-shame cycle has turned, the scenery is rolled back again to reveal the council flats of South London and the inertia of her relationship with Daniel.

Pountney writes in a lean, unadorned style that relies heavily on dialogue. It makes the writing hurtle by. If only the novel didn’t shirk its responsibilities in doing so. There’s not enough liveliness and humour to make this a good piece of trashy fiction, not enough sex to make it hum with a real erotic charge, and not enough diligence and examination to make this a study of the real hardships of marrying on a whim. Perhaps a character like Hannah Crowe doesn’t belong in London. She certainly doesn’t belong at the centre of a novel.