Thirty years ago, when I was in a state of nervous over-excitement about the publication of my first novel, my editor gave me a copy of Theresa de Kerpely’s Arabesque to read. Her husband had published it in the UK and they both considered it remarkable. Now, it’s always tricky when someone presses a book into your hand with a speaking look and a muttered ‘amazing . . . unputdownable’ because of the very real danger that you will either founder on page one or soldier on to the end in the face of a nigh irresistible urge to de-limescale the taps instead. It’s analogous to the moment when your lifelong best friend declares her love for the patently obnoxious bloke you’ve been warning her about – you are left wondering if you ever really knew her at all.
Thank heavens that in this case my editor’s intuition was spot-on. I was bewitched by Arabesque then, and it has remained not just one of my Desert Island Books, but a strong contender for the one I’d rush into the encroaching waves to save.
If pressed, I’d call Arabesque a romantic novel, though I doubt its author would have appreciated the label. Romantic fiction has an image problem, in spite of a proud literary pedigree that takes in almost all the great Victorian novelists. At its most stereotypical it can lapse into silliness, and make the reader feel silly too.
Not so here. Theresa’s is a novel which could never be described in that faux girlie way as one you’d curl up with ‘like a big box of chocolates’. Scotch, strega, a good Shiraz, maybe – something that commands respect, a strong head and a discerning palate.
When I first read it I was probably as unreceptive to another person’s fiction as it’s possible to be. I had just emerged from the thrilling and exhausting business of writing my own big novel, a condition much like being in love – poor appetite, adrenalin in overdrive, general dazed euphoria – and asi
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