It's 10am in Primrose Hill, London. The author Isabel Fonseca sits in her kitchen, "tanking up on coffee". An American by birth and a New Yorker at heart, she says, "I can't believe I've lived in England for over 25 years or whatever it is. It's payment for my sins. Or maybe I just forgot to leave."
Her tone has a throwaway flash to it; just joking, right? Fonseca corrects me immediately. "I'm not, you know."
Why such resentment towards her adopted home? After all, England made her, so to speak. From a philosophy, politics and economics degree at Oxford to her role as an assistant editor at The Times Literary Supplement and the publication of Bury Me Standing in 1995, a non-fiction study of the gypsies of Eastern Europe.
That book involved five years of participatory journalism, living and breathing her subjects' lives from Albania to Estonia. Upon publication Salman Rushdie called it "a revelation: a hidden world"; Edward W. Said praised its "profound sympathy and brilliant insight".
In the meantime, Fonseca was making other news over her affair with Martin Amis. She had already picked up the nickname "Funseeker" on the London social circuit, as well as a slew of admirers that purportedly included John Malkovich, Clive James, Bill Buford and, yes, Salman Rushdie.
Men fairly wilted before Fonseca and to this day, at age 46, there is not an article on the internet from The Sunday Times to W Magazine that does not still remark upon her beauty. A formidably intelligent brunette, her dark looks reflected the heritage of her Uruguayan father, a highly regarded sculptor, and her Jewish American mother, a painter and heiress to the Welch grape juice family-company fortune.
Amis would eventually leave his first wife, Antonia Phillips, and their two sons; get a hotshot American agent, a seriously big American publishing deal and even get his teeth fixed. Fonseca was the scarlet woman behind this scandalous Americanisation of a British icon, a cliche that ignored Amis's long-running transatlantic obsessions, not to mention the fact Phillips was an American academic. Fonseca and Amis would go on to marry in 1998 and now have two daughters, Fernanda, 11, and Clio, 9.
When I ask Fonseca about her antipathy to England, she's quick to refine it into something more good-natured: "Oh it's all right. London's just too expensive to be loveable … Actually we just spent a few years living in South America. And it was wonderful, charming, heaven. But I don't mind being in the wrong place. I think for a writer being in the wrong place is often a very good thing."
Back in 2004 Fonseca and family decamped to Uruguay for 2½years in the wake of her father's death. There Fonseca attempted to write and then abandoned a major non-fiction work on her extended family. During that time she turned to "what was, I thought, a short story at first" before it evolved into the highly intimate book she now calls Attachment.
Attachment is not only Fonseca's debut novel it is her first major work since Bury Me Standing. In it she quotes these crucial, if ambiguous words from Philip Larkin's An Arundel Tomb: "What will survive of us is love."
Like the Larkin poem, Attachment takes a somewhat anti-romantic view of romance, before leaving us with a bittersweet and defiantly fragile ending. The book's central character is Jean Hubbard, a syndicated American health columnist married to a high-achieving British advertising executive called Mark. Mark is described as "six feet four in bare feet and striking with his grayed hair swept back, wind-eroded dune grass above the expanding beach of his face". This alone sounds like an awfully good depiction of Amis with a height boost, not to mention a more commercialised slant on his and Fonseca's literary preoccupations.
Like Fonseca, Hubbard has a background that includes having once worked as a paralegal for the summer in New York; she similarly buys pot as a teenager in Washington Square; studies at Oxford; is shadowed by a brother who has died tragically young; deals with a father who is critically ill; and copes with the unexpected appearance of a young woman who might be her husband's daughter (Amis discovered he had an unknown daughter called Delilah Seale in 1997). That the opening of Attachment is set on the imaginary island of St Jacques - supposedly located somewhere near Mauritius, but also a hot, exotic place not unlike Uruguay - brings it even closer to home.
When Attachment begins, Hubbard discovers a sexually provocative letter that leads her to a secret email link and an affair her husband has been having. To find out more about it Hubbard begins writing to "Giovanna" as if she were her husband. This incites Hubbard to abandon herself to a night of infidelity back in London, and to later flirt with an old lover in New York while her father hovers on the critical list in hospital. "Everything was sullied and she was rotting from within," Hubbard reflects as she delves into a world of internet affairs and online pornography. Later, as she embraces a path of disillusionment to license her own betrayals, she admits "this was the consequence she most feared: her own revulsion for her world, for all that she had. Auto-eviction."
Britain is already abuzz with Attachment as an adulterous and confessional insight into a less-than-happy marriage - as well as the critical complications of dealing with a work that may or may not be a roman-a-clef. Attachment is a novel of great promise but it ebbs and flows in its intensity according to the proximity one feels between the author and her "truths". In short, the things Fonseca seems to have experienced are powerfully evoked; the things she appears to have imagined feel forced or contrived.
Fonseca runs a nice line in self-deprecating humour and frankness. But in the course of an hour's conversation she puts herself to the test of her own thinking repeatedly and seems to find herself wanting. Talking on the phone there's that strange, floating sense you have not so much entered her home as her headspace: an inner world so thoughtful and honest it can leave you feeling cowardly by comparison.
"There's a long period of merger in the beginning of any relationship," Fonseca says. "Then with children you sense you have to keep a united front. My daughters are nine and 11 now. Old enough to get your space back a little. You see that you still have a long way to go - I hope! That I'm only halfway … But you also ask, 'Is that it?' Not as a matter of complaint, more as a matter of stupefaction." Fonseca almost laughs. "Here I am, I've made babies, but who am I now that I am on my own again?"
She's adamant "adultery is not the subject of Attachment, but ageing is. There's this disappointment about your decrepitude, this realisation you are going to die which you have never quite accepted. Adolescence and middle-age actually share a lot of parallels. The unease about the body and the sexual awareness that's associated with it, only you have this death awareness that gives it a particular pungency in middle age. Things like the way your parents suddenly demand your attention with their mental or physical fragility or both; or something as simple as the way your children won't do what they're told any more."
Coincidentally Bury Me Standing and Attachment both resound with a quest for home. "Whenever you write it is to investigate some anxiety. Writing about the gypsies there was some public anxiety with identity. Fiction is more about scratching about in a silent anxiety. And your sense of identity often relates to what home means, I guess. I didn't set out to do that. But I see now there's a lot of homesickness in the story [of Attachment] … Maybe it's a cliche of fiction that the past is another country. But this nostalgia for the time before is so often identified with place as much as time."
"You know I still go to New York about four times a year for various reasons. One of the real, but less legitimate reasons I do it is you can imagine life before it happened to you, when things could have gone 19 different ways. I think that's why I'm lucky to be a writer. Because you can think about and write about such things, just to see how you feel."
- - Mark Mordue
· * First published as ‘Well written in the Wrong Place’,
Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum, June 14, 2008