Duncker, Patricia 1951-
DUNCKER, Patricia 1951-
PERSONAL: Born June 29, 1951, in Kingston, Jamaica; daughter of Noel Aston and Sheila Joan (maiden name, Beer) Duncker. Ethnicity: "White—West Indian origins." Education: Studied at Bedales School in mid-1960s; Newnham College, Cambridge, B.A., 1973; St. Hugh's College, Oxford, D. Phil. (English and German Romanticism), 1979. Politics: "Extreme." Religion: Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Traveling in remote, unpopulated landscapes.
ADDRESSES: Office—Department of English and American Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich, Norfolk, UK NR4 7TJ. Agent—Victoria Hobbs, A. M. Heath and Company, Ltd., 79 St. Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4AA, England.
CAREER: University of Wales, Aberystwyth, teacher of writing, literature, and feminist theory, developer of writing courses, 1991-2002; University of East Anglia, professor of prose fiction, teaching writing at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, 2002—.
MEMBER: Society of Authors (British).
AWARDS, HONORS: Dillon's First Fiction Award, and McKitterick Prize, both 1997, for Hallucinating Foucault.
Sisters and Strangers: An Introduction to Contemporary Feminist Fiction, Blackwell (Cambridge, MA), 1992.
Hallucinating Foucault, Serpent's Tail (New York, NY), 1996.
Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees, Serpent's Tail (New York, NY), 1997.
(With Susan Dodd and Ruth Moon Kempher) Insides Out: Stories by Susan Dodd, Patricia Duncker and Ruth Moon Kempher, Kings Estate Press (Florida), 1997.
The Doctor: A Novel, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1999, published as James Miranda Barry, Serpent's Tail (New York, NY), 1999.
Writing on the Wall: Selected Essays, Pandora/Rivers Oram Publishers, 2002.
The Deadly Space Between, Ecco Press/HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
Seven Tales of Sex and Death, Picador (London, England), 2003.
In and Out of Time: Lesbian Feminist Fiction, Only-women Press, 1990.
(With Vicky Wilson, and contributor) Cancer: Through the Eyes of Ten Women, drawings by Catherine Arthur, Pandora Press (San Francisco, CA), 1996.
(With Janet Thomas) The Woman Who Loved Cucumbers: Short Stories by Women from Wales, Honno (Dinas Powys, South Glamorgan, Wales), 2002.
(With Janet Thomas) Mirror, Mirror, Honno (Dinas Powys, South Glamorgan, Wales), 2004.
Author's works have been translated into French, German, Italian, Dutch, Greek, and Lithuanian.
WORK IN PROGRESS: "Fourth novel."
SIDELIGHTS: Patricia Duncker, professor of creative writing (prose fiction) at the University of East Anglia, won wide critical acclaim for her first book of fiction in 1996, Hallucinating Foucault. Her debut novel reflects Duncker's worldliness; containing elements of the thriller and the romance, it nonetheless eludes easy classification.
Although it bears a postmodern title, Hallucinating Foucault does not explicitly deal with French philosopher Michel Foucault's life and work. Instead it recasts the philosopher's main themes—madness, death, sexuality, and crime—in a love story about the passion between writer and reader. As a nameless twenty-two-year-old graduate student conducts his doctoral research, he becomes increasingly enamored with his subject, French novelist Paul Michel. Although he produces "carefully controlled and austere works," Michel leads a "flamboyant, wild and reckless, homosexual lifestyle," according to Jill Adams in Barcelona Review. Obsessed with understanding the hidden meanings in Michel's work, the narrator travels to France to meet him and discovers letters revealing the author's own extraliterary interest in Foucault. Adams deemed the book an "easily accessible, titillating, richly symbolic narrative full of intrigue, suspense, and romance." Bookweb reviewer Linda M. Castellitto said that "passion is indeed evident in the pages of this book, in which a graduate student travels quite far—both emotionally and geographically—to find writer Paul Michel . . . in order to consummate their literary love affair."
Duncker's second book is a collection of thirteen stories, Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees. The book includes the title story plus "The Crew from M6," "Aria Nova," "A Woman Alone," and the novella "The Arrival Matters." This collection has been praised by reviewers, who are especially pleased with "The Arrival Matters," the story of the last days of an elderly woman's life and the passing on of her powerful knowledge to a young apprentice. The woman is a member of a group of magicians linked by love and the supernatural. "The Crew from M6" deals with a film crew's taping of life inside a community of intellectual lesbians and the betrayal of the women by a male member of the crew. Other stories are concerned with women and their abusive husbands, lesbian love, and the aspects of power and freedom in relationships.
Pam Barrett of the London Sunday Times called the book a "bewitching collection." Dennis Dodge of Booklist found it ambiguous at times but called Duncker's prose "spare and clean" and her stories "powerfully evocative." Graham Fraser of the Review of Contemporary Fiction commented that some of Duncker's characters serve only to convey a "heavyhanded 'message,'" but he praised "The Arrival Matters," calling it "by far the most engaging" story in the collection. Fraser thought the collection as a whole was "varied and captivating" and that several of the stories exhibit "a wicked sense of sociosexual satire." Barbara Hoffert praised the collection's originality and said the stories are told in a voice that "glints like metal left out in the sun." She thought "The Crew from M6" was "superb." A Publishers Weekly contributor found the collection to be "honed by precise, hard and luminous wordcraft."
Like Hallucinating Foucault, Duncker's Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees is set in sunny France, where Duncker has lived, in addition to Germany, Wales, England, and her childhood home of Jamaica. "As a writer I have no identity that is rooted in a country, no home, no origins," Duncker said, describing her personal perspective on her work in a Serpent's Tail press release titled "Private/Public." "Most of the exiled writers within my tradition sat in foreign towns dreaming of their particular mass of forest, rocks, stones or bricks. Joyce sat in Trieste . . . imagining Dublin. Lawrence went south, to France, to Italy, then sailed away to New Mexico, never forgetting . . . all the grey landscapes of Northern England. . . . I think about all this and I begin smiling."
Duncker's second novel is based on the life of James Miranda Barry, the nineteenth-century colonial doctor, who after his death was revealed to have been a woman. Duncker once told CA: "Barry is, for me, a fascinating subject because he embodies so many of my intellectual interests: the disruption of gender, cross-dressing, identity both as masquerade and as deliberate disguise. But there are personal connections too. Barry worked in Jamaica, which is my country of origin. He knew the landscapes I know. And, by chance, he was important for my mother's research work on the free-coloreds and their resistance to further colonial exploitation in the early days after the abolition in 1838. Barry was present during one of the major slave uprisings, the Trelawny rebellion in 1831. He wrote, 'I served under Sir Willoughby Cotton during the Rebellion and the burning of the plantations by the Negroes.' My mother was not especially interested in Barry's gender, but she was in his medical reforms; I am interested in both.
"Barry was an outsider wherever he went. He had a formidable temper. He was a great favorite with the ladies. He fought many duels. He loved uniforms, dressing up and parades. He was very vain concerning his appearance. I have done a good deal of research on the period of Barry's life, especially on gruesome nineteenth-century tropical diseases and medical theories of the time. Barry was a very successful doctor partly because he was a hygiene fetishist and demanded that everything—bodies, floors, linen, nurses—should be scrubbed clean. He used to mutter 'dirty beasts, dirty beasts' at the soldiers.
"This is a narrative about origins, identity and exile but I am not writing a biography. I am inventing the story of James Barry, his public life, her inner life. About which we know nothing."
Published as The Doctor in the United States and James Miranda Barry elsewhere, the book was widely reviewed for its intriguing subject matter. In an interview with Nicholas Wroe of the Guardian, Duncker said she began writing the novel in 1991 but became stalled when she could not decide whether to refer to the main character as "he" or "she." She had also written a short story, published in 1989, based on Barry's life. By 1997, Duncker was ready to resume work on the novel, settling on first- and third-person narration to work around the gender problem. Said Wroe, "The resulting book is an absorbing literary-historical novel that probes with an exuberant intelligence the complex relationship between what things are and what they seem."
In an interview with the Guardian writer Raekha Prasad, Duncker said, "I think there are underworlds of gender. There are a lot of people who feel very unhappy in the roles ascribed to them. Writing can expand your notion of what a man or a woman can be." Prasad called the book a "meaty, compulsive novel." Sarah Chinn of the Advocate wrote that the novel "shimmers through Barry's life, trying to get at the heart of what it means to live a pretense—one that awards the pretender a status far above what s/he could otherwise expect."
Guardian writer Alex Clark did not write as favorably about the novel; he said the author "presents a confusing and at times willfully obscure piece of picaresque writing." Commenting on the way Barry came to live as a man—it was the idea of his widowed mother and a group of men surrounding her, concocted to ensure that the eleven-year-old girl could go to medical school and live a successful life—Clark said Barry's life was "created by a powerful cartel of other men." He found the book typical of the modern historical novel and the character of Barry somewhat poorly developed where the inner life is concerned. "Duncker writes expressively and with much passion, but too often she appears to be struggling with the burden of her material, and veering wildly between clumsily handled idiom and register . . . and a more considered treatment of her main themes and concerns," Clark commented, even though he added that handling the material would be "a tall order for any writer."
Aisling Foster of the London Times also concluded that the novel does not help the reader to know Barry's character in depth. Foster observed that Duncker's thorough research often left too many gaps needing to be filled by imagination, including the uncertainty over the identity of Barry's father. A little too much historical information about the period, Foster thought, made it appear as if "historic backdrops are wheeled on and off." However, Foster stated, "This is an engrossing story, featuring an authentic hero who is satisfyingly stranger than fiction."
Miranda Seymour of the London Sunday Times commented that perhaps the novel offers too much about the kitchen maid-turned-performer Alice Jones's career (Jones is Barry's lifelong lover in Duncker's novel). She found no other flaws, however, and called the book "richly atmospheric," with "the murky excitement of a Victorian thriller." Seymour thought Duncker handled historical gaps brilliantly, filling them "with glorious bravado and an imagination of magnificent, focused intensity."
John Vernon, writing for the New York Times Book Review, found the Jones character somewhat out of place. He wrote, "From her first appearance, Alice either stretches our belief or makes us squirm. In a crucial oversight, her language is bleached of any historical markers, of any class or regional dialect." Vernon also pointed out that the novel's ending—in which Jones is interviewed by a journalist seeking the truth about Barry's gender after his death—might be enjoyed by some readers as "immensely playful and entertaining." However, he wrote, "Others will feel robbed, will think that this very talented writer is trying to have it both ways—and will lament so belated a deconstruction of her own fondness for the trappings of romance." All in all, though, Vernon concluded that The Doctor "is written with spirit and a good heart. Its historical details are rich and authentic, and its tone combines sensory immediacy and ironic detachment."
Duncker published her third novel, The Deadly Space Between, in 2002. She once told CA: "The Deadly Space Between is a psychological thriller. I love thrillers. I love the plots, the desperate characters, the spies, the cops or the detectives, amateur and professional, the settings, fast-paced psycho-narratives, chases in any form of vehicle, threats, sexual menace, blood everywhere, secrets, twists, revelations. But . . . there is one element in the thriller that has always irritated and disappointed me. The motive. I am always let down by the motive. I can never believe that this huge elaborate artifice was generated by mere jealousy, greed, passion, revenge. So I decided to write a claustrophobic, horrifying tale, with a tight cast of characters, sexual scenes for adults, a thrilling chase, and all the trimmings. But the tale would hinge entirely on the complexity and ambiguity of the motive. For me, the greatest psychological thriller of all time is Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. This is the story of a man who murders his father and marries his mother in the fulfillment of a prophecy. But he is unaware of their identities. Oedipus is both the criminal and the detective, and, best of all, There Is No Motive. He didn't even know he'd done it.
"So, my third novel is an Oedipal thriller which attempts to answer the following questions. The first question is raised by Mary Wollstonecraft, who doesn't see the point of the story [Oedipus Rex]. 'What moral lesson can be drawn from the story of Oedipus, the favourite subject of such a number of tragedies?' she wrote. 'The gods impel him on, and, led imperiously by blind fate, though perfectly innocent, he is fearfully punished, with all his hapless race, for a crime in which his will had no part.' And the other question is posed by Roland Barthes. Barthes adores the figure of the Father in Freud's theoretical writings. 'Death of the Father,' he pointed out, 'would deprive literature of many of its pleasures. If there is no longer a Father, why tell stories? Doesn't every narrative lead back to Oedipus?'
"Freud's case histories are fascinating because they are psycho-thrillers. Who did what to whom? When? How? Why? In Sophocles' Oedipus, the Father gets bumped off early on, offstage. And in Freud's versions of the Oedipus drama, the Father is unchanging, a forbidding monolithic black slab of patriarchy. What about making the Father the centre of the action? And so I created Roehm, who is the stranger in my story, the man with no past, the seductive listener, who leaves no trace.
"My fiction comes out of my reading and my deepest intellectual concerns. But I like books to have a strong sense of place. So I do a lot of traveling research. I drove the route my characters take over the mountain. I spent weeks in the mountains of Chamonix, where key scenes in the novel take place. I interviewed the police, who thought I was barking mad and said so. I wandered the snow peaks, holding my breath in fear on the edge of the ice precipice. You can write convincingly about fear if you too have been afraid, and one comment in the book is absolutely real. The guide ropes up his party, ready to traverse the first razor edge of ice and says, 'If you must fall off, fall to the right. It's only 400 feet. If you fall off to the left it's 7,000 feet down.'"
The Deadly Space Between is the story of a precocious eighteen-year-old boy, Toby Hawk, and his mother, Isobel, a painter who bore her son at age fifteen by a married man no longer in their lives. Mother and son are isolated and close, with a relationship that is sometimes incestuous. Iso's Aunt Luce and her lesbian lover, Liberty, play a somewhat stabilizing role in their lives. When "Iso" starts dating the mysterious hulking Roehm, Toby is at first jealous but later becomes obsessed with the man, who shows sexual favor toward the boy as well as his mother. (The book takes its title from Melville's phrase about transgression of "the deadly space between.") Roehm is powerful and intense, with an icy touch and an elusive existence. His relationship with Iso threatens to break mother and son apart, but near the end of the story they reunite to save themselves from him in a terrifying glacial Alpine setting. In the end, they discover Roehm's incredible secret after Iso confesses to his murder. Throughout the book, Duncker makes reference to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Freud's theories about sexuality, Oedipus Rex, Faust, the composer Weber, and other classics.
Some reviewers enjoyed these parallels; others thought them too obtrusive. William Skidelsky of the Times Literary Supplement said they "have a bamboozling, rather than elucidating, effect." He said The Deadly Space Between is "never less than engaging to read, but is not entirely convincing as a work of literature." Sinclair McKay of the London Daily Telegraph commented that the tale combines all these elements "with the logic of a bad dream." Yet, he also called the story "rich in atmosphere" and concluded, "It's overwrought, but then what good spooky folk tale isn't?"
Phil Baker of the London Sunday Times called The Deadly Space Between "farcically bad." He pointed out that a boy who had Toby's strange relationship with his mother "would be too disturbed to write the cheerily reasonable narrative" attributed to the teen. Baker said the book suffers from "thematic over-obviousness and . . . bad allegory." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews described the book as "overwrought in content, gracefully subdued in tone: an entertainment that falls short of its apparently lofty goals."
Jessica Mann of the London Sunday Telegraph had a much more favorable view of the The Deadly Space Between. Remarking that Duncker "writes beautifully with a flamboyant immediacy," Mann found Duncker's plot "complex, her characters' motives persuasively ambiguous" and said the relationship between Toby and Roehm has "the requisite appurtenances of a creepy horror story." Even so, Mann said she would not be as haunted by The Deadly Space Between as she was by the classic Frankenstein and Count Dracula horror stories. A Publishers Weekly contributor found the novel "erotically charged and, finally, enigmatic" and "grotesquely repellant yet sinuously compelling." The reviewer pointed out, however, that one source Duncker failed to acknowledge was Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.
In the interview with Wroe of the Guardian, Duncker said her aunt, the poet Patricia Beer, also her namesake, had a tremendous influence on her as a writer, even though the two women had a stormy personal relationship (Beer died in 1999). Duncker said, "If you look, a lot of writers do seem to have another writer somewhere in their lives. She was the writer in mine. . . . She was the first person to take me seriously. She told me, very politely, what was good and what was nonsense. . . . I read everything she wrote and she has shaped my mind. I hugely admire her ruthless imagination." Duncker also said her writing has always been fueled by a voracious appetite for reading. And Beer passed along to her niece the high standards by which a writer should work, revising and perfecting each piece, never succumbing to sloppiness. This perfectionism has resulted in Duncker's having an unpublished novel and many unpublished poems stored away for future work. Yet the joy of publishing, for Duncker, is to please her readers. "I know how thrilling it is for me to read a book that excites me," she said, "so to think I might have given that pleasure to someone else is wonderful."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Writers Directory, 16th edition, edited by Miranda H. Ferrara, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Advocate, April 25, 2000, Sarah Chinn, review of The Doctor, p. 82.
Booklist, February 1, 1997, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 925; March 15, 1998, Dennis Dodge, review of Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees, p. 1200.
Book World, February 9, 1997, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 8.
Choice, May, 1997, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 1495.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), March 23, 2002, Sinclair McKay, "Crying Out for Mummy: An Oedipal Ghost Story Satisfies Sinclair McKay," review of The Deadly Space Between, p. NA.
Guardian (London, England), May 31, 1999, Raekha Prasad, "Women: Prisoner of Gender," author interview, p. 8; July 10, 1999, Alex Clark, "Is There a Doctor in This Woman?," review of James Miranda Barry, p. 10; August 12, 2000, Nicholas Wroe, "A Shadow at My Shoulder," author interview.
Independent, May 29, 1999, Julie Wheelwright, "Transit and Transgression," author interview, p. S12.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1998, review of Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees, p. 355; May 15, 2002, review of The Deadly Space Between, p. 682.
Library Journal, December, 1996, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 142; March 15, 1998, Barbara Hoffert, review of Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees, p. 98.
London Review of Books, September 18, 1997, review of Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees, p. 14.
New Statesman & Society, March 1, 1996, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 37.
New Yorker, April 14, 1997, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 85.
New York Times Book Review, February 16, 1997, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 15; December 13, 1998, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 36; March 12, 2000, John Vernon, "Adventures in Cross-Dressing: A Fictionalized Life of James Barry: Doctor, Duelist, Woman," review of The Doctor, p. 38.
Observer (London, England), July 20, 1997, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 17; December 30, 2001, review of The Deadly Space Between, p. 14.
Publishers Weekly, October 21, 1996, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 68; February 16, 1998, review of Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees, p. 204; May 6, 2002, review of The Deadly Space Between, p. 32.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1998, Graham Fraser, review of Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees, p. 255.
San Francisco Review, January, 1997, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 31.
Sewanee Review, October, 1998, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 675.
Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, spring, 1994, review of Sisters and Strangers: An Introduction to Contemporary Feminist Fiction, p. 806.
Spectator, November 16, 1996, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 43; July 17, 1999, Kate Hubbard, review of James Miranda Barry (The Doctor), p. 31.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), March 24, 2002, Jessica Mann, "Son, Lover and Cook," review of The Deadly Space Between, p. NA.
Sunday Times (London, England), August 16, 1998, Pam Barrett, review of Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees, p. 14; June 13, 1999, Miranda Seymour, "Girls Will Be Boys," review of James Miranda Barry, p. 13; March 31, 2002, Phil Baker, "Gothic Horrors That Refuse to Die," review of The Deadly Space Between, p. 44.
Time, March 3, 1997, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 76.
Times (London, England), June 17, 1999, Aisling Foster, "Novel Doctoring of the Truth," review of James Miranda Barry, p. 43.
Times Literary Supplement, March 22, 1996, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 22; August 29, 1997, review of Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees, p. 24; June 11, 1999, Juliet Fleming, review of James Miranda Barry (The Doctor), p. 24; March 29, 2002, William Skidelsky, "Sinister Affections," review of The Deadly Space Between, p. 23.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), March 2, 1997, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 3.
Village Voice, February 11, 1997, review of Hallucinating Foucault, p. 53.
American Booksellers Association Bookweb,http://www.bookweb.org/ (November 18, 1997), Linda M. Castellitto, review of Hallucinating Foucault.
Barcelona Review,http://www.barcelonareview.com/ (November 18, 1997), Jill Adams, review of Hallucinating Foucault.
Serpent's Tail,http://www.serpentstail.com/ (November 18, 1997), "Private/Public," interview with Patricia Duncker.