Book review: The Near Daphne Experience by Alison Reynolds

(courtesy Affirm Press)

Farcically brilliant as Alison Reynold’s sparklingly clever debut novel, The Near Daphne Experience is – the inspired title alone is frankly worth the price of admission alone, one thing must be said from the start … you really should get as far from Daphne as you can.

Quite why is best left to the reading of this smartly written novel but suffice to say that the titular protagonist from whom we never hear much in the way that Maris in Frasier was always referred to but never seen, is someone who be best avoided.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the friends and family whose correspondence to Daphne forms the structure and propels the narrative of this innovative tale, heed that advice; in fact, there seems to be an unofficial email and letter arms to see who can stay in touch with Daphne the most.

Based as a Victorian regional clinic in 2001 where one of her patients is serial killer Jonathan Cullinan, a man who admires the murderous Myra Hindley, is set off by the colour thanks to some seriously twisted mother issues and who is not getting out of psychiatric care any time soon, Dr. Daphne Buckley has, to date, been quite unlucky in love.

The replies she gets to her newspaper classifieds are many and unnervingly varied, each respondent convinced they are her great love, selling themselves as the one to make her lonely nights end; even the one somewhat promising one, Harley Davison (yep, his parents were a little thoughtlessly cruel when it came to naming) seems to have more than a few issues.

“If you’re thinking Mummy is sounding sozzled, you’re dead right. The brandy’s given me a bit of Dutch courage, although this is actually French cognac. I’m not sure what drink is actually Dutch – maybe that disgustingly sweet advocat? That’s definitely something Little Miss Pert Breasts would quaff. Although I suspect her breasts are quite as pert and perky now. I heard she had triplets years ago, but of course children are worth the sacrifice.” (Letter from Mariana Buckley, P. 25)

We find all of this out and more via the various emails, letters, text messages and patient notes that form the narrative bones of The Near Daphne Experience, a novel which builds up a picture of Daphne from those who know her.

While Daphne increasingly emerges from the various exchanges – the assumption is they are responded to thanks to titbits in each missive that indicate Daphne has come back in some form, really warmly or with good grace although we only have the filter of those in her life as a guide so who knows; it’s quite possible they are the problem? Or possibly not … – as a less than the glowing example of humanity, you begin to wonder how reliable her friends and family actually are as any kind of character witness.

Her mother Mariana for instance is judgemental and passively-aggressively critical to such a snarkily sneaky degree that it’s all too easy to see her seeminglyw arm and chatty letters, later emails when she masters the computer her husband Hubert, Daphne’s dad, has in his study, as nothing more than the over-involved urgings of a caring mum.

Dig deeper though and the messages to her daughter are rife with critiques of her dress style, her appraoch to love, romance and her career, her choice of work locations and a host of other less than oblique jibes at pretty much everyone Mariana comes in contact.

She is quite the piece of poisonous work, despite her positioning as a bastion of upper class warmth, good breeding and impeccable social nous, and so you begin to winder, in-between gasping at her laughable audacity, whether Daphne isn’t the product of less than ideal familial environment.

(courtesy Affirm Press)

Among the other less than stellar members of the human race who have found their way into Daphne’s questionable orbit are Digby the venal husband of Daphne’s bestie Celeste, the aforementioned Harley who is very much in love with the sound of his own everything and Daphne’s boss, Professor Augustus Fulbright, who seems to have a strange habit of leaving her name off papers they have co-authored.

None of thema re exactly gold star humanity but then that’s much of the point of this delciously dark and madly humourous romp with the lesser angels of human nature; the truth of the matter is none of us are perfect, all of are flawed in one way or another and perhaps, just perhaps, asks The Near Daphne Experience, might our flawed dislikability stem from the fact that we not in the best place for us?

Certainly as you read the emails and letters, all of them gloriously deluded in the way that all of us employ in one way or another to find some way to make life palatable and bearable, it emerges that perhaps they’re not awful people as much as they are people desperately trying to find a niche in life that makes sense for them.

In fact, it soon becomes apparent, as everyone swings back and forth to accommodate Daphne’s ever more questionable, and patently selfish behaviour, that maybe the problem isn’t them so much as it is our unseen, unheard from but near-omnipresent titular protagonist?

“The best thing about the weekend was going out with you to dinner and laughing. Not much laughter seems to happen when it’s just me and Digby. I need to work on that. Tell I’m still your best friend, even though I couldn’t keep your mum and Harley apart. I need reassurance – these are insecure times in which we live.” (Email from Celeste Smythe, P. 204)

That’s confirmed more and more as you pay ever closer attention to the emotional and metal gymnastics everyone has to do to make accommodation for Daphne, most of all Celeste is as sweet as can be and about the only person in the book without any real issues – she’s not exempt from them, she just has less than anyone else – and while no one in The Near Daphne Experience is unflawed, it becomes clear that Daphne is in fact the most flawed of them all.

Just how flawed becomes monstrously, hilariously clear towards the end of the book in a scene that far from going the way she intended, actually ends up setting everyone in the book up for as close to a happy ending as they are ever going to get.

There is a real sense of raw, broken humanity to The Near Daphne Experience, and while there are times when you’ll gasp in fury at the sheer audacity of people and the way in which they disappear into themselves, unable to truly be there for others, you’ll also laugh, and quite possibly out loud, at the way in which that selfishness rebounds on them, particularly Daphne and how a singular narcissistic approach doesn’t have the intended effect.

The Near Daphne Experience is a thoroughly fascinating and often cringe-inducing, farcically funny descent into the depths of the collective human soul, proof that we are all more than a little broken and selfish but that some are worse than others, and that in the end we’re all just trying to make the best of things and perhaps in the end we’re not evil or flawed and simply just human, a state of being that pretty much guarantees we won’t get everything right but that we might, even the worst of us, somehow land uneasily on our feet and get what we deserve, good or bad.

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