Mummy's Legs

Kate Bingham, Author
Kate Bingham, Author Simon & Schuster $20 (208p) ISBN 978-0-684-86470-9
Hardcover - 202 pages - 978-1-86049-490-1
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The title of British poet Bingham's spare, quietly affecting debut novel quotes the nurse at the London hospital where the 10-year-old protagonist's mother is taken following a suicide attempt. ""We need you to be Mummy's legs,"" the nurse tells young Sarah, who serves throughout the novel as her emotionally unstable mother's gofer, confessor and apologist. While the self-indulgent, manipulative Catherine, a journalist with a circle of literary friends and a poet for a lover, is recovering from her breakdown, Sarah is deposited by her mild-mannered father, Harry--estranged from his wife--at the country home of childless Aunt Marion. The novel alternately cuts from this trying period to a decade in the future, when Sarah, now a young woman in her first love relationship, is helping her embittered, still-single mother celebrate her 50th birthday. By continually switching tenses (from past to present) and voices (from third person to first), Bingham creates a dizzying perspective that mirrors Sarah's enforced selflessness. These same obtrusive narrative techniques, however, deny the novel its driving force, disorienting the reader. Bingham, winner of the 1996 Eric Gregory Poetry Award (for Cohabitation) is at her best in her pared-down descriptions of the country--""The sea was calm and so far away you couldn't even hear what it said.""--but the characterizations of all but Sarah's mother seem piecemeal and incomplete. Atmospheric but too loosely pieced together, the novel never quite reaches critical mass; nevertheless, it stylishly sketches a series of emotional states. (Feb.)
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