It was its structure that attracted me to Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation. That and its cover image of two women alongside each other rather than face to face intrigued me. Popkey’s debut tells the story of an unnamed woman through the conversations she has with other women at various points in her life beginning when she’s twenty and ending seventeen years later.
Our narrator’s first conversation is with the mother of the twins she’s looking after on holiday in Italy. She’s there both as a nanny and as the friend of her charges’ sister but her most intimate connection proves to be with their mother. From there, our narrator takes us to a messy, post-party apartment with her grad student friends, listening to a story of seduction and abandonment. Almost a decade later she’s consoling a friend about her break-up, surrounded by images of female subjugation by a Swedish artist. The last five years see her angry at the friend who’s moved in with her parents when her marriage breaks down, recalling a one-night stand, listening to a woman recount her memories of Norman Mailer’s wife covered in blood at a party, drunkenly exchanging stories with other single mothers, listening to a stranger’s tale of giving up her child, cringing at her mother’s exhortation to start dating and, finally, exchanging news with her babysitter. By the end of her conversations, our narrator has taken us from young adulthood to early middle-age by way of marriage, divorce and motherhood.
I am often thinking of the better story because the actual story is so boring.
The narrator of Popkey’s episodic novel constructs her own story from her exchanges with other women, revealing herself to be much more attracted to the immediacy of intimacy with a stranger than to the slow maturing of a long friendship. She is, as she frequently reminds us, a supremely unreliable narrator, constantly shifting perspective, not knowing what she wants to be or how to be it. She’s one paper away from finishing her PhD, unsure whether she wants a child, would much rather be told what to do than live with a man who expects her to be and do what she wants. At the end of her book, Popkey includes a long list of ‘Works (Not Cited)’ which is almost as fascinating as her novel, ranging from specific episodes of Mad Men to novels such as Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be to Antony Minghella’s screen adaptation of The English Patient. It’s an impressive debut, clear-eyed in its depiction of life’s messy confusion and indecision, which leaves you with a great deal to think about. Definitely a book to revisit.
Serpent’s Tail: London 2020 9781788164047 240 pages Paperback