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Good grief: gripping story of loss is pleasingly unfashionable

Sylvia Colley’s second novel is a compassionate and tender story of a woman attempting to survive grief

10 August, 2018 — By Piers Plowright

Sylvia Colley

HOW do you deal with loss – particularly the loss of your children? That’s really the subject of Sylvia Colley’s second novel, Ask Me to Dance.

Her heroine Rose Gregory, advised by her doctor, goes to a monastery, looking for a refuge. What she finds is much more complicated.

First of all the monastery is on the verge of closing as the small band of brothers prepare to join another, more flourishing, community. Then, apart from the rather remote abbot, the monks are a weird lot, at loggerheads with each other, and not particularly welcoming to visitors. And the food’s awful!

But there are two people in this strange place who make a difference and begin some kind of healing for Rose: strange, grubby, ill-shaven, little Brother Joseph, and Guy, a lay-doctor with his own problems but free from dogma and the intrigues of the monastery. The eccentric kindness of the monk, devoted to his grey rabbit, Francis, and the practical understanding, laced with a little sexual attraction, of the doctor, let in a little light on Rose’s grief.

All three – the monk, the doctor and the grieving woman – have been wounded by life and so instinctively are drawn to help each other. Religion plays a part, but this novel is much more about what Tennessee Williams’ Blanche Dubois so memorably called “the kindness of strangers”.

In a crucial scene, Guy drives Rose away from her semi-prison at the monastery for a day out. He takes her to the side of a small river and, moved by a happy memory from her complicated childhood, she takes off her sandals and starts to paddle and splash in the icy water. She writes: I was in the moment, as they say, In the moment. And I didn’t want to come out of the moment. Face dripping, I flung out wide towards him as he stood there. “Ask me to dance. Ask me to dance!”

The gesture and the speech don’t have the desired effect and the spell is broken. But there’s been a loosening of something inside Rose and, quoting from Khalil Gibran, Guy is able to say something about the way sorrow and joy are connected that, though the pain isn’t over and there’s further violence ahead, suggests a way forward.

Ask Me To Dance is a pleasingly unfashionable novel, in the sense that it’s a compassionate and tender exploration of an old search: the recovery of happiness and the survival of grief in a world that has lost the old consolations. There’s no tidy ending.

When Rose returns to the abbey some time later, the monks have gone, and workmen are busy turning the building into a luxury hotel. She herself is still damaged, on medication, and seeing a therapist every week. But, as she sits beside Brother Joseph’s small grave, she knows she can and will go on. And one day – just possibly – someone will ask her to dance.

Ask Me To Dance. By Sylvia Colley, Muswell Press, £10.99.

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