Continuing with my journey through #ReadIndies, another favourite independent press whose books turn up regularly on the Ramblings is that of Michael Walmer. Mike initially published out of Australia but relocated to the Shetlands – and what a change that must have been – where he continues to issue fascinating works, from lost classics to books from more recent years which are unjustly ignored. Today’s book for #ReadIndies is one of the latter, from an author being championed by Mike – “A Virtual Image” by Rosalind Brackenbury.

Brackenbury is a writer still living and working, and I reviewed her first novel, “A Day to Remember to Forget” (1971), back in June last year. It was a beautifully written and very atmospheric work, and so I was keen to move on to “Virtual”, Brackenbury’s second novel, which was published in the same year. The beautiful cover of the book is apt, as it follows the lives of two women who have been friends from childhood and are both artists – Anna Parrish and Ruby Smith. Anna is blonde and beautiful and ethereal, Ruby the down-to-earth dark-haired sensible one; hints of Snow White and Rose Red, then. They grew up together living in their own intense childhood world of fantasy, play and make-believe; and in some ways it does seem they’ve never quite left it.

Anna usually takes the lead, and the bulk of the narrative tells the story of a summer where the two friends have planned to meet up in France; at an artists’ colony of sorts, but if that doesn’t work out, the back up plan is to meet in the South, in the Camargue. The story is (mostly) narrated from the point of view of Ruby, and we follow her journey driving through France, firstly stopping off with some friends, then moving on to the artists’ colony. At neither place has she really found a trace of Anna, and the colony is a disappointed, with most of the activity involved being worship of the two artists running the place. So Ruby moves on, driving further into the South of France, and it is when she arrives at Aigues-Mortes, where the women were meant to meet, that she runs into Caleb ‘Caley’ Hanson, an American poet. Caley is a friend of Ruby’s friends, but as the reader knows from earlier parts of the narrative, he’s also been involved with Anna and their affair had not gone well. So both Ruby and Caley are on the same quest, to find Anna, which inevitably draws them together. But will they find their missing friend? And how will what they find affect them?

There are days which seem to have been washed, early in the morning, which start with such hope that by midday they can only be a blazing miracle, by evening they have changed and mellowed and set one at rest; it was a day like that, or I think I should have looked a little longer backward. As it was, my eyes followed my pointing car bonnet towards the south, and I rolled the windows down and filled my eyes and lungs with the beauty of rural France…

It has to be said up front that Brackenbury writes beautifully, a quality I remarked on in my review of her first novel. The opening pages of “Virtual”, where Ruby looks back on her childhood and growing up alongside Anna are quite stunning; vivid, evocative, capturing the days of childhood brilliantly, it’s a remarkable start to a book. And her prose is like this all the way through; often dream-like, sinuous and wonderfully poetic, she conjures place and time with apparent ease. Looking back, those times were odd; the turn of the decade, from 1960s into 1970s, was an era where things were out of place a little. The 1960s had brought changes but it was still unusual, perhaps, to see women travelling through France on their own; in the relationships between Caley and the women there are questions about how they should behave; and as both women are artists, it’s fascinating to see the place art takes in their lives, and the struggle to decide if they need men, or if the best choice is to stay single and follow your art, not your heart.

I don’t want to provide any spoilers here, because although this is not a mystery or thriller novel, the end is perhaps a little unexpected – or maybe not! Certainly, Ruby becomes much clearer about what her friendship with Anna has actually been, and is hopefully going to be able to move on with her life. And the dramatic finale, set in a brilliantly depicted South of France, with its heat and smells, is striking and memorable.

“A Virtual Image” was an immersive and compelling read, and Brackenbury’s powers of description are impressive. Whether driving down the French roads with Ruby or looking out over the countryside, the landscapes come vividly alive as if you’re living out the story alongside the characters. As I mentioned, most of the narrative is from the point of view of Ruby apart from occasional inserted passages which, as you read, it becomes clear are from Anna or Caley. In her fascinating introduction, Janet Burroway posits a theory that those parts might even be projections from Ruby, putting forward what she thinks might be running through the heads of Anna or Caley. It’s an interesting idea, though I’m not entirely sure  I would agree; for me, those narrative voices were a necessary counterpart to that of Ruby, and convincingly showed how what people are thinking can be very different to what we imagine is going through their heads!

So another winner from Mike Walmer! It really is beyond me why Brackenbury’s work is not more widely known, as she’s such a marvellous prose stylist, and so wonderful at atmosphere. Fortunately for me, Mike has also reissued Brackenbury’s third novel, “Into Egypt” – so I have another treat in store! 😀