Daisy Lafarge: 'I wanted to look at how we navigate sudden immersion'

Daisy Lafarge: 'I wanted to look at how we navigate sudden immersion'

Daisy Lafarge / credit: James McNaught

Poet Daisy Lafarge threw various influences into her debut novel. Before heading to the Edinburgh International Book Festival she spoke to us about the mechanics of imbalanced relationships

Daisy Lafarge's recently published first novel Paul is a sun-soaked story of almost pathological passivity. 'I started writing it in the summer of 2016, although the idea was brewing for about a year before then. I was particularly concerned with the way some women can get stuck in this kind of passive mode and how that plays out in relationships.'

Lafarge was finishing art school in Edinburgh at the time and came across Gauguin's diary of his time in Tahiti. The two inspirations melded and she began to write about an extremely passive woman and an imagined, 21st-century version of the French painter. The result is redolent with compelling questions about colonialism, language and vulnerability. The protagonist, Frances, is a young British woman who escapes scandal in Paris to volunteer for a summer in rural France. I asked Lafarge whether the foreign setting was an integral part in exploring Frances' mindset. 'I would say it is. It's also a slight but intentional echo of Gauguin's travels to Tahiti. I wanted to look at how we navigate those instances of sudden immersion.'

Frances' position is also one of vulnerability as she stays with the eponymous Paul on his somewhat sketchy eco-farm Noa Noa, named after his adventures in Tahiti. Paul is a charismatic and compelling older man who is quick to suggest there might be something more between them. Frances is a guest in is home and his country, putting her in an exposed position. She is also only volunteering in the first place at the suggestion of ex-partner and academic supervisor, AB, as a way of recovering from their break-up and an unnamed scandal in Paris.

Lafarge uses the present tense to tap into her protagonist's experience. Frances is in the moment, unable to reflect or concisely explain her own emotional state or decisions. There's a definite feeling of disassociation and dislocation throughout and while this can be exasperating for the reader at times, it is a wholly deliberate choice. It also ensures that there is great satisfaction when Frances' moments of insight, and even agency, appear.

Language is a central theme across the novel. Not only is Frances speaking in a tongue that's not her own, she experiences what appears to be selective mutism with Paul relishing that he speaks for her. Staying silent can be seen as passivity but can also be a type of protest. 'It's obviously a fictional depiction and not any comment on actual language acquisition,' insists Lafarge. 'But I was interested in the way she might retreat from a language that doesn't serve her.'

There are no wild epiphanies here and Lafarge is careful not to explain away Frances' emotional estrangement, a wise choice in a book that is so emotionally astute. A sudden ability to articulate the things she is grappling with would only cheapen their experience. Also, as Lafarge points out, the reader is only with Frances for three weeks; how much can any of us learn about ourselves in such a short period? With the publication of her poetry collection, Life Without Air, in November 2020, this is Lafarge's second experience of launching a book largely online. Releasing a novel from behind a laptop may feel unusually static, but Paul deserves to travel widely.

Daisy Lafarge will be appearing in an online and in-person event with Evie Wyld, Edinburgh College Of Art, Friday 27 August, 1pm; Pay What You Can online, £14 (£12) in-person.

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