WHEN she sees her dead sister browsing the booze aisle of an Islington supermarket, Marnie gives chase – only to find her sibling has suddenly disappeared.
This is the intriguing opening scene in Archway actor-author Susannah Wise’s new novel, Okay Then That’s Great.
Marnie, the novel’s focal character, is a middle-aged poet and mother who experiences sightings of her long-dead identical twin in locations including Essex Road, Islington, and central London. As if this isn’t unsettling enough, she also has severe writer’s block and repeated, vivid dreams of being a man. She seeks help from octogenarian Harley Street shrink Schlap, who, it turns out, has recently suffered a silent stroke.
Marnie’s twin, Perdita, died just before they turned 18 and there is a breath of sadness and loss in the story.
But Wise, who has acted in TV series including Peep Show, writes with a quirky, comic touch.
No stranger to grief, she told Review that her dad died in 2015, and prior to that she lost several young women friends to suicide and cancer.
“I miss them every day,” says Susannah, who dedicates her book to “women I love, gone too soon”.
Growing up, she attended St Michael’s primary school, Highgate, and Queen’s College, Harley Street – on which Marnie’s old school is based.
Susannah, whose other acting roles have included parts in TV series Trying, and Marcella, said: “A lot of Marnie is me. She’s an internal monologue cartoon version of myself. My go-to defence mechanism is comedy and jokes.”
Another past pupil of Queen’s College is the writer Katherine Mansfield, who died in 1923. A woman who Marnie thinks is Mansfield’s living embodiment has a key role in the book.
Susannah, a member of a Tufnell Park writers’ group, said she got inspiration for her kindly character Schlap from a chance meeting with an elderly psychoanalyst in Waterlow Park, Highgate.
In the novel, Marnie’s partner, Ben, is another shrink (this is middle-class north London, after all), and she has three teenage kids, including twin daughters whose 18th birthday is approaching – the age Perdita didn’t quite reach.
At Schlap’s house Marnie encounters an eccentrically dressed woman. Schlap suggests Marnie has imagined meeting Katherine Mansfield, who once lived there. Marnie insists the woman is real. Schlap, whose silent stroke has led to memory loss and confusion, has even called Marnie Katherine.
Reality and dream, or hallucination, collide as Marnie, powerfully aware of “her” male physicality, has a steamy scene with “Katherine”. Marnie has to peel off a sticker – inscribed with a Mansfield quote – that has adhered to her. Don’t ask.
Body parts come and go, and that’s not all. In a desperate call to the police, Marnie opines that poems she’s written have disappeared “as well as my sister, and things are appearing and disappearing all over the place and everything is completely weird”.
The novel posits the idea that we could exist in multiple universes at once.
Firmly on the earthly plane, Ben and Marnie eat at a restaurant in Upper Street, then realise they’ve come out without any money. At Marnie’s urging, they do a runner, charging, breathless, along Essex Road.
Upper Street restaurateurs might be pleased to know that Marnie’s daughter shames her into returning to pay the bill.
Marnie’s parents, who moved from Kentish Town to St Albans, are portrayed with warmth and humour. Her mother thinks she guesses the root of Marnie’s problems – “the start of the menopause can do terrible things to your mind, as well as your body”.
Her father – a diabetic chef who has “a funny turn at King’s Cross station” – in his white linen suit and a panama “looks like the man from Del Monte’s suburban cousin”.
As the novel closes, some matters are explained, but not all. Even Marnie finds this “maddening”.
Susannah, who has a partner and son, said she wanted to show that “some things aren’t answerable – they are mysteries” and two parallel worlds can cross over.
She wrote the book, which pre-publication was longlisted for the Mslexia prize for unpublished novelists, while on a Faber Academy, Bloomsbury, novel writing course.
Susannah said her acting experience helps her writing, especially with dialogue, adding: “You are dealing with emotions as an actor, getting inside people’s heads, and this translates into writing. They [acting and writing] are very closely related.”
• Okay Then That’s Great. By Susannah Wise, Gollancz, £16.99