Amina Cain’s short debut novel is easy enough to outline. Vitória works as a cleaner in an art gallery until she marries a wealthy man and can dedicate more time to her writing. But the change in her material circumstances does not prove as transformative as she hoped.
Indelicacy, though, is a thing of real delicacy, with a fine, distilled quality to the writing, every word precisely chosen, precisely placed. At first it seems almost too sparse, each chapter just a few pages, with Vitória as enigmatic and elusive as her surroundings. We’re in an unnamed country in an unnamed point in history. But there’s a slyness to Cain’s writing that cuts through, and makes the tale increasingly engrossing. By the end, you walk in step with her heroine as she finds her own path towards freedom.
There’s also an intriguing playfulness, initially obscured by all that poise, that seems to resist the reader’s expectations of historical realism. Contemporary colloquialisms creep in – “life went normally, I guess” – and Vitória deploys wicked put-downs to irritating men who interrupt her: “Your face looks like the butt of a wolf and it’s interfering with my concentration.”
Characters’ names have been borrowed from other works: those of Antoinette and Dana, two treasured friends, recall women in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, while a truculent servant, Solange, is from Jean Genet’s The Maids. All strain against the constraints placed on their lives.
But although Vitória is bound by the tiresome duties of home and marriage, she refuses to be trapped by them: she dominates her husband in the bedroom, pursues intimacy with women, and is able to prioritise her writing. Far from being conflicted about following her own “process of becoming”, she is coolly unapologetic. “These days I rarely conceded anything.”
• Indelicacy by Amina Cain is published by Daunt (£9.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15