Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

It seems that to be a vegetarian is a challenge. I remember in the 1970s in Coventry where I was teaching the children at lunchtime would ask why I had a special meal, and then try and catch me out because it appeared to them to be unbelievable that I chose never to eat meat. I bet you eat fish and chips. No. Smokey Bacon crisps? No. And on Christmas Day, what do you eat then? I bet you eat turkey! This was usually delivered with a triumphant ‘caught you’ kind of voice. But I haven’t eaten meat for nearly 40 years. Not even on Christmas Day. Then for me as now in Korea for the main character in this novel. When Yeong-hye announced she would no longer eat meat it was regarded as a social transgression. Several people thought that her behaviour must be corrected.

247 Veg cover

The Story

The story of Yeong-hye is told by three different people: her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister. Each one has a different view or need for her. Each one carries the point of view for a section.

The first section, called The Vegetarian, is narrated in the first person by Yeong-hye’s husband. He believes she is mediocre, malleable and no challenge to him. He married her on this basis, and her announcement that she will no longer eat meat brings unwanted changes to his life. He resents this for he sees her role only in terms of himself. In one of the most shocking episodes of the book the husband recounts, in a bloodless way, how Yeong-hye’s father strikes her twice and forces meat into her mouth, sparking her first psychotic episode. She cuts her wrist and is hospitalised. The husband makes no effort to intervene, does nothing to prevent the violence.

The brother-in-law is a video artist who becomes obsessed with painting her body with flowers. In the second section, Mongolian Mark, he moves from being a sympathetic person, the one who carried Yeong-hye to hospital, through a fixation upon her birth mark to painting flowers on her body and recording her movements. Finally he paints and records himself as well and the results are predictable and not a little erotic. But when they are discovered it is Yeong-hye who again goes to hospital.

Her sister, Kim In-hye, visits the hospital in the section called Flaming Trees. Kim In-hye feels guilt because she did not prevent violence towards her younger sister in childhood as well as in adulthood. Although her marriage has finished because of the painting the body episode, Kim In-hye cares for her sister. She pays for the treatment and she visits periodically. Now it seems that nothing can be done for her, Yeong-hye wishes to become a tree. She does not want this life, but another.

Themes

There is rage in this book, resistance and revolt against conformity. It is also about the body and its meaning in relationships and to the individual. Expressing oneself physically is only allowed in certain ways, and not eating meat, cutting oneself, wishing to become a tree, hiding out in the woods – these things cannot be accepted from Yeong-hye. It is her sister who witnesses the second shocking attempt, this one by the hospital staff, to force-feed Yeong-hye to save her life. She questions whether Yeong-hye’s wishes should not prevail, even if she dies.

Yeong-hye’s only explanation for her vegetarianism is that she had a dream and she pursues her dream to become a tree as the novel progresses. Her decision provokes others to act upon her and her body. The more she withdraws from the world the more she is imprisoned within it: in hospital wards, by strait jackets and drugs and even trussed like a bird for roasting to transport her away from the psychiatric hospital.

While we have three voices observing and commenting on Yeong-hye, her voice is rarely heard except in a small voice or an animalistic howl.

The writing

Here is the opening paragraph of the novel. The words are Yeong-hye’s husband’s. So much information, so little affection or admiration.

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know. As she came up to the table where I was waiting, I couldn’t help notice her shoes – the plainest black shoes imaginable. And that walk of hers – neither fast nor slow, striding not mincing. (3).

Later the writing becomes quite sensual. Here are the brother-in-law’s observations when he has first painted her body with flowers.

This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her – rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life her body represented. The sunlight that came splintering through the wide window, dissolving into grains of sand, and the beauty of that body which though this was not visible to the eye, was also ceaselessly splintering … (85)

The final scenes are vivid, disturbing and haunting.

The translator, Deborah Smith, has done an excellent job.

247 mbi2016-logoShortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. It was an opportunity to read a book by a woman in translation. I have never read a book by a Korean author before.

 

The Vegetarian by Han Kang published by Portobello Books in 2015. 183pp

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

 

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Vertigo by WG Sebald

Vertigo is that nauseous feeling induced by losing balance or from being at a height. Everything appears to be unsettled and to whirl around. It is hard to keep the scene in front of you coherent as it moves and eludes perception.

The book’s title is perfect; it is a work that teeters at the edge of uncertainty … Sebald’s journey into himself and his past is compelling, puzzling, unique. [Erica Wagner in the Times, quoted by Stephen Moss, see below.]

226 Vertigo

Structure and other features

The question of genre is frequently raised about Sebald’s work. Vertigo is a novel and a memoir and a travel book and a disquisition on European culture. It is organised into four parts, describing the travels of Beyle (better known to us by his pen name: Stendhal), WG Sebald, Dr K (aka Kafka) and WG Sebald again. They travel through Europe, mostly on railways, occasionally by foot. Connections between the four sections are not obvious.

Beyle, Sebald and Dr K share hypersensitivity. The effect of this is that their journeys and the narration of their travels can turn in a moment, and take the reader down a side track, a digression. The digression quickly becomes the topic of the next few pages. And the original narrative line is left behind. Much like a railway journey really. Impossible to read for some, but I get seduced, like looking out of a railway carriage at the scenery.

As with his other novels, the text contains many grainy pictures. Some of them appear to have no connection with the text, others appear to illustrate it. Some might have given Sebald ideas about what to include: for example the grusome Drs Ringger and Pesavento on pages 118 and 119. There is a sense that some may be frauds, stand-ins, and some real, like memory, or the randomness of life from which we try to make sense. Nothing is clear.

Themes

Memories and truth seem to be the big themes, especially in the last section where Max revisits his birthplace W., not visited for decades. The critical scene perhaps is when he is in the attic with Lukas he touches an old grey chasseur uniform from the 19th century it crumbles to nothing. You touch and it’s gone.

At last he explains, or does not, what he has been about in the place of his birth:

… Lukas wanted to know what had brought me back to W. after so many years, and in November of all times. To my surprise he understood my rather complicated and sometimes contradictory explanations right away. He particularly agreed when I said that over the years I had puzzled out a good deal in my own mind, but in spite of that, far from becoming clearer, things now appeared to me more incomprehensible than ever. The more images I gathered from the past, I said, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling. (212)

30 WG Sebald2

Writing

The writing gives the impression that the narrator is detached from the events described. There is an evenness of tone, an absence of dialogue, little reported speech. The narrative is like the railway lines, stretching behind, and onwards, with branches off which he may or may not take.

The restlessness manages to be the opposite of dull, and perhaps this is due to Sebald’s extensive middle European cultural knowledge, especially of art and literature and his skill in descriptions of landscapes. Obfuscation is what happens all the time. There are no explanations, no emotional responses to events. In Milan, two young men set upon the narrator, and I had to read the passage twice before I could understand that they had taken nothing from him.

Not until I turned on my heel and swung the bag off my shoulder into the pair of them did I manage to disengage myself and retreat to one of the pillars in the archway. LA PROSSIMA COINCIDENZA. None of the passers-by had taken any notice of the incident. I, however, watched my two assailants, jerking curiously as if they were out of an early motion picture, vanish in the half-light under the colonnades. In the taxi, I clutched my bag with both hands. To my remark that Milan was dangerous territory, ventured in as casual a tone as I could muster, the driver responded with a gesture of helplessness. (109)

And we are into a description of the fortified taxi cab, and then of the hotel. The mugging is already behind him.

We don’t know whether the people referred to really existed or not. How do the four sections relate? Why are Stendhal and Kafka referred to as Marie Henri Beyle and Dr K respectively? Is this memoir or fiction? Is it a new form of travel writing? I think it defies labelling and we need not be detained trying to fit the labels to this book.

I’ve recently been reading Virginia Woolf and it strikes me that she was trying to reproduce how humans experience the world, and that may also be Sebald’s purpose. The world is not delivered to us in neat packages, but in an ever-turning series of events, which change and become less secure as we examine them. The experience of the world is not unlike the experience of vertigo.

It has been suggested that his four novels should be seen as a quartet: The Emigrants, Austerlitz, The Moons of Saturn and Vertigo. I don’t think it matters too much whether they are seen as separate or a quartet. They all have virtues, and together they remind us what was lost when Sebald died in a road accident in December 2001.

Vertigo by WG Sebald was first published in English in 1999 and published by Vintage in 2002. 263pp

Translated from the German by Michael Hulse.

226 Emmig

Related posts

Why you should read WG Sebald by Mark O’Connell in the New Yorker to mark the 10th anniversary of Sebald’s death, December 2011, is a useful introduction.

Written in January 2000, before Max Sebald died, this post by Stephen Moss in the Guardian made most sense and was very helpful to me. Falling for Vertigo

Returning to The Emigrants by WG Sebald from January 2016

The original post The Emigrants by WG Sebald; one of those enduring blogposts that receives constant readership, from May 2013

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What I write about when I’m not writing fiction

My good news is that I’m getting back to revising my novel. Thank you, good friends, who have enquired about its progress over the last 12 months. My bad news is that the progress has been very slow, and was much delayed for about 9 months. In fact I put the novel back in its drawer again for a while. I just couldn’t work on it at the same time as on the book I have just finished with my two co-authors: The New Age of Ageing.

145 writing keyboard

Writing fiction and non-fiction

I have tried and failed on several occasions to keep two large writing projects on the go at the same time – one non-fiction and the other a novel or short story. It just doesn’t seem to work. I am wondering why. In part it is because they require conflicting skills.

The New Age of Ageing, and non-fiction writing generally, requires methodical and thorough research, solid arguments, a sequence of writing that reflects the ideas under discussion. Some skills needed are the same as for fiction, such as hooking interest early, clarity and presenting factual information that relates to people’s lives. What I don’t need is to go shooting off after a new narrative idea, or to leave the reader in suspense at the end of a chapter. No, every assumption and connection needs to be considered, verified, scrutinised. Flights of fancy must be followed by reasoned hypothesis.

Structural problems of the two genres are very different. For the novel I have a plot in 23 chapters. I have been challenged by the novel’s structure, deciding on advice to change to alternating chapters having originally written it in alternating pairs. The change resulted in an improved novel but hours of confusion as I had to re-label everything on my computer and on the hard copies. You need to be well organised about peripheral things when writing a novel. Well I do, being a planner rather than a pantser. Zadie Smith referred to micro managers and macro planners in an influential lecture at Columbia University in March 2008. I am happy to quote her descriptions, because I admire her work and recently wrote a post challenging a comment she made about writing and therapy.

You will recognise a Macro Planner from his Post-its, from those Moleskines he insists on buying. A Macro Planner makes notes, organises material, configures a plot and creates a structure—all before he writes the title page. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement. It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle.

I am a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels.

Structure for the book on ageing posed different challenges. Each chapter required a great deal of revision, recasting, editing, removal, filling gaps. It often seemed that I had all the right ideas but in the wrong order. I also had two co-authors to whom reference needed to be made for everything as they are also responsible for the content. Their feedback notes were invaluable, our talk was even better.

I can get very passionate about ageing and the issues and challenges that are not getting enough attention. I loved writing our manifesto for the book, getting clearer and clearer what it was we wanted to say. I loved the process of taking our combined ideas and moving them to a place I could not have gone on my own. So my involvement in writing that book was social as well as requiring some good research and communication skills.

243 New Age cover

Writing my novel is more isolating. To write the novel or the book on ageing I sit for hours in my writing room, looking out occasionally at Dartmoor and its changing weather patterns. Sitting. Tapping. Rearranging papers. An observer would not see the difference. But in the end, the novel has been a very isolated and individual activity.

So they require different skills, but that does not quite explain why I can’t do write fiction and non-fiction at the same time.

Working one project

About 9 months ago I decided to put the novel back in the drawer (yes again). After all we had a contract for our book on ageing and a deadline for completion. And I had two co-writers to answer to. And to be honest I had got to a sticky point in the revisions.

I had found that my fiction writing is not good enough at showing or even telling the reader about the emotional state of the protagonists. I tend to assume it’s obvious. In my best moments I think that is honouring the intelligence of the readers, allowing them to do some work. But when my intelligent readers said that I needed to work on this I can only agree. It has taken me some rumination, reading novels and some guidance from my on-line course to help me see what I must do. That’s what I am working on now.

Blogging

94 Blog on tablet

I can’t concentrate on fiction and non-fiction writing at the same time. However, one genre of writing has proved itself compatible with both fiction and non-fiction – blogging. The Book Word blog has been building slowly but steadily throughout this time, and I have posted every five or six days. In the posts I explore writing issues, review books, continue the series on older women in fiction and am able to look at all things connected with books and writing that take my fancy.

Perhaps I can combine blogging with both fiction and non-fiction because blogging requires some creativity, some research, some care over the communication of the content. And I am my own publisher for the blog. It’s not a commercial undertaking, so if a post bombs there is no consequence except to my pride. The deadlines are close, but I can (and do) alter them to suit my life.

It’s back to the novel

So … I am taking the chapters and looking at the emotional arcs of the characters and hoping that all the reading and writing and thinking I have done will help me see afresh how to communicate the emotional life of my characters.

And I am doing all the other things put on hold while we finished The New Age of Ageing. That’s another post in preparation! What I do when I’m not writing. Watch this space.

Related posts

This was the 6th in a series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015. Previous posts

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

And here’s a post with some excellent ideas: 10 things to do while your MS is resting from Victoria Griffin Fiction blog in July last year.

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman, to be published by Policy Press in September 2016.

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An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

OMG the assumptions we make! I thought that this was a translated novel. Silly me, silly assumption. Rabih Alameddine may be of Lebanese origin, but he writes in English. Towards the end of the novel I even began to question my assumption about the gender of the author. But Rabih Alameddine is a man.

This is the 20th in the series of older women in fiction.

244 Un Woman UK cover

The story

The events that frame this novel take place over about 24 hours, but we also learn about the narrator’s life through her extended flashbacks. It is set in Beirut, and for the most part in an apartment in the city. Aaliya is the unnecessary woman of the title. She is 72, and she has lived in her flat since she was married, despite being quickly divorced. The apartment itself is subject to dispute as accommodation is short in Beirut, and Aaliya has family who would traditionally expect to take the flat in her place. But she has a champion in the woman upstairs, Fadia, who owns the block.

Aaliya’s half-brother tries to make her take responsibility for their mother. He has brought her to the apartment. The mother simply screams, and screams, and it is only when Fadia instructs them to leave that her brother takes the elderly mother away again. During the night there is a plumbing disaster in the flat above, which first brings chaos and then reassessment to Aaliya’s controlled and isolated life.

My mother raises her wraithlike head and looks at me. Her furrowed face contorts, shrinking the wrinkles and multiplying them tenfold. Her mouth draws open in toothless horror. Her gnarled hands rise, her palms face me, warding off evil. My mother tries to draw back from her daughter-in-law’s arms. The black shawl falls from her bony left shoulder, but doesn’t fall off completely. Her eyes display strident, unspeakable dread. She screams, a surprisingly loud and shrill shriek. For such a frail body, a defiant skirl of terror that does not slow or tire. (72)

During the narrative we also learn about Aaliya’s childhood, failed marriage, friendship with Hannah, and how she survived the Civil Wars in Beirut. It has not been an easy life.

The older woman

The novel begins when Aaliya accidentally dyes her hair blue.

You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn’t help my concentration (1)

She has been thinking about which book to translate next. It is a day near the end of the year and Aaliya is looking forward to beginning the translation of another book. For about 50 years, Aaliya has been translating books (often themselves translations eg Sebald) into Arabic, for her own pleasure. She has acquired a library, thanks to her job in a bookstore. She is well versed in the Western and largely male literature of the 20th Century. Her favourites are Sebald and Yourcenar’s autobiography of Hadrian.

Aaliya is a loner, her friend Hannah (also a single woman who made herself useful to her ex-fiance’s family) died years before. Since she retired from the bookstore where she worked Aaliya has seen almost no-one. While Beirutis ignore her, she gets on with her chosen occupations, reading and translating.

In many ways for most of the 72 years of Aaliya’s life she has been in conflict with the normal rules of Lebanese society. Her family found her difficult, and married her off while she was still at school. The marriage was a failure, and she was divorced soon after. She has held onto her independence and the apartment, even through the dark days of the Civil War.

Some aspects of her life were a little shocking and unlikely: that she would acquire an AK-47 and sleep with it, and the manner in which she acquired it was also a stretch to the imagination. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and Beirut was an anarchic place at that time, so …?

Aaliya maintains her independence, but at the cost of mattering to no-one, being unnecessary. Yet in the end it is the response of the other women in her apartment block who help when the water overflows from the flat above, and she is forced to reassess her life and friendships.

It was this scene that made me wonder if Aaliya’s author was a woman. The three ‘witches’ and our protagonist getting together to solve the problem seemed a supremely female approach.

The novel

Really this is a book about Twentieth Century novels, European and American novels.

I enjoyed it a lot, especially for the thoughts about literature. And for giving strong agency to an older single woman. I have read reviews that were less fulsome, saying that Aaliya was simply mouthing Alameddine’s words. And that may be true, but I found the idea of this old woman very compelling.

233 Unnecess woman cover

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine published in the UK by Corsair in 2013. 291pp

An Unnecessary Woman was a finalist for National Book Award for Fiction 2014 (USA).

Related posts

A critical review from the Irish Times by Ellen Battersby in February 2015.

A more favourable review from the Guardian by Siri Srinivas in January 2015.

Recent posts in Older Women in Fiction Series

Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen (February)

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey December (2015)

 

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First Catch Your Publisher

One of the most stressful parts of writing for publication is finding a publisher. We have had good experiences such as being invited to write a book on a particular topic; and stressful ones, like having a first draft but no publisher.

243 New Age cover

I’m delighted to say that Policy Press took on The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, early in the writing process. Because of the tricky process we had been through – as Eileen explains – we were careful to target a publisher who would be interested in the book. They will be publishing it in September. We are very pleased that they have just been named the Independent Academic and Professional Publisher of the Year 2016.

I asked my two co-writers, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman, to say something about the process of finding a publisher.

Eileen begins with a ballad called

The long and winding road*

We’ve walked the road before

243 Retiring Lives coverAs experienced authors we set out on a new collaborative expedition. We knew we had a book that was prescient. Reviews of Retiring Lives, our work with retirees, our membership of a retiring group, all revealed a demand for a more in-depth account of the long and complex process of retiring.

We were confident, we knew how to write and knew how to submit proposals. We knew the terrain, we had the map and compass. We were excited about approaching publishers – starting with those who had published our work before. We studied their checklists and adapted every proposal. We analysed the competition, re-wrote the synopsis, submitted draft chapters and waited.

Don’t leave me standing here

We sent proposals to eight publishers. One problem is that you can only approach one at a time. We left an interval of a month between sending material and chasing up a response. ‘A wonderful idea for a book,’ they all agreed, ‘but not the sort of thing for us’.

After all these rejections, friends suggested approaching an agent. We contacted six. Same story: ‘Great idea, but not our area’.

During this 18-month period of contacting publishers and agents, we completed the first draft of the book and polished and burnished chapters.

And many times we’ve cried

To say we experienced ups and downs would be a massive understatement. But the good thing about writing collaboratively is that the highs and lows hit one or other of us at different times. After a rejection we soon felt hopeful and excited again when we approached someone new. We were convinced every time that this was going to be the one. Throughout this period of misery and elation we refined our chapters, found further research articles and redrafted.

Dead-ends and roundabouts

Then we thought of self-publishing and attended courses and workshops to help us down this avenue. While fascinating we were not convinced about this route.

The seventh agent said:

This book is so nearly finished why not send it directly to a publisher. Look for a different sort of publisher, one who had a good, changing list that appeals to the sort of readers you want to attract.

So we approached Guardian Books.

Your destination is on the left

The editor liked the book very much but said it needed EDGE! It would be a ‘trade book’, intended for general readership. So we rewrote the whole book to address the reader directly, became more informal and modified our referencing system. This was a major change for us. We submitted – with the required EDGE. But it still wasn’t edgy enough and we had to do it all over again.

Retiring with Attitude was published by Guardian Books in the summer of 2014 and was top of their best-selling chart for ten weeks.

What did we learn?

Never give up

Get a contract before doing so much writing

* with apologies to Lennon and McCartney

Marianne and Eileen in Caroline's kitchen in January 2015

Marianne and Eileen in Caroline’s kitchen in January 2015

And Marianne wrote this about the proposal for The New Age of Ageing we made to Policy Press:

Writing the proposal is the most important single step in writing a book

The time we spent talking about and polishing the proposal was time well spent. As we have moved ahead with the writing process we have checked back to the proposal many times. Looking at it now that the book is finished I think we remained true to the initial vision, although there has been quite a lot of re-arranging of chapters and their content. As one of the three authors, I have only been involved in writing non-fiction so what I have to say may not apply to fiction, but in my view, writing the proposal is the single most important step in producing a book.

When I look back on the notes that I took from our first meeting, the first word I wrote down is ‘purpose’. The notes that followed sketch out not only purpose, but also some of the key themes that have continued to dominate our thinking as we worked our way through the writing. The first draft of the proposal emerged from those notes. Although the key themes and purpose stayed largely the same, I lost count of the number of times the whole proposal was revised. At one of the early meetings we actually read the draft out loud, which turned out to be an excellent way of picking up half finished thoughts and unfortunate wording.

What does a proposal cover?

The suggestions of what to include vary a bit from one publisher to another but the main headings are pretty similar for all. In the case of Policy Press they are:

  • Title and sub-title (we will come back to this thorny issue in another post)
  • Synopsis and aims (250 words, five key factors in bullet points and five key words)
  • Background information (e.g. why did you want to write this book?)
  • Target audience
  • Competition

Trying to make our ideas fit those headings sharpened up the thinking wonderfully!

In addition publishers need some practical details including the estimated word count, an idea of the timetable to completion, names of referees and author CVs. Policy Press were also keen to have a sample chapter to send out to referees with the proposal.

It was great to get feedback after the proposal and chapters had been read by the referees and the editor. We revised the proposal in light of the comments and it was then sent on for a final decision about whether or not we got that vital contract.

While it is important to have a good, well though through proposal it doesn’t mean you have to stick to it rigidly when writing as other ideas may occur to you and through writing you may come to understand things differently. For example, we added the final chapter, which includes our vision.

Related posts

In March we posted about collaborative writing: One Book, Three Authors. This was reported on Policy Press’s blog.

In February we posted about a residential writing retreat: Writer’s Residential

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change is available to pre-order on the Policy Press website for £14.99 here.

In May we plan to write about getting and using feedback.

Over to you

What strategies can you recommend to find a publisher?

 

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The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The woman in the attic is known to be mad. From Jane Eyre onwards, if there was a woman in your attic: beware. For not only was she mad but she was vengeful. Indeed there are many vengeful women or mad women in literature. This woman, Nora, is angry, as she tells us in her first sentence:

How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that. (3)

Actually she tells us she is angry and isolated, pretty much the two themes for this character. And she proceeds to tell us just how angry and why.

242 Woman upstairs cover

The story

Nora Eldridge is a primary school teacher in Boston. She is in her late 30s. Her life is not very eventful, even if she has a secret artistic life as a creator of tiny rooms of feminist icons such as Emily Dickinson. She has a good life, although sad to have lost her mother. She lives alone, visits her father, sees a friend or two.

Into this quiet and rather boring life come the Shahid family: Sirena, soon to be an internationally famous artist; Skandar the Lebanese academic on a year’s secondment to Harvard; Reza, their child in her class. Nora falls easily for all three, mostly for representing what she is missing in her life – artistic success, a sexual relationship and a child of her own, but also for their exoticism and the verve they bring to her life. They are in Boston for less than a year. She is betrayed by each of them. They disappear out of her life as if that year had been nothing. Perhaps it wasn’t much to them, but Nora had felt alive in a new way. And worse, a year after they left, she discovers that Sirena has violated her privacy in an almost pornographic way.

The themes

The themes of this novel are loneliness and betrayal. She frequently refers to herself as the woman upstairs, to distinguish between herself and the mad women in the attic. But we are forced to imagine that those mad women were also betrayed in some way, or perhaps only lonely and needy.

We see that the hopes she develops for herself and the Shahid family are all in her head. Her skills, as an artist’s technician, a babysitter, a good listener are used by them and mean nothing more than services rendered, not the basis for close friendships.

Her anger brings her finally to acceptance of her life, and one can’t help feel that she has lost something of value by becoming realistic.

The writing

Despite the action taking place mostly inside Nora’s head, there is a fair bit of humour in this book. For example, the names of the school children: Chastity, Bethany, Noah, Aristide, Ebullience. We know a great deal about the school community through these names.

The pace of the writing got a little too slow for me in the middle section when the artistic collaboration between the women is growing. By this stage we have understood that Nora is unlikely to rein in her obsession with the family.

But the introspection also allows for some very perceptive points about women, and especially women who live alone.

The Woman Upstairs is like that. We keep it together. You don’t make a mess and you don’t make mistakes and you don’t call people weeping at four in the morning. You don’t reveal secrets it would be unseemly for you to have. You turn forty and you laugh about it, and make jokes about needing martinis and how forty is the new thirty, and you don’t say aloud what all of you are thinking, which is ‘Well, I guess she’s never going to have kids now!’ and then, still less admissibly, ‘Is it because she didn’t want them, or because she didn’t get around to it (silly fool, a failure of time management) or is it, poor lamb, because of some physical impediment (pitiable case)? Why is she single anyhow? It’s not as if her career has been so spectacular – she’s only a school teacher, and among school teachers she’s not even Shauna McPhee.’ (279-280).

Angry, lonely women like Nora are more common than you think. They are too embarrassing for everyone, aren’t they?

I am amazed at the psychological insights of so many authors. Claire Messud really knows this character. The image of the nightmare Fun House, its horrors and allure, is a strong way to show Nora’s inner state. She allows us to see the workings of Nora’s mind in a sustained way, from start to finish.

Related posts

Annecdotalist’s review, posted in January 2016, considers the acceptability of angry women in novels, and the assumption that Nora is unlikeable. And she makes interesting comparisons with other angry protagonists, such as Barbara in Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, and her own protagonist, Diana, in Sugar and Snails.

Over to you

What did you think of this novel? Did you think that Nora was unlikeable? Was she right to be angry? Did you find her unlikeable? Did she have your sympathy?

 

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. Published by Virago in 2013. 301 pp

 

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews