Tag Archives: betrayal

Should You Ask Me by Marianne Kavanagh

Older women are frequently portrayed as either dotty or having great insight and wisdom, at least in more popular fiction. In this novel Mary Holmes is presented at the outset as one of the dotty kind, but she gradually appears as an elderly woman who is full of insight and wisdom. And she has a story to tell.

Should You Ask Me  is the 39thin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. This novel was recommended to me by someone on my recent French trip, about which you can read here. You can find a list of all the previous posts in the older women in fiction series with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

It is June 1944 in Wareham, a small town in Dorset. Like much of the south west of England the area is full of American troops, part of the build-up to D Day. Mary Holmes, an old woman of 86 presents herself at the police station. She has information about the identity of two bodies that have been discovered in the local quarries. And then she claims that she killed them.

William, the constable detailed to question her and take her statement, is very severely wounded and suffering from PSTD. He has his own story, concerning his love for Stella, a woman evacuee with a young baby. As Miss Holmes tells her story, William relives his past in a series of painful flashbacks.

Over the course of several days William and Annie spend hours together as he tries to prise her story out of her. He goes from doubting her fanciful and long-winded narrative to believing her detailed story concerning a shipwreck, two young men, the young Mary and an elaborate plot to avoid sharing the spoils of the shipwreck with the village. And two murders.

Eventually Mary gets William to relate his own story of lost love and military training that went horribly wrong, and to suggest that he needs treatment. It is partly a novel about guilt and confession.

Mary Holmes

We first meet Mary as she presents herself to William who is not from Wareham and does not know anything of her.

Underneath the black hat, which had a small silky bow to one side, her hair was a silvery grey. The skin of her face was so criss-crossed with tiny lines it looked like soft paper that had been crumpled and re-crumpled many times. She was wearing a black coat, with a pink scarf tucked in at the neck and cream woollen gloves, buttoned at the wrist. […] Her accent was old Dorset, a hum of long vowels. (5)

The story she has to tell about the two bodies happened 60 years before, and she has mulled over it a great deal. She will not hurry the retelling, which is frustrating for the constable and his kindly sergeant. She attends the police station every day for an hour or two to share a cup of tea with William and to relate a little more of her detailed story.

The tale she has to tell is full of violence and betrayal and guilt. 

As she shares her story she notices William’s pain, physical and mental and the care afforded him by Sergeant Mills. Eventually William tells her his own story of love, betrayal and his own close encounter with death. He too lives with guilt and is unable to forgive himself for the explosion that killed a fellow soldier, ruined his leg and probably his future.

Old woman as novelist’s device

This novel is about the slow telling of a double murder-mystery. In many ways Mary Holmes is the device that allows Marianne Kavanagh to tell the story slowly. And to take the reader back to the village as it was before the First World War, back into the late 19thcentury.

But this is not to dismiss this character as a thin one. Her creator is careful to tell us that she had a busy and successful life after the murders, running the forge and then the local garage, including servicing the cars of Lawrence of Arabia. 

I have criticised other novels about older women for assuming the only thing of importance that happened in their lives concerned romantic events in their youth. Their older selves have been fashioned and determined by the events of this time. But Mary Holmes is a more rounded character than that.

And Marianne Kavanagh has written a good story.

Should You Ask Meby Marianne Kavanagh, published in 2017 by Hodder and Stoughton.  272pp

Recent posts in this series:

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

Etta and Otto and Russell and James  by Emma Hooper

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe 

Three Things about Elsie  by Joanna Cannon

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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