I'm going to be more brief than this book deserves, because it's been several months since I read it and I want to refresh my memory about certain things, but I've just moved to a new house and almost all my books are still in boxes awaiting the resolution of questions about bookshelves. And I have no idea which box this book is in.
I think it was Charlotte Bronte who said of her sister Emily's creation, Heathcliff, that she was not sure that the creation of such a being was morally justified. I had a somewhat similar thought about Lili, the central character in this book. When I say that she is central I don't mean that she is what we usually call "the protagonist," that it is her fate which mostly concerns and engages the reader. But she is central in that she is the agent whose powers of action cause so much else to happen, or, more importantly in this case, not to happen: this is the story of a wedding that does not take place. And she is in a sense more than the others: not only her human self, but the expression, at least, of a powerful, mysterious, and fundamentally unholy force. If "strong female character" is one of your criteria for value in fiction, you'll certainly get your money's worth from this novel.
In fact it is effectively an all-female cast of characters, though not all are strong. There are men present, but they're more or less stupid, unfortunate necessities. The book is not so much a trilogy as a trio of novellas (or three very long chapters) telling one basic story from the point of view of three different women. The three narrators are all very much a part of each other's lives, and the contrast between what each sees and assumes about the others, and the others' inner life, is striking--as striking as it probably would be in life. It's a technical tour de force, the points of contact among the narratives polished and precisely fitted. I recall one brief incident in particular, involving a dog's attention to a woman's foot, which is very different and rather more significant when seen for the second time and from a different point of view.
The first section, The Clothes in the Wardrobe, takes us into the mind of Margaret, a young woman who is about to be married. The marriage would be against her will except that she doesn't seem to have much of a will. She has suffered a romantic and religious trauma which has sent her into despair, including the specifically theological sense of that word, resigned and indifferent to the pressures exerted by her mother and the suitor, a boorish older man, Syl. Significantly, Margaret's narration begins with a description of Lili.
The second book, The Skeleton in the Closet, is the viewpoint of Syl's mother, Mrs. Munro, a somewhat embittered older woman who doesn't think a great deal more of Syl than does Margaret. Alice Thomas Ellis is not the only novelist to give us strikingly different views of a character from outside and inside, but the movement from the first section to this one is a particularly effective turn. Margaret has had much to say about her future mother-in-law, most of it negative and also inaccurate, and we are a little surprised--well, at least I was--to find her so different, and so much more sympathetic. She thinks Margaret is making a mistake. But she is as weary of and resigned toward the troubles of others as she is of her own.
The Fly in the Ointment gives us Lili as she really is and not as we have been seeing her through the eyes of Margaret and Mrs. Munro. She is among other things the sort of person who is often described, with a touch of envy, as a free spirit, or, with a touch of dread, as a force of nature. She is also more or less amoral in many ways. But it is she who not only sees the disaster into which Margaret is sleepwalking but acts to prevent it. I think I can promise you that you won't forget what she does.
When I finished this book I made this comment in an email to a couple of friends:
My reaction is a kind of astonishment, not 100% positive. I read the last paragraph, closed the book, and said "Golly, what a book." Not "golly" but "gah-LEE," the "golly" of someone coming out of a storm shelter after a tornado and taking a look around.
This was a reaction not only to the closing incident but to the whole thing, superbly executed by an intelligence that sometimes seems a little malicious. The atmosphere is so full of feminine resentment, suspicion, and struggle that I found myself wondering if this sort of thing is what goes on in the minds of most women most of the time. There is an almost cold, almost merciless quality about Ellis's intelligence and wit (there is a fair amount of humor here). I keep the word "almost" because there is more than cold clinical skill at work. The quality which makes me think "merciless" is an unflinching willingness to see these people as they truly are, to let them, so to speak, get away with nothing. And in the end there is mercy, though it comes in such a manner as to lead one to the old question about good coming from evil. This is a religiously grounded work, but, like Flannery O'Connor's and in some ways even more so, hardly comforting. At least two reviews that I came across used the words "witch" and "witchy" of the author, and I can see why.
For various reasons, none especially good but some better than others, I've gotten almost entirely out of the habit of watching serious movies. My Criterion Channel subscription has gone mostly unused for months, and I've wondered whether I should keep it. But they're calling this month "Noir November" and are running a number of noir titles which piqued my interest.
The 1942 adaption of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key is a good one, starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. I admit that I have a thing for Veronica Lake. After watching it I would have immediately picked up the novel, because I want to know whether the somewhat happy ending is Hammett's or not; I suspect not. But that book is also packed away.
The plot is complex, as one expects of Hammett, and the film is more genuinely dark than some of its kindred, especially in the sequence where the hero, Ed Beaumont, is held captive and beaten repeatedly by thugs. It's rare in these movies to see a depiction of the effects of violence that's remotely plausible. Beaumont is beaten almost to death, and we believe it. Far from bouncing back with a band-aid or two on his face, he spends a significant amount of time in the hospital. I have a vague childhood memory of William Bendix as a likeable cloddish sort of guy in a TV series called The Life of Riley, so it was a bit of a surprise to see him as a malicious brute.
I also watched Call Northside 777 and This Gun for Hire. The former is not really noir, but it features Jimmy Stewart as a reporter trying to exonerate a man convicted of a murder he didn't commit. The latter stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake again, so is automatically appealing to me. It's based on a Graham Greene novel, modified for an American audience in the midst of World War II, and maybe a notch below The Glass Key as a film--less plausible on the whole, for one thing--but still very worthwhile for those who like this sort of thing. And anyway, Veronica Lake.
Image swiped from this site which sells prints. I'm not usually drawn to the Hollywood Blonde types, but there is something about her that charms me.