In Claire Messud’s acclaimed novel The Woman Upstairs, her fascinating character of Nora was held up as a perfect example of an unreliable narrator, to the point where some readers even questioned her sanity.
In The Hunters, a collection of two novellas, Messud seems to be dissecting the very idea of what a narrator is.
Maria, the lead character of A Simple Tale, discovers blood-streaked walls at the home of Mrs. Ellington, her employer whom she has worked for and cared for every Tuesday for over 40 years. The situation is not as critical as Maria fears, but the situation her employer finds herself in triggers a reminiscence as Maria looks back over her own life, a life of displacement and disappointment which has been marked by looking after others.
As a young girl in Ukraine, Maria was enslaved by the Nazis in WW” before emigrating with her Polish husband to Canada. One form of enslavement becomes another as she works in service to a series of wealthy women for most of her life. Her hopes for her son are dashed by his marriage to a woman she feels unworthy of him and as the employer/ employee relationship becomes unstable, Maria comes to realise that she no longer needs to be silent about who she truly is. The story that she has becomes a story to be told.
In general, she knew that her employers felt an unspoken pity for her unspoken suffering; that they considered, at least initially, their employment of a Displaced Person to be a moral act; and yet, that, unable to imagine her provenance and unwilling to consider it anything other than benighted, they required her silence about her previous life as much as, if not more so than, they required her promptness and efficiency in the acquittal of their household chores.
Maria’s story is a fascinating one, from an historical perspective, and Messud captures well that feeling of superfluousness that can pervade even the most fulfilled of lives. In an attempt to make an effort with her son and his family, Maria goes on holiday with them, only to find that being in the middle of their lives only serves to highlight the distance between them.
Maria could not have explained the helplessness she felt….the hideous superfluity. It wasn’t the morning’s rage, it was instead an agony, a physical agitation, a more profound sense of not belonging than she had ever before, in all her life, experienced. She was to this scene like the flag on the back of the boat, or like the occasional burst of an engine in the distance: a tiny rootless fact, an irrelevance
However easy it is to empathise with Maria’s situation, it is hard to engage directly with her. Messud leaves her reader is kept at a distance, and like the plastic covering that Maria keeps on her living room furniture, there is a veneer to the writing that keeps us at arm’s length.
In the second, a title story The Hunters, we are distanced even further from the narrator in that we are not even aware of the American academic’s gender. Following the breakdown of a romantic relationship, our sexless and nameless narrator has moved to a disappointing London flat to carry out research for the summer. An unusual woman called Ridley Wandor, who lives downstairs and cares for the terminally ill repeatedly tries to make friends with the academic, who in turn becomes obsessed with discovering a darkness in Wandor’s seemingly innocuous attempts at friendship.
This is a spooky tale, through inference rather than action and it has been noted that it carries a real debt to Henry James. Like the governess in The Turn of the Screw, it becomes apparent that the motives being ascribed to Ridley Wandor may actually be a projection of neurosis on the part of our narrator. Is Ridley Wandor inadvertently killing off her patients? Does her mother really exist? And what happened to the man who lived in the flat previously? All these questions come directly from the narrator’s imagination, rather than anything Ridley does, or doesn’t do.
It’s a vague story, strong on atmosphere and tension, but again distancing. This is in part due to the first person narrative voice, whose flowery prose and old-fashioned style of language may prove too convoluted for some readers.
Take this description of the woman downstairs,
I noticed her hands because I could not bear to look too closely at her face, the ugliness of which resided not in any tangible, and hence admirable, disgrace, but in the lack it represented – lack of color, lack of distinction, lack of features. No eyebrows to speak of; no nameable hue to the blinking little eyes; no form to the little nose; as I have said, virtually no lips, and what slivers there were, bloodless.
The writing is gleeful, but it goes on in this overblown vein for the whole of the novella and can, at times, be exhausting to read. Messud is a fan of parentheses and complex sentence structure which means reading these stories takes time, despite their brevity.
Overall though, these are incredibly well written stories, elegantly constructed with powerful descriptive passages. Messud seems to be exploring the power of the story itself, the stories we tell others and the stories we hide. Maria pretends that her story doesn’t exist because it is what the practicalities of her life demands. The American scholar is so bored of the narrative that they find themselves in, that they create one for an unfortunate other. Displacement looms large in these pages, the character in The Hunters does not feel at home in London, while Maria has never felt at home in Canada. Their stories have been uprooted and fragmented and as such no longer feel relevant. The breakdown of significant relationships have left them both feeling lonely and hunting for relevance.
It was not the same, but it was similar, to what she felt herself, which was too, a sensation of the lights going out – of the people who could know her, or who cared to know her, disappearing – until rather than not seeing, Maria was above all unseen.
Unwilling to be unseen, the characters in these two short novels tell stories, of themselves and of others in order to remain seen and not forgotten.
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