No 590 The Hunters by Claire Messud : Book 2 of #20booksofsummer

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.

the hunters

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.

claire messud

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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No 712 The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

upstairs

Unreliable narrators often tell the best stories and Nora Eldridge, the narrator of The Woman Upstairs, announces her unreliability from the outset.

If you’d told me my own story about someone else, I would have assured you that this person was completely unhinged. Or a child

Tellingly, the book opens with an angry tantrum.

How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that…It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist’ on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/ daughter/ friend’ instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave too, is FUCK YOU ALL

We can rest assured then that Nora is angry. Why?
Nora is a 42 year old elementary school teacher in Boston, unremarkable, average, a good daughter, good friend and good teacher but reaching that ‘Lucy Jordan’ moment when time has caught up and the hopes and accomplishments, the dreams for a life as an artist will now never come to pass. She calls herself The Woman Upstairs;

We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound…not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.

Nora is a woman of missed opportunities. Almost married, almost an artist and totally disillusioned by her own cowardice and her circumstance. She is emblematic of a lack of joy in a life whose path has not gone the way that was hoped. Nora has always done what was expected of her, just like her eponymous namesake in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and like Ibsen’s heroine is smart enough to know that she is both victim that circumstance and master of her failures. Is her anger fuelled by these missed opportunities and the part she has played in them? Gradually we discover, it is not.
The bulk of the novel takes place five years earlier when she is drawn into the artistic and glamorous world of the Shahid family – handsome Skandar, a Lebanese scholar, glamorous Sirena, a successful artist and their son Reza, whom Nora teaches. As she becomes friends with the Shahids, her relationship to all three of them gives her hope. Here, at last, is the life she always thought she would experience, with the child she thought she might have. Proximity, she feels, will invite inclusion to their tribe.
She shares a studio space with Sirena, goes for walks and intellectual talks with Shankar and babysits Reza and feels the world opening up to her as she makes her art again and begins to see what could be possible for her thanks to the Shahid’s encouragement. Nora becomes increasingly enraptured by the Shahids and their way of life yet Messud cleverly leaves us in the dark as to what they think of her. The relationships are described in Nora’s obsessive and ruminative voice as she questions every nuance of the friendship. There is something odd about her affections for the family and her fantasies move from being in love with Sirena, to being in love with Skandar to being a mother to Reza. Even Nora knows that these scenarios are unlikely but the Shahids have given her a new way of seeing herself and a new sense of vitality. She is a compelling narrator because of her awareness of how the world sees her yet self- deceiving enough to allow us to question the reality she is describing.

Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Nora questions everything and places importance on often random moments.

It was a thought I made an object, and held on to and turned over and over in my hand, as if it were an amulet, as if it gave meaning to what had come before; and holding on to it changed everything

Nora has a neediness and an insatiable appetite for outside approval that will never fulfil her. She tells Skandar that she is ‘ravenous’ but can’t say for what. The art that the two women create is a reflection of their personalities. Nora is building miniature dioramas of the rooms of famous artists like Edie Sedgwick and Virginia Woolf, so that when she gets a room of her own to make art in, it is telling that all she can make are miniatures of other famous rooms, rather than something of herself. Sirena on the other hand is creating Wonderland, a fantastical space to be inhabited and imbued with meaning by others, the art of the interior versus the art of the exterior. Nora is drowning in the minutiae, creating a mere copy of reality while Sirena is the purveyor of dreams.
As her infatuation with the Shahids grows, she seems disturbingly off-balance, aware she is making more of the relationship than they.

Not only did I want Sirena and Reza and – now, most tangibly – Skandar…but I also wanted Wonderland, I coveted her very imagination, and wished it were mine

Her ‘magic unfolding’ has echoes of The Talented Mr Ripley and the book is part psychological thriller propelled along by the question of what has so enraged Nora. As always in her life, Nora is on the periphery of someone else’s story and it is Sirena’s careless ambition and devotion to her art that creates what Nora sees as a shattering betrayal.

The very fact that I can tell you without blinking that I could kill them – that above all I could kill her – says all that needs to be said. Oh don’t worry, I won’t. I’m harmless. We women Upstairs are that, too. But I could.

The betrayal is effective on several levels, because it calls into question everything that has gone before. Just how close has Nora been with the Shahids? How much of what we have been told is a fantasy created in Nora’s twisted psyche? What part has Nora played in the creation of Sirena’s art? Has she been victim of a more subtle psychological game played by the whole family?
The book ends with another tantrum, with Nora’s rage in full force promising ‘before I die to fucking well live’ but one is left to imagine the consequences of her fateful relationship with the family. This is a riveting book that reminds us of how people create mythologies around themselves to explain the journey of their lives and how identity is shaped from within, from society through the expectations of others. At times, the character of Nora can seem more like a construct, the collection of a series of female stereotypes, but there is something in her story that is easy to relate to. Haven’t we all thought, from time to time, of what might have been? Wondered what we could have been done differently in life? Ultimately, this tale of sex, lies and videotape succeeds by raising questions about the place of women in literature, art and society and about the perils of searching for your own self worth in someone else’s distorted mirror.

I’m off on  my holidays next week to the wilds of the west of Ireland so I haven’t decided yet which Books of Summer I’ll take. The forecast is for rain. Great reading weather!
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