When it comes to Persephone Classics, I am afraid my reading is woefully short. I have always been keen on trying some of their titles after seeing such rave reviews on blogs and Book Twitter. A short weekend break seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally savour a Persephone title and into my suitcase went Isobel English’s novella Every Eye, a book I devoured within a couple of days…
Hatty Latterly is the protagonist in Every Eye, a novel that switches back and forth between two time periods – when Hatty is a young woman and later when she is older but newly married to a man who is considerably younger to her.
When the novel opens, Hatty is off for her honeymoon to Ibiza in Spain’s Balearic Islands. On the eve of her departure, she learns of her aunt Cynthia’s death. This triggers a flood of memories, from the time she is a young adult to when Cynthia first came into her life as well as the difficult relationship between the two. The latter essentially forms the core of the novel.
Here’s how the novella opens…
I heard today that Cynthia died, last Friday afternoon at the Ipswich County hospital, just after a cup of tea.
…It is six years since I last saw Cynthia, six years since I cut myself free from the inquisitive disapproval; the light unfriendly laugh that always accompanies her sharpest barbs – the honey and the gall mixed to such a smooth consistency that they were inseparable.
At the outset, Hatty is shown to be an awkward woman with low self-esteem.
I was over twenty-five, and I had come within the core of myself to know that I could never successfully make a real contact with another human being.
She loses her father when she is very young. Thus, not only is she raised by her mother but also by her Uncle Otway who plays a role when it comes to her education. Hatty yearns to be a musician and is training to be a concert pianist but even here she is critical of herself.
I had just sufficient self-knowledge to assess the extent of my own talent; but I could not accept it as it was. What at sixteen had promised to be the one thing that would protect me and put me far beyond the reaches of human despair had gradually shown itself to be uncoordinated and intermittent, like a small jewel that has always been hopelessly flawed and can have no intrinsic value except in the eyes of those who seek effect and not perfection.
And then one day Uncle Otway marries Cynthia marking her presence in Hatty’s life. Hatty at first is taken by her unlike her mother and often goes to her for advice. Cynthia dazzles Hatty with tales of the time she spent in Ibiza before marrying Uncle Otway. But very soon, the communication between the two becomes complicated and is seriously tested when Hatty begins seeing a much older man called Jasper Lomax.
Hatty’s self-conscious nature means that she remains tentative about how this relationship will chart out. As usual she turns to Cynthia for help, and it here that Cynthia displays a tendency towards cynicism. And Hatty at the time is not able to discern whether there is more to it than meets the eye.
I had thought at the beginning of my love for Jasper that it would sustain a quality of agelessness and endurance, that it would become finally as sweetly preserved as a bowl of dried petals, from which I would be able to draw strength until I died.
Cynthia, who was more knowledgeable of the past, knew differently.
Meanwhile, in the present, Cynthia’s death and the trip back to the past hinders Hatty’s ability to really enjoy the honeymoon. I enjoyed reading this section because the couple’s journeys on train and boat from France to Barcelona and finally to Ibiza are wonderfully depicted by the author.
The train has been cut down to a stubbly finger; it wriggles along the foothills of the Pyrenees, broad and pink-skinned at the base, rising to distant black peaks that disappear into the froth of clouds. I never expected these mountains to be so remote and yet so accessible. We are nearing the Spanish border…
The sense of being unattractive continues to preoccupy Hatty. While her ‘lazy eye’ was the source of her tumult as a young woman, Hatty is now increasingly aware of looking older even though the eye is now no longer a problem.
Finally, there is a sense that the past and present will eventually merge and it does happen in an unexpected way practically on the last page which causes us to view the past in a different light.
Sight is a major theme explored in this novel both literally and figuratively. In her youth, Hatty struggles with a squint or ‘lazy eye’ which causes her eye to turn inward. It remains a pain point in her relationship with her mother as well as Jasper Lomax at the time. And yet, figuratively, it also means that Hatty is unable to fathom the nuances of what she is actually seeing.
A big age difference is also another topic explored. It is interesting that Hatty eschews the conventional norms of a relationship during both these pivotal periods in her life – seeing a man considerably older to her when she is young, and finally settling in with a man who is now much younger to her – only to remain uncomfortable in both. Although one gets the sense that by marrying Stephen, she has possibly entered a stable phase in her life.
Overall, I thought Every Eye was an excellent novel. Isobel English’s prose is subtle and elegant with keen insights and there are some marvellous pieces of travel writing to sink into, all packed into a compact novella of barely above 100 pages.