Jane and Prudence – Barbara Pym

Jane and Prudence is the third Barbara Pym novel I’ve read, and it’s wonderful, right up there with my other favourites – Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle.

Penned in 1953, Jane and Prudence is a joyful and poignant read from Pym’s oeuvre, reminding us, as quoted by Anne Tyler “of the heartbreaking silliness of everyday life.”

Jane Cleveland is a vicar’s wife, who after her marriage returns to Oxford to take up a teaching job. Prudence Bates at the time was one of her pupils, but they remain good friends despite the wide difference in their ages. But even keeping their age gap aside, the two could not have been more different.

Jane is in her forties and when the book opens, we learn that she and her husband Nicholas, a mild mannered man, have moved to their country parish, where Nicholas will take on his new duties as a vicar. Jane begins to more or less settle into her role as the clergyman’s wife, although she’s quite terrible at it. Having studied at Oxford and bestowed with an academic mind, Jane had a bright future ahead of her with the possibility of writing books, but that ambition falls by the wayside once she marries.

It was a cold November day and she (Jane) had dressed herself up in layers of cardigans and covered the whole lot with her old tweed coat, the one she might have used for feeding the chickens in.

Carelessly dressed and socially awkward, she can cause a stir by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. With no inclination towards domesticity or even displaying a flair for it, she manages to soldier on relying on her competent cook Mrs Glaze and her efficient daughter, Flora.

In her late twenties, Prudence is elegant, beautiful, and still single with a flurry of relationships behind her. She is getting older but has lost none of her good looks. Having reached the age when the prospects for marriage look dim, Prudence sometimes is beset with sadness and frets whether she will ever settle down with a man.

Prudence looks lovely this evening, thought Jane, like somebody in a woman’s magazine, carefully ‘groomed’, and wearing a read dress that sets off her pale skin and dark hair. It was odd, really, that she should not have yet married. One wondered if it was really better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, when poor Prudence seemed to have lost so many times. For although she had been, and still was, very much admired, she had got into the way of preferring unsatisfactory love affairs to any others, so that it was becoming almost a bad habit.

And yet Prudence is doing reasonably well for herself. She is an independent woman with her own stylish apartment and works in a publisher’s office in London run by Mr Grampian. Mr. Grampian is an older, married man, but Prudence has taken a fancy to him, although he rarely notices her or only when it’s convenient to him. Jane is aware of Prudence’s feelings for Mr Grampian but remains doubtful of anything meaningful coming out of it.

Meanwhile, as she begins to mingle with the residents in the village, Jane is introduced to Fabian Driver, a man in mourning having recently lost his wife Constance. Fabian is good-looking but with an unsavoury aura around him – it is rumoured that he was frequently unfaithful to his wife during their marriage. And yet, he is now milking the ladies’ sympathies as an inconsolable widower.

Jane, in some ways is like Austen’s Emma – she is good hearted and greatly desires to find a husband for Prudence. Her introduction to Fabian brings out the matchmaker in Jane, and she casually mentions him to Prudence. When Prudence visits the Clevelands, she and Fabian get along quite well and begin to see each other regularly. Will anything significant come out of it? Has Prudence finally met her man?

As was evident in Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle, Pym excels in describing the eccentricities of parish life, its small time politics, how a woman meeting a man can set tongues wagging, and how rumours of people’s lives fly thick and fast.

As ever, Pym’s writing sparkles with humour and astute observations on the personalities of people…plus, her plotting and character sketches are top notch. We also get an inkling of the social fabric of the 1950s, where the women were chiefly concerned with finding someone to love and cherish and finally embracing marriage. Still, Pym raises the point that being single and living independently also brought its own share of rewards.

“I suppose I’ll never get a man if I don’t take more trouble with myself,” Eleanor went on, but she spoke comfortably and without regret, thinking of her flat in Westminster, so convenient for the Ministry, her weekend golf, concerts and theatres with women friends, in the best seats and with a good supper afterwards. Prue could have this kind of life if she wanted it; once couldn’t go on having romantic love affairs indefinitely. One had to settle down sooner or later into the comfortable spinster or the contented or bored wife.

Food is quite vividly described especially afternoon teas with their abundance of hot buttered toasts, iced walnut cakes, cucumber sandwiches, chocolate biscuits, buns and so on. Not to mention the occasional sherry. Tea can also provide the much needed respite from a dull office job. Indeed, at Prudence’s place of work, the sameness of their desultory conversations gets on her nerves, as her cronies constantly upstage each other over who got to work earliest. The only bright spot then is the tea trolley being wheeled in at four in the afternoon. These set pieces, particularly, highlight Pym’s genius for dry wit and comedy.

Jane and Prudence, then, is sprinkled with liberal doses of both laughter and melancholia. Each of the characters evokes the reader’s sympathy – whether it’s the well-meaning, blundering Jane, the gorgeous, self-centred Prudence, or even the frightful Fabian, who might have possibly gotten a raw deal towards the end.

This gem of a novel is awash with nostalgia for youth and its vista of seemingly endless possibilities. But with great depth and subtlety, Pym explores how, as we grow older, our lives can completely deviate from the path we had originally envisaged in our idealistic youth. We might not live the life we had planned, but once we accept it, we can somehow make it work.

The Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnim

I read this lovely book in April because of its title, and really wanted to put up my thoughts in that month as well, but alas, it was not to be.

The Enchanted April is a delightful, charming novel centred on four women from different walks of life who decide to spend a month in summer holidaying in Italy.

We are introduced to Lottie Wilkins, who married to a city lawyer, feels bogged down and stifled by their humdrum existence in Hampstead. Her husband Mellersh is an intelligent, respectable, good-looking man, highly regarded by his senior partners, but rather something of a bully at home. In their social circle, when pitted against him, Lottie pales in comparison and her careless style of dressing only adds to the general consensus that she should stay home. Mellersh is cautious with money and the daily drill of having to strictly live within their means with no room for wasteful expenditure begins to take its toll on Lottie.

While on one of her shopping trips, she spends a miserable afternoon at a women’s club, and there chances upon an advertisement in the newspapers that sets off a chain of thoughts. The ad is addressed to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine and proposes to let furnished for the month of April a small mediaeval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean.

At first, with a resigned air Lottie dismisses the idea, she grudgingly tells herself that such delights exist for the privileged. But Lottie loves wisteria and sunshine and so the idea of spending a month at the castle begins to take hold on her.

Rose Arbuthnot’s circumstances are a source of heartache for her too. Being an extremely religious woman, she is disturbed by her husband Frederick’s success as a writer of trashy but popular memoirs of the mistresses of Kings. This vocation brings him money but Rose feels guilty and dirty touching it and so she immerses herself in charity work, with the fervent hope that it will cleanse her and ease her conscience. As a couple both Rose and Frederick have drifted apart and this hurts Rose a lot given that they were so in love in the early days of their marriage.

When Lottie spots Rose also staring at the ad wistfully on that same dreary afternoon, an idea begins to take shape in the former’s mind. She approaches Rose, the two strike up an earnest conversation and Lottie gradually convinces her that if they in turn advertise for two more companions, the four of them could split the costs of staying at the castle so that the individual burden will be considerably reduced.

Using their saved nest-eggs, the two women begin the process of renting the castle. Also, with respect to their ad for more companions, two women express interest – Lady Caroline Dester and the older Mrs Fisher. Caroline Dester is a stunning woman with many admirers at her beck and call but having tired of all the attention, she is craving to get away and do some soul searching in a restful place, and Italy fits her bill perfectly. Mrs Fisher is a catankerous, old-fashioned woman who still lives in her past and reminisces about her illustrious friends and acquaintances of yore in the literary world.

These women come from completely different backgrounds, but there’s one common thread binding them: they are disillusioned with the sameness of their days and are desperately seeking an outlet that will bring some colour to their lives along with the much needed rest and solitude.

Once ensconced in the Italian castle, the four women begin to interact with each other and it is these exchanges that make The Enchanted April so delightful – the awkward dinner conversations, the various machinations of Mrs Fisher and Caroline Dester to claim the best rooms and views for themselves, and their opinions of each other.

As soon as her stay at the castle begins, Lottie’s personality undergoes a sea of change. Mesmerized by the gorgeous views, Lottie is immediately rejuvenated and her perspective of the world around her alters dramatically. Stunning vistas of the bay, jaw dropping sceneries, abundance of pretty secluded spots and the enchanting feel of the castle all combine to work their therapeutic magic on her.

Something was wrong somewhere. Wonderful that at home she should have been so good, so terribly good, and merely felt tormented. Twinges of every sort had there been her portion; aches, hurts, discouragements, and she the whole time being steadily unselfish.

Now she had taken off her goodness and left it behind her like a heap of rain-sodden clothes, and she only felt joy. She was naked of goodness, and was rejoicing in being naked. She was stripped, and exulting.

So much so that Lottie’s powers of perception sharpen considerably, and her otherwise timid, resentful personality gives way to a charming, carefree and benevolent demeanor. Indeed, she then comes up with another audacious plan that could disrupt their present idyll or will it?

The Enchanted April then is a gem of a novel with much wit and humour to commend it. Some of the set-pieces in the first few pages in the novel are hilarious – particularly the one where Lottie and Rose are being driven by the gardener to the castle past midnight, and there is no effective way of communicating with him because they can’t speak the Italian language.

The two men opened their umbrellas for them and handed them to them. From this they received a fair encouragement, because they could not believe that if these men were wicked they would pause to open umbrellas. The man with the lantern then made signs to them to follow him, talking loud and quickly, and Beppo, they noticed, remained behind. Ought they to pay him? Not, they thought, if they were going to be robbed and perhaps murdered. Surely on such an occasion one did not pay.

Von Arnim explores how an invigorating holiday is a much needed respite from mundane routines of everyday life. The novel was penned in the 1920s when there were hardly any career opportunities for women and their role was largely restricted to the household. In the novel, Arnim does not aim to depict how their Italian sojourn alters the circumstances of her characters, but rather to capture the perceptible shift in how they view it.

Lottie and Rose are housewives and will continue to play that role, but there’s something to be said for how a holiday can energize and recharge one’s batteries. Beauty of nature and the wonder of a new place can be a tonic for a tired mind…Lottie and Rose are certainly transformed by the magic of Italy, it is an apt place for some semblance of a rebirth.

“Were you ever, ever in your life so happy?” asked Mrs. Wilkins, catching her by the arm.

“No,” said Mrs. Arbuthnot. Nor had she been; not ever; not even in her first love-days with Frederick. Because always pain had been close at hand in that other happiness, ready to torture with doubts, to torture even with the very excess of her love; while this was the simple happiness of complete harmony with her surroundings, the happiness that asks for nothing, that just accepts, just breathes, just is.

Arnim’s writing is lovely and evocative and all the four women in the novel are brilliantly etched, they come across as fully realized characters. This was a perfect book to read in April with a particularly feel-good vibe in these trying times.

A Month of Reading – April 2021

Putting up this post a bit late, but better late than never. So these are the books I read in April, a mix of contemporary fiction, translated literature, crime, short stories and 20th century women’s literature. All were excellent, but my favourites were the Rumer Godden and Barbara Pym.

I have already reviewed some of them, you can access them by clicking on the links. I plan to put up detailed reviews for a couple of the others over the coming days. Meanwhile, here’s a brief write-up for each book.

BLACK NARCISSUS – Rumer Godden

Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of repressed female desire.

When the novel opens, Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary. But the presence of the enigmatic agent Mr Dean and the General’s sumptuously dressed nephew Dilip Rai unsettles them. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. There is a dreamlike quality to the story that makes Black Narcissus irresistible and hard to put down. Armed with a riveting plot and memorable characters, it is a wonderful, old-fashioned piece of storytelling.

THE DRY HEART – Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Frances Frenaye)

The Dry Heart begins in a dramatic fashion with a matter-of fact pronouncement made by the narrator…

 I shot him between the eyes.

The ‘him’ is none other than the narrator’s husband Alberto, a man considerably older to her. What follows, thereafter, is an unsentimental, psychologically astute tale of an unhappy marriage told with astonishing clarity.

It’s a novella that takes us into the anxiety riddled mind of a woman trapped in a loveless union – her insecurities, her dashed expectations, her inability to walk away when there are clear signals telling her to do so, and the circumstances that compel her to eventually crack. It’s a tale that plunges into the chilly waters of loneliness, desperation and bitterness. The prose is stripped of any sentimentality, the narrator’s voice is unemotional, unvarnished…she states things the way they are, and if her seething rage is palpable, it just about stays under the surface, always in control.

A GHOST IN THE THROAT – Doireann Ní Ghríofa              

A Ghost in the Throat is a wonderful book that came to my attention because of its shortlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. It’s a difficult book to define – it is part memoir, part essay, part historical fiction, if you will. A Ghost in the Throat tells the stories of two women, born centuries apart – Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and Doireann Ní Ghríofa herself. The author traces Eibhlín through her shadowy past, she is the woman who has penned the 18th century poem and lament, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. Doireann combines a blend of research and rich imaginings to weave a story around Eibhlin, her family and the violent death of her fiery husband Art, who dies in a duel. At the same time, while deep in her research, Doireann writes of her own life as a mother in language that really soars – lyrical, moving and gorgeously descriptive. Her portrayal of the daily grind of motherhood is quite something – Doireann finds great joy and beauty in her chores, it instills in her a sense of purpose. There is a particular chapter which dwells on how she nearly lost her daughter, born prematurely, that makes for very poignant reading. This is a “female text” that deserves to be read for its themes of domesticity, desire, creativity, and what binds women across ages.

JANE AND PRUDENCE – Barbara Pym

Jane and Prudence is another wonderful, poignant read from Barbara Pym’s oeuvre. Jane Cleveland and Prudence Bates, despite the gap in their ages, are friends. But the two could not have been more different. Jane, having married a vicar, has settled into her role of being the clergyman’s wife, although she’s not really good at it. Having studied at Oxford, Jane had a bright future ahead of her with the possibility of writing books, but that ambition falls by the wayside once she marries. Carelessly dressed and socially awkward, she can cause a stir by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Prudence, also having graduated from Oxford, is elegant, beautiful, and still single with a flurry of relationships behind her. Prudence is getting older but has lost none of her good looks, and is an independent woman working in a publisher’s office in London run by Mr Grampian. Mr. Grampian is an older, married man, but Prudence has taken a fancy for him, although Jane remains doubtful of anything meaningful coming out of it. Meanwhile, an introduction to Fabian Driver, a good-looking widower in her village, brings out the matchmaker in Jane, and she casually mentions Fabian to Prudence. When Prudence visits the Clevelands, she and Fabian get along quite well and begin to see each other. Will it result in a significant announcement being made?

As was evident in Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle, Pym excels in describing the eccentricities of parish life, its small time politics, how a woman meeting a man can set tongues wagging, and how rumours of people’s lives fly thick and fast. In this novel, particularly, with great depth and subtlety, Pym explores how, as we grow older, our lives can completely deviate from the path we had originally envisaged in our idealistic youth. We might not live the life we had planned, but once we accept it, we can somehow make it work. She also raises the point of how in an era when women were destined for marriage, being single and living independently can bring its own share of rewards.

THE ENCHANTED APRIL – Elizabeth von Arnim

The Enchanted April is a delightful, charming novel centred on four women from different walks of life who decide to spend a month in summer holidaying in Italy.

We are introduced to Lottie Wilkins, who married to a city lawyer, feels bogged down and stifled by their humdrum existence in Hampstead. While on one of her shopping trips, she spends a miserable afternoon at a women’s club, and there chances upon an advertisement in the newspapers that sets off a chain of thoughts. The ad is addressed to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine and proposes to let furnished for the month of April a small mediaeval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean. When she spots Rose Arbuthnot staring wistfully at the ad too, she approaches Rose, the two strike up an earnest conversation and Lottie gradually convinces her that if they in turn advertise for two more companions, the four of them could split the costs of staying at the castle so that the individual burden will be considerably reduced.

These women come from completely different backgounds, but there’s one common thread binding them: they are disillusioned with the sameness of their days and are desperately seeking an outlet that will bring some colour to their lives along with the much needed rest and solitude.

Once ensconced in the Italian castle, the four women begin to interact with each other and it is these exchanges that make The Enchanted April so delightful – the awkward dinner conversations, the various machinations of Mrs Fisher and Caroline Dester to claim the best rooms and views for themselves, and their opinions of each other.

The Enchanted April then is a gem of a novel with much wit and humour to commend it. Arnim’s writing is lovely and evocative and all the four women in the novel are brilliantly etched, they come across as fully realized characters. This was a perfect book to read in April with a particularly feel-good vibe in these trying times.

THE CHILL – Ross Macdonald     

The Chill is another fine, intricately woven crime novel in Ross Macdonald’s brilliant Lew Archer series with a fascinating, byzantine plot and a stunning twist in the final chapter.

Here are the bare bones of the story…A distraught, young man Alex Kincaid approaches private detective Lew Archer with the hope of hiring him to locate his runaway bride. Alex reveals that his wife Dolly Kincaid nee McGee ditched him just a couple of days into their honeymoon and the police are not taking him seriously. Despite Dolly’s weird behaviour, Alex is a supportive, steadfast man and refuses to annul the marriage even when others are advising him to do so. The duo quickly locates Dolly, but it’s clear that there is more to the matter than meets the eye. For one, Dolly appears psychologically disturbed, and it does not help that subsequently she finds herself entangled in two murders practically decades apart.

Characters are aplenty in the book, some of whom are – Roy Bradshaw, dean of the college where Dolly has enrolled herself; his formidable, overbearing mother Mrs Bradshaw; the flirtatious college professor Helen Haggerty; the over-protective psychiatrist Dr Godwin; Dolly’s aunt Alice Jenks, a self-righteous and allegedly principled woman, to name a few.  As the world weary Lew Archer digs deeper, he is often stonewalled when questioning the various cast of people connected with the case, but steadily their defenses break down and the skeletons begin to tumble out of the closet.

The plot in The Chill is extraordinarily deep and complex, but in Macdonald’s assured hands, it is never difficult to follow. This is a tale of mistaken identities, dark family secrets, fractured relationships, deceit and trauma. Plus, it has all the trademarks of a theme that the author continually explored in his books – how the ghost of the past always haunts an increasingly fragile present. The final twist is quite unexpected but also strangely satisfying.

A PERFECT CEMETERY – Federico Falco

This is a good collection of stories – five in total – with a strong sense of nature and place. In ‘Silvi and Her Dark Night’ when the titular character, a 16-year old girl, informs her parents that she is abandoning her Christian faith, she decides to convert into a Mormon. Her reason is misplaced though – it has nothing to do with religion, but is largely driven by her infatuation with a Mormon missionary. It’s a story that also explores Silvi’s relationship with her parents – her mother Alba Clara, a deeply religious woman who is tormented by SIlvi’s lack of faith, and her father, who is a much more tolerant man and uses a different approach to communicate with Silvi.

In ‘A Perfect Cemetry’, Victor Bagiardelli, is awarded the biggest assignment of his life – to design a cemetery for Mayor Giraudo’s father in the town of Colonel Isabeta. Mayor Giraudo’s father, called Old Man Giraudo is not yet dead, but because of his frail health, he is being cared for in an old age home. Bagiardelli begins to envisage what to him is ‘a perfect cemetery’, the abundance of land given to him for the project fuels his creative energies to transform it into his best design yet. His plans also include transporting an ancient oak tree to the premises under which will lie Old Man Giraudo’s grave. Bagiardelli, even visits the old man, and describes the cemetery he has created, but Old Man Giraudo is a tough character and is not ready to hang up his boots yet, he is determined to live on. It’s a story that explores the uncertainty of death and how a man’s all consuming passion for his craft can make him oblivious to the other possibilities in his life.

In ‘Forest Life’, after losing their family home, Wutrich desperately offers his daughter Mabel’s hand to any man who will take them in. Mabel finally marries a Japanese settled in town, but will she learn to adapt to her new life, or will her yearning for the past unravel her like it does for Wutrich?

Connecting with nature, loss of home and faith, grief, and radically reinventing the self to new circumstances are some of the themes explored in this collection.

All in all, April was a great reading month. I started May with Jhumpa Lahiri’s brilliant new offering Whereabouts, a fragmentary novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections. I am also dipping into The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, which has been compiled and edited by Lahiri, and am enjoying it immensely. There are 40 authors covered and so this book is going to keep me nicely occupied for a month.

Whereabouts – Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest offering is a treat – a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections, as mesmerizing as the light and languor of a European city in summer. As a writer she always surprises – this is her first novel written in Italian, as well as the first time she has self-translated a full-length work.

In Whereabouts, this European city is not named, but from various hints peppered throughout, it can be assumed that it’s a city in Italy. It’s a book made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture.

Our narrator is a woman, possibly in her mid-forties, a teacher by profession, and she lives alone in what she calls her ‘urban cocoon’. There is little else we know about her. But that is exactly the point. The idea is not to dwell on her identity, but to get a flavor of her experiences because in many ways they are universal. She could be any one of us. Not all of the events in her life will mirror ours, but quite a few are likely to strike a chord. The chapter headings, deliberately generic – ‘On the Couch’, ‘In My Head’, ‘At My House’ and so on – could be interpreted as a metaphor for how the sense of place in the novel is largely internal.  

The action in the novel is inherently interior, we are privy to our narrator’s thoughts and her perception of the world around her. She might be alone, but she is not completely cut off. Friends, acquaintances mark her social circle, transient relationships exist too. No definite pointers of her existence are handed to us on a platter, and yet a snapshot of her persona gradually emerges.

We learn that she has a strained relationship with her overbearing mother, who tormented by old age, expresses her wish to stay with our narrator if only because she dreads being alone. But our narrator resists, she wants to cling to the independent life she has carved out for herself. The past always comes back to haunt the present, and it’s apparent that the shadow of her father’s death, when she was 15, hasn’t entirely left her. She bemoans her wasted youth, of the years spent conforming to parental expectations, when she could have rather been a rebel with a cause.

Although she’s not married, our narrator tells us of her one long-term relationship with an anxious, highly-strung man, who she later discovers was two-timing her. The end of that union is a sort of a relief because she can “look at him without absorbing a drop of that tiresome anxiety, that ongoing lament.”

Some of her friends don’t understand the choices she has made – “I bump into my married friend for whom I represent…what, exactly? A road not taken, a hypothetical affair?” Another friend envies our narrator, and seeks refuge in her spartan home, away from her harried, busy life of working and raising a family – “’This is the only place I can relax,’ she says. She likes the silence, and not seeing objects scattered everywhere.”

Chance encounters punctuating our narrator’s existence are pregnant with meanings too – a fling with a married man conjures up images of languid afternoons spent in a series of trattorie talking and relishing delicious food, a mother bathing in the sea with her children entrances her because “she was a steady pillar in the midst of that roiling force.” A whiff of sadness permeates her being when her favourite stationery shop shuts down and the family running it, who she is fond of, is no longer around.

Solitude is the dominant pulse of the novel, it throbs persistently throughout the book – “Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect.” Indeed, solitude has its pleasures, it allows our narrator to control her time and space. And yet there are moments when she can’t help thinking, “There are times I miss the pleasant shade a companion might provide.” Essentially, our narrator wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and a refusal to form lasting ties.

The majesty of Nature also evokes a range of emotions and influences our narrator’s perspective more often than not. While on the beach, she observes that “the gray light that pervaded the sky after sunset made me melancholy”, and at another time she notices “a ferocious noise coming from the crashing of the waves and the roar of the wind: a perpetual agitation, a thundering boom that devours everything. I wonder why we find it so reassuring.”

The precision of Lahiri’s prose is striking. Her language is minimalistic, stripped off any embellishments and feels bleached down to its bare essentials, but there’s beauty in her stark expressions, the effect they create is hypnotic. You can almost picture yourself sitting in a sun-drenched piazza in a European city, drinking in the warmth with a whole afternoon of people-gazing before you – people whose stories you don’t really know, but sudden glimpses into their lives on display can fire up the imagination of the myriad possibilities. Reading Whereabouts produces similar feelings.

I have read both Lahiri’s short story collections – Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth. These collections, along with her novels, have given her much fame, primarily for her exquisite portrayal of the quintessential immigrant experience, notably Indians trying to adapt to a Western land and treading a fine balance between embracing a new culture and staying true to their Indian heritage. Those were books that focused on the disconnect that people feel with their surroundings.

But Whereabouts is a different beast altogether because there are no such clear markers of people and their identities. The disconnect, the author portrays, is more with the inner self. Perhaps, Lahiri is trying to tell us that on some level we are all outsiders, that it’s a collective feeling we sense, not only when we move around the world, but also when we are rooted in the same place.

Is I’ve never stayed still, I’ve always been moving, that’s all I’ve ever been doing. Always waiting either to get somewhere or to come back. Or to escape.

Is there any place we’re not moving through? Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around. I’m related to these related terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold.

The Dry Heart – Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Frances Frenaye)

Natalia Ginzburg is making a lot of waves on Twitter these days, and rightly so. I had really liked Family Lexicon published by NYRB Classics and had also recently acquired Valentino and Sagittarius released by the same publisher. But it’s The Dry Heart that kept calling out to me…and having now read it I can say it’s another excellent piece of storytelling by Ginzburg.

The Dry Heart begins in a dramatic fashion with a matter-of fact pronouncement made by the narrator…

 I shot him between the eyes.

The ‘him’ is none other than the narrator’s husband Alberto, a man considerably older to her. What follows, thereafter, is an unsentimental, psychologically astute tale of an unhappy marriage told with astonishing clarity.

Our narrator and Alberto first meet at a doctor’s office and from thereon begin to see each other regularly. Our narrator is a woman in her late twenties living independently in the city. But it’s a dull existence. After teaching literature to eighteen girls huddled in a cold classroom, she spends her evenings and nights at a dingy boardinghouse made worse by a bunch of noisy neighbours. Weekends at her parents’ home in Maona in the country are even more tedious.

Her meetings with Alberto therefore are imbued with some degree of novelty and offer respite from the tedium of her narrow existence. During these initial days, in the first throes of a possible blossoming of romance between the two, our narrator is quite happy. Walks by the river, Alberto reading Rilke poems to her, long conversations in cafes add much colour to her life. And yet something is amiss. While she talks openly about herself and her family, all the while thinking up interesting topics of conversations to amuse Alberto, it seems like a one-sided effort. Alberto finds her company charming but remains largely inscrutable, he is reluctant to delve into the details of his life.

At first I didn’t mind Alberto’s unwillingness to talk about himself, but later I was disappointed and asked him a few questions. His face took on an absent and faraway expression and his eyes were veiled with mist like those of a sick bird whenever I inquired about his mother, or his work, or any other part of his life.

Having been alone for so long, our narrator consciously overlooks this aspect of Alberto’s personality. She also wonders whether she is in love with the idea of Alberto rather than Alberto himself, of what he could be rather than what he actually is.

A girl likes to think that a man may be in love with her, and even if she doesn’t love him in return it’s almost as if she did. She is prettier than usual and her eyes shine; she walks at a faster pace and the tone of her voice is softer and sweeter. Before I knew Alberto I used to feel so dull and unattractive that I was sure I should always be alone but after I got the impression that he was in love with me I began to think that if I could please him then I might please someone else, too, perhaps the man who spoke to me in ironical and tender phrases in my imagination.

It’s a relationship that raises conflicted feelings within her. For instance, the idea of marrying Alberto and being intimate with him repulses her, and yet on the days when he is away, she is so gripped by loneliness that the thought of not seeing him unsettles her.

The two eventually marry, but the marriage is doomed from the beginning. The bare facts of this union are presented to us on the first page itself and therefore not a spoiler – Alberto and our narrator were married for four years, they had a baby and the baby subsequently dies.

We had been husband and wife for four years. He had threatened often enough to leave me, but then our baby died and we stayed together. Another child, he said, would be my salvation. For this reason we made love frequently toward the end, but nothing came of it.

Alberto is a terrible husband, lacking empathy, warmth and trust so essential in a marriage. He is away from their home for long stretches of time and resorts to lies to cover up his absences. But it’s imminently clear to both the reader and our narrator that he is secretly seeing the only woman he has ever loved – Giovanna – who, ironically, is married to another man and has a child of her own.

As the drama unfolds, the reader increasingly begins to feel that the narrator’s life before marriage had its merits after all. Atleast she was independent then even if her circumstances were far from ideal. On some level, the narrator is painfully aware of this. And so it’s fascinating that she prefers to remain wedded to her flighty husband rather than part ways and reclaim some dignity. However, so fearful is she of loneliness that she mistakenly equates being alone with being lonely. Her way of thinking is in striking contrast to that of her cousin and confidante, Francesca, who revels in living life on her own terms and refuses to be tied down to any committed relationships.

The Dry Heart, then, is a novella that takes us into the anxiety riddled mind of a woman trapped in a loveless union – her insecurities, her dashed expectations, her inability to walk away when there are clear signals telling her to do so, and the circumstances that compel her to eventually crack. It’s a tale that plunges into the chilly waters of loneliness, desperation and bitterness. The prose is stripped of any sentimentality, the narrator’s voice is unemotional, unvarnished…she states things the way they are, and if her seething rage is palpable, it just about stays under the surface, always in control.

I have only read two books by Ginzburg but it’s apparent that she excels at depicting a range of oddities in relationships, whether it’s the quirks and foibles of various family members as seen in Family Lexicon, or the shortcomings and failures in marriage as in this novella.

Chilling, direct in what it wants to convey and deceptively simple, The Dry Heart charges ahead at the pace of a thriller but without any liberal doses of twists and turns that are so definitive of the genre, and it’s all the more powerful because of that. It’s an absorbing story where Ginzburg, through the magic of her writing, transforms the raw material of a dull marriage into a unique, rich finished product brimming with psychological depth.

Fascinatingly, it ends just as it begins…

I shot him between the eyes.