The Hearing Trumpet – Leonora Carrington

Originally published in 1974 and reissued by NYRB Classics in 2020, Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet had been languishing on my shelf for more than a year (I could say that for most of the books that keep streaming into the house endlessly) and it was Kim McNeill on Twitter and her excellent #NYRBWomen23 reading challenge (there are many gems on that list) that finally prompted me to pick it up.

If you thought a story centred on a 92-year old protagonist was bound to be dull and depressing, think again. Leonora’s Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet is a delicious romp, a stunning feat of the imagination and an iconoclastic book if you will that refuses to be pigeonholed into convenient definitions and genres; and in Marian Leatherby, the nonagenarian in this superbly off-kilter tale, Carrington has created an unconventional heroine who is charming, feisty and memorable.

The book begins in a quiet, residential neighbourhood on the outskirts of an unnamed Mexican city where Marian Leatherby, our narrator, resides with her son Galahad, his wife Muriel and their 25-year old unmarried son Robert. It soon becomes clear that Marian is not welcome in that house; the family considers her an embarrassment. Marian has been allotted a room that opens into a little garden and she pretty much keeps to herself for larger parts of the day hardly venturing into the main house. She seems content in her own little world with a couple of cats, a red hen and her fanciful daydreaming to occupy her time. She also enjoys the company of her spirited and loquacious friend Carmella with her penchant for conjuring up unrealistic and improbable schemes and ideas.

“Men are very difficult to understand,” said Carmella. “Let’s hope they all freeze to death.”

One day, Carmella in a considerable state of excitement gifts Marian a hearing trumpet she purchased in a market.

When Carmella gave me the present of a hearing trumpet she may have foreseen some of the consequences. Carmella is not what I would call malicious, she just happens to have a curious sense of humour. 

It’s a thing of beauty (“encrusted with silver and mother o’pearl motives and grandly curved like a buffalo’s horn”), and with its aid Marian’s hearing is now amplified to such a degree that she can hear conversations hitherto inaccessible to those with normal hearing. Until one day, she inadvertently chances upon a conversation between Galahad, Muriel and Robert plotting to dislodge her from their house and park her in an old age home much against her true wishes.

Marian internally seethes but realises that resistance is futile and resigns to her fate. When the family finally arrives at the old age home, Marian is completely taken by surprise; the institution (the building itself and the area around) run by the overly pious Gambit couple gives the impression of an enchanting medieval castle quite unlike the bleak, cheerless structure she had envisaged.

First impressions are never very clear, I can only say there seemed to be several courtyards, cloisters, stagnant fountains, trees, shrubs, lawns. The main building was in fact a castle, surrounded by various pavilions with incongruous shapes. Pixielike dwellings shaped like toadstools, Swiss chalets, railway carriages, one or two ordinary bungalows, something shaped like a boot, another like what I took to be an outsize Egyptian mummy. It was all so very strange that I for once doubted the accuracy of my observation. 

Marian soon begins to settle in, gets introduced to her fellow residents, finds herself entangled in various adventures and is caught up in the fascinating life of an abbess. Indeed, in the middle of the book, the story goes back several centuries in time to a convent where this Abbess takes centrestage, an iron-willed woman with her proclivity for unimaginable luxuries and riches, an unconventional way of life and her daring quest to restore the Holy Grail back to the Goddess of Venus. Also enmeshed in the story are Marian’s reminisces, her carefree childhood spent in the company of her mother “who had lived a constant round of dizzy pleasure” that involved trips to Paris, Biarritz, Monte Carlo, Sicily and so on.

Murder and mystery, cross-dressing, hunger strikes, rebellion, midnight dancing and revelries, poetic riddles and the spectre of a looming frozen apocalypse are only a few of the smorgasbord of ingredients that spice up everyday life at the old age home.

How will this all end? In a deliciously unexpected way in what is a highly original story in the first place, reveling in taking the reader down surprising paths right from the very beginning.

There are so many facets to The Hearing Trumpet that makes it such a captivating read, the first and foremost being the characters. Marian Leatherby is a terrific creation; she may be hard of hearing but has lost none of her zest for life.

Here I must say that all my senses are by no means impaired by age. My sight is still excellent although I use spectacles for reading, when I read, which I practically never do. True, rheumatics have bent my skeleton somewhat. This does not prevent me taking a walk in clement weather and sweeping my room once a week, on Thursday, a form of exercise which is both useful and edifying. Here I may add that I consider that I am still a useful member of society and I believe still capable of being pleasant and amusing when the occasion seems fit.

She is, of course, distressed at the prospect of spending the rest of her days in an old age home, uprooted from the life she had grown used to, separated from her pets and her friend Carmella, but she takes it in her stride, and keeps her mind open to new experiences at the institution, even to new adventures of which there are plenty. Then there’s Georgina Sykes, an elegantly dressed woman (at least to Marian), irreverent and opinionated who has caught Mr Gambit’s fancy much to the chagrin of Mrs Gambit and is often involved in a hilarious slinging match with the grating, phony and self-righteous Natacha Gonzalez.

“Georgina Sykes is an obscene old woman,” said Natacha with unction. “She is a sex maniac and ought not to be allowed to mix with the other members of the community. She warps their minds.”

“I shall have to talk to her at once,” said Gambit in extreme agitation. “This might ruin the reputation of the whole Institution!”

“That is not all,” added Natacha. “She insulted me outrageously. Naturally I hurried to her bungalow to transmit the Message, with all the purity of mind I have cultivated for my Mission. Georgina,’ I said gently, ‘I have a message for you.’ She replied very rudely, saying: ‘If it’s a message from Heaven stuff it up your something or other.’ 

Mrs Gambit leads a self-improvement cult at the institution, bizarre as hell, with its emphasis on dodgy principles of Christianity and goodness. Other characters include the meek Maude Wilkins who unwittingly finds herself at the centre of a sinister plot, the imposing Vera Van Tocht, the overburdened Anna Wertz with her propensity to chatter away, the painter Veronica Adams who practices her art on reams of toilet paper and the Marquise with her tales of war and the battlefield. Last but not the least is the fiery Abbess whose tale wonderfully leaps off the pages for both Marian and the reader.

Yet despite its leanings towards fantasy, humour and banter, there are a variety of timeless themes that form the nucleus of the book. Growing old is, of course, one of them, and the way Marian is considered a burden to her son and daughter-in-law reflected in the cold manner in which she is treated is a grim reminder of the heartaches of old age. The Abbess is a symbol of feminism – her leadership skills and daring exploits, however dubious, is a breath of fresh air in a world and time largely dominated by men. The book also explores politics – the powerplay, hierarchy, scheming and favouritism rampant in the old age home is akin to the deceptively simple environment children experience in school (they say old age is like second childhood, don’t say?) and palpable even in the complex world of adults.

The Hearing Trumpet could be considered an extension of Carrington’s identity as Surrealist artist; the novel is a unique montage of styles and genres that resist the laws of conventional narration to brilliant effect. Indeed, Carrington’s creative vision is laced with its own interior logic – daydreams blend with reality in a sort of homage to Surrealism; historical fiction, comedy, fantasy and an embedded narrative (the literary equivalent of a Russian doll) effortlessly co-exist within the seemingly limitless boundaries of the author’s vivid imagination. A hearing trumpet, a painting of a derisive winking nun, a magic elixir that facilitates levitation to name a few are the hallmarks of Carrington’s delightful flights of fancy; much of the humour comes from Marian’s keen observations on her surroundings and its people as well as the interaction between the oddball residents of the institution; we have a book within a book that transports the reader to the 17th century replete with a maverick, cross-dressing Abbess, plots and intrigues that involve the cultish Knights Templar, Goddess Venus and the Holy Grail.

But that’s not all! The icing on the cake and a lovely surprise are the illustrations peppered throughout the book (her son Pablo Weisz Carrington is the artist) – quirky and playful that perfectly capture the mood and eccentricity of this heady, surreal concoction.

The Hearing Trumpet, then, is a triumph; a novel that radiates charm, joie de vivre and a forceful personality of its own that makes it utterly singular. Highly recommended!

Source: NYRB

Mrs Caliban – Rachel Ingalls

Mrs Caliban was one of the books I had carried with me to a much needed holiday in Goa; the beach, the waves and the leisurely pace of the hours stretching before me only enhanced the joy of reading this terrific book.

About twenty pages into Mrs Caliban, Dorothy Caliban is busy in the kitchen making preparations for dinner. Fred, her husband, has invited a colleague over and the two are in the living room discussing work. This dinner having been sprung on her last minute, Dorothy makes it clear that the party will have to make do with spaghetti and salad and Fred relents. It’s a very ordinary scene – a housewife bustling about in the kitchen, cooking and assembling dishes, but suddenly this very ordinary moment is transformed into something extraordinary. Dorothy whirls around and sees an amphibian creature, a frogman, barging into the kitchen.

She was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.

This is the very same frogman who has escaped from the research institute he was imprisoned in with repeated warnings given over the radio on how violent he is since he had killed two scientists while breaking free. After the initial flash of shock and fright, Dorothy regains her composure and offers the frogman some celery since he is ravenous and later installs him in a room downstairs, a place that Fred barely visits, and thus a secret Dorothy can keep till she figures out what to do next.

On the strength of such a wonderfully novel idea, Mrs Caliban, then, is a tale of the disintegration of a marriage, love and sexual freedom, grief and loss, friendship and betrayal, and the re-invention of a woman having hit rock bottom.

Our protagonist is Dorothy, a housewife residing in the suburbs of California stuck in a stagnant, loveless marriage. With the unexpected death of their son, Scotty, during a routine operation as well as a miscarriage thereafter, Dorothy is tormented by grief and despair. Her relationship with Fred has reached breaking point. Resentment brews between the two as they silently blame each other for these twin tragedies. The sense of hopelessness has reached a stage where both are too tired to even divorce. And so they stumble along…staring into an uncertain future.

During those days there were times when Dorothy would lean her head against the wall and seem to herself to be no longer living because she was no longer a part of any world in which love was possible.

Dorothy’s days are filled with household chores, frequent shopping trips, cooking meals; tasks that lack variety and signify mind-numbing tedium. The demarcation between days seems blurred pushing her into a state of apathy. A part of her is even aware that Fred is sleeping with other women, but she is now indifferent. She does derive some joy from her friendship with Estelle, a divorced woman with two grown-up children, and the two women often spending time together chatting about themselves and their lives, discussing their problems and providing each other emotional support.

Whenever she was with Estelle, Dorothy became louder, more childish and happier than when she was with anyone else.

But when one day, Larry, the frogman, lands in Dorothy’s kitchen, her life alters unexpectedly and in ways she has not imagined.

Dorothy is aware of Larry’s history from bits she has gleaned from the radio news. Having been captured from the Gulf of Mexico, Larry had been installed at the Jefferson Institute of Oceanographic Research as a specimen for scientific analysis and study. Rebelling against the continuous ill-treatment meted out to him, Larry manages to escape but not before he kills two scientists on his path to freedom.  The institute brands the incident as murder, for Larry it’s an act of self-preservation.

The reader immediately senses the perceptible shift in Dorothy’s circumstances;  a chance for excitement, love and adventure…a development that pushes her head above water, breathing new life into her, just when she was slowly and steadily sinking.  As Larry and Dorothy embark on a passionate affair, her world begins to light up, the days are suffused with colour and there’s a sharp clarity to the way she views the people and situations around her.

There, up in the sky, she noticed for the first time a gigantic mounded cloud, as large and elaborately moulded as a baroque opera house and lit from below and at the sides by pink and creamy hues. It sailed beyond her, improbable and romantic, following in the blue sky the course she was taking down below. It seemed to her that it must be a good omen.

What makes Mrs Caliban unique is not just its unusual premise but also how rich the novel is in terms of themes explored. We learn about the gradual disintegration of Fred and Dorothy’s marriage, and decline in Dorothy’s mental health exacerbated by the death of her son and the miscarriage. It’s a loss she is left to grieve alone; their marriage left in tatters leaves no room for the couple to help each other through this difficult time.

Another theme touched upon is the beauty of new ways of seeing and perceiving things. Being an aquatic creature, his new surroundings are a novelty to Larry. But as Dorothy begins to view the world through Larry’s eyes fuelled by his questions on basic human behaviour and traits, she is forced to think a lot and even question many of the things that she otherwise took for granted or about which she didn’t much care previously.

The novel is also radical in the way it questions gender roles. The Calibans find themselves ensconced in traditional gender stereotypes – Fred earns the income, while Dorothy’s role is reduced to that of a housewife following the same unvarying routine day in and day out. But that changes with the arrival of Larry. With no qualms or knowledge about the pigeonholing of roles, Larry is more than willing to chip in and learn to perform a slew of chores, easing some of the burden off Dorothy. Mrs Caliban is an exploration of love and sexual freedom; Dorothy’s affair with Larry is a revelation to her, and makes her feel alive after years of being trapped in an airless marriage. At a time, when women were expected to put up with their husbands having affairs, Dorothy refuses to follow what’s expected of her by society, choosing instead to seek some modicum of happiness in the manner she deems fit.

Furthermore, the novel is a statement on how society perceives outsiders with contempt and suspicion rather than compassion, inclusiveness and understanding. We are shown how narrowly defined and restrictive the definition of “normal” is, how anything outside that constricted space is immediately looked upon with venom, violence and hate. Being an amphibian man, Larry is branded  an outcast by the scientific community as well as the general population, a creature to be captured and tortured, rather than accepting him for who he is and treating him with more respect. Thus, despite being a tender, caring man, often Larry finds himself pushed into the corner by aggressive behaviour of the people around him and compelled to use violence as the only form of self-defense.

Above all else though, Mrs Caliban is a tale of the re-invention of a woman, her journey from a state of abject depression to that of rejuvenation and self-discovery – an evergreen theme which also forms the essence of another novel I read and loved recently – Tessa Hadley’s wonderful novel Free Love.

Within the broader strange outline of its plot, the novel has an interior logic all its own. In fact, Mrs Caliban is a testament to Ingalls’ excellent storytelling ability that she is able to blend the fantastical with the mundane to greater effect and on the strength of her assured writing the reader is willing to be led along in whichever direction she takes us. The foreword by Irenosen Okojie in my edition highlights how the book has influenced several people in the fields of art and culture – Guillermo del Toro’s award-winning The Shape of Water, particularly, is a prime example. In a nutshell, Mrs Caliban is an excellent novella, a magical, subversive fairytale and its themes of gender stereotypes and the isolation of people who don’t fit in remain relevant even today.

Death and the Seaside – Alison Moore

I was very impressed with two of Alison Moore’s novels I had read some years earlier; The Lighthouse and Missing with the latter particularly finding a place on My Best of 2018 list. As part of #ReadIndies hosted by Karen and Lizzy, it felt time to read another of her novels – all published by Salt – and I am glad to report that Death and the Seaside is also another wonderful novel.

Death and the Seaside is a terrific tale of failure, of being easily influenced, death and writing that unravels in a rather unexpected way.

Our protagonist is Bonnie Falls, a young woman about to turn 30. Bonnie’s life so far has been without any direction or purpose and she has not much to show for her half-hearted efforts. She is a college dropout having abandoned a degree in literature, which rather limits the job opportunities available.

After a few years of literary criticism, Bonnie has found that she could no longer read a story without seeing it through a lens of critical analysis, as if there was always some underlying meaning that you might miss if you were not paying attention. And at the same time, she began to see the real world in terms of narrative; she saw stories and symbolism everywhere. She found it all exhausting, and left her course – which her father had called a Mickey Mouse degree anyway – before taking her final exams or completing her dissertation.

However, she manages to secure two cleaning jobs, one at a pharmaceutical laboratory and the other at an amusement arcade, quite dreary but she needs the money.  

Bonnie has lived with her parents for most of her life, but as she approaches thirty they feel it is time for her to move on and out. Bonnie manages to find a place on rent at the end of the ominously named ‘Slash Lane’ but given that her income is not sufficient to cover the full rent amount, her parents offer to chip in a bit.

Meanwhile, Bonnie remains as untethered and adrift as ever. She seems to be going nowhere and can’t bring herself to dramatically alter her circumstances. Her state of mind is reflected in the apartment she has chosen – characterless rooms saddled with bric-a-brac left by previous renters giving the impression of the transient nature of an impersonal hotel room.

Bonnie does seem to show some promise in one area though – she is an aspiring writer. In fact, the first chapter of Death and the Seaside is actually the beginning of a story that Bonnie has typed out. Bonnie’s protagonist is Susan who goes for a holiday to a seaside hotel and witnesses strange happenings. A note inserted under the door of Susan’s hotel room has faint markings of some elusive words imprinted on it that only she can see; to all others the note is blank.

She walked over and picked up the scrap of paper, but when she looked at it she found that it was blank; although perhaps there was the faintest suggestion of something there, as if it had been photocopied to oblivion…She turned again to the piece of paper, and she almost thought that she might be able to make out a message after all, or just a word, but even as she looked, her sense of that dim outline disappeared, like a shadow when the sun slips behind a cloud.

In another incident, Susan is roused from her sleep in the middle of the night and notices the word ‘jump’ etched on the window. That story ends there simply because Bonnie has no idea how to proceed further.

We are then introduced to the other main character in the novel and Bonnie’s landlady, Sylvia Slythe. Sylvia comes to visit Bonnie one afternoon after she has settled down in the flat…

Bonnie opened the door. The woman standing on her doormat – a tall woman wearing a sheepskin coat – looked at Bonnie with a degree of interest that made Bonnie feel uneasy, and she touched the front of her dressing gown to check that it was securely fastened. The woman’s big, bright eyes made Bonnie feel like Little Red Riding Hood being looked at by the wolf.

The two women strike up a conversation which mostly consists of Sylvia asking Bonnie a slew of questions about her life and the motivations behind her writing. Sylvia takes an unusual interest in Bonnie, particularly in the specific story Bonnie has written about Susan and is very keen to learn how it will evolve. In their conversations, certain incidents in Bonnie’s past are revealed to the reader, which are subconsciously reproduced in Bonnie’s unfinished story although she vehemently denies it and insists that her story is just pure fiction. For instance, Bonnie has been troubled by sleepwalking in her childhood, and there are times in the past when she displayed a tendency to jump from heights as some sort of a death-wish.

“When I was a kid,” said Bonnie, “I started sleepwalking. I’d wake up and find myself standing at a window, like I was looking out, although I wasn’t really seeing, I suppose. But one time, the window was open, and Mum found me halfway out of it. She had to keep the windows locked and hide the keys.”

Sylvia is persistent that Bonnie finishes her story and with this aim in mind arranges a seaside holiday for the two of them, possibly at the place where Bonnie holidayed once as a child and which Bonnie inadvertently has used as a backdrop for her story.

Why is Sylvia so deeply interested in an unremarkable person like Bonnie? Is there something sinister lurking behind Sylvia’s motives?  This remains a mystery to the reader until it all becomes clear as the novel progresses and reaches its dark conclusion.

Bonnie is a fascinating character simply because she is so unmoored, malleable and easily influenced. She has no clue where she is headed and as far as society is concerned, she is something of a failure. For the most part, she is ambivalent about her circumstances showing no inclination to take charge. She is also readily suggestible. To cite an example, at her laboratory cleaning job, her colleague, the brash Fiona, who loves playing Truth and Dare, challenges Bonnie to open one of the lab doors and let all the animals free. Any other person would have point-blank refused or ignored Fiona. But Bonnie can’t say no, and actually attempts to carry out that challenge, then invariably chickens out only to be subjected to further ridicule.

Bonnie is also lonely. Every day, between her two cleaning jobs, she spends the afternoon at the cinema all by herself.

During these matinee showings, she was often the only person in the auditorium. In the dark, she ate her popcorn and lost herself in the film, something historical or futuristic, something set in another country or on another planet. It only took an hour or so, ninety minutes, for the world outside to become unreal. When she emerged, the familiar town would look strange, like a set, the oblivious shoppers like walk-ons. After horror films, she felt uneasy in broad daylight, and made an effort to avoid alleyways and underpasses and anywhere deserted…

Even her 30th birthday, a milestone one, is a rather desultory affair – a restaurant dinner where the only guests are her overbearing parents, Fiona and Sylvia, an odd assortment. It does appear that Sylvia is the only genuine friend that Bonnie has had for a while, and since neither of them has anyone else to go on a holiday with, they readily agree to go away together. Sylvia’s role in the story appears a tad murky and how their tales ultimately intertwine is what makes the novel so interesting.

With respect to the novel’s structure, most sections are from Bonnie’s point of view with some chapters devoted to Bonnie’s developing story about Susan. Only three chapters are narrated in the first person from Sylvia’s angle gradually giving a glimpse into her character and her reasons for striking up a friendship with Bonnie.

As the title suggests, one of the prominent themes of the novel is death or a preoccupation with death. There is a particular chapter in the book where Sylvia alludes to Bonnie’s abandoned thesis on the subject of how death and the sea are irrevocably interlinked.

All these unfinished stories of Bonnie’s are set by the sea, and one must ask: why this obsession with the sea? She does not live there, although she could. When considering this question, one ought to take into account the fact that in each of Bonnie’s stories – as well as in many of the novels on her bookshelves – the sea is a metaphor for death. Correspondingly, to be at the seaside is to be at the edge of death. The seashore is a threshold.

It is a chapter brimming with literary references such as Veronique Olmi’s tragic novella Beside the Sea, John Banville’s The Sea, Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth, Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and so on. The novel also examines how a child’s upbringing in a certain manner can carry repercussions well into adulthood offering a window into Bonnie’s tendency towards jumping from heights and why the idea of death remains embedded in her subconscious.

In Alison Moore’s assured hands, the novel unfolds in a style that is clever, original and uncanny, as she effortlessly weaves in literature and elements of psychology in this compelling narrative. She excels at creating an atmosphere of dread and creeping unease especially in the way Bonnie and Sylvia’s relationship plays out. The last few chapters, set at the seaside resort, have a feverish, surreal quality to them as the circumstances described in Bonnie’s written story eerily merge with that of her own life. This is a very character-driven novel (there’s nothing remarkable about Bonnie’s life generally) and it is to Moore’s credit that she manages to make both Sylvia and Bonnie unforgettable.

In a nutshell, Death and the Seaside is another excellent novel from Alison Moore’s oeuvre, definitely worth reading.

A View of the Harbour – Elizabeth Taylor

I am steadily making my way through Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, such a terrific writer she is. All the novels I’ve read so far – A Game of Hide and Seek, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, The Soul of Kindness, A Wreath of Roses – are superb. A View from the Harbour is another addition to this stellar list.

A View of the Harbour is a beautifully written, nuanced story of love, aching loneliness, stifled desires, and the claustrophobia of a dead-end seaside town.

The main plotline revolves around Beth Cazabon, a writer; her husband Robert, the town’s doctor; and Beth’s friend Tory Foyle who lives next door and is divorced. However, like the wonderful The Soul of Kindness, this is a book with an ensemble cast where the lives of the other members of the community are interwoven into that of the Cazabons. This is a drab, dreary seaside town where for desperate want of drama and excitement, the lives of its residents become fodder for speculation and gossip.

The opening of A View of the Harbour unfurls like the brushstrokes of a painting. A vivid panorama of the harbour is captured – the cry of the seagulls, the trawlers heading out to the open sea and the subtle transformation of the harbour landscape from a place dotted with derelict buildings to that of a picture postcard town once you are further away at sea; the distance blurring the drab contours of the harbour front.

No gulls escorted the trawlers going out of the harbour, at tea-time, as they would on the return journey; they sat upon the rocking waters without excitement, perching along the sides of little boats, slapped up and down by one wake after another. When they rose and stretched their wings they were brilliantly white against the green sea, as white as the lighthouse.

To the men on the boats the harbour was at first dingy and familiar, a row of buildings, shops, café, pub, with peeling plaster of apricot and sky-blue; then as the boats steered purposefully from the harbour-mouth to sea, houses rose up in tiers the church tower extricated itself from the roofs, the lettering on the shops faded and the sordid became picturesque.

This view is something aspiring painter Bertram Hemingway is keen to capture but is continuously defeated in his efforts. Bertram is now retired and wants to spend his leisure days dabbling in his hobbies – painting and seeing more of the world. He resides in a room above the town pub called Anchor and has promised the owner to deliver a painting of his own at the end of his stay. Bertram is an outsider in this seaside town, an object of curiosity and while he takes an interest in the lives of its residents, enjoying the prospect of helping them whenever he can, he makes sure he is not deeply involved. He prefers to remain on the town’s fringes, happy with his role of an observer.

And what he and the reader observe are the lives of the residents playing out, their daily struggles and how they are beset by a sense of chronic unhappiness. Tory Foyle lives alone, her husband of many years has abandoned her for a younger woman and she is trying to come to terms with the fact that she must fend for herself. Her son, studying in a university, is a constant source of worry to her. But despite this setback, Tory is a strong-willed woman and has not let herself slide into apathy. She remains stylish and poised, maybe even a little cold and aloof.

Her best friend Beth is the complete opposite, absent-minded and living in her own world. Beth is an author of dramatic novels and so engrossed in her craft of plot construction and character development that she does not much care for appearance, and domestic duties seem like such a burden. Beth and Robert have two children (20-year old Prudence and 5-year old Stevie), and she is sometimes anguished about not being a good mother. Her marriage to Robert has settled into a comfortable space driven by routines with not much room for passion and intimacy. But Robert feels trapped by the sameness of his job and married life, and looking for a spark he begins an affair with Tory.

Then there’s Lily Wilson, a young war widow, who is frequently overcome by utter desolation.

When she saw the light swinging over the water she felt terror and desolation, the approach of the long evening through which she must coax herself with cups of tea, a letter to her brother in Canada or this piece of knitting she had dropped to the floor as she leant to the pane to watch Bertram, the harsh lace curtain against her cheek, the cottony, dusty smell of it setting her teeth on edge.

Her life centers around running the waxworks exhibition during the tourist season and making trips to the library for books she can lose herself into, activities that further accentuate her sheer loneliness and her craving for human contact. Her desultory conversations with the charming Bertram give her a new lease of life and she starts frequenting the pub more often to have a chat with him and be escorted home.

And then there’s the ghastly Mrs Bracey, a bitter, gossipy, crude woman confined forever to bed because she is paralysed from the waist down. Mrs Bracey takes advantage of her hopeless physical condition to boss her daughters around, to the point that they are both resigned and filled with hate for her at the same time.  Iris works in the pub and has lofty dreams of a glamorous life although she is also aware of the futility of this ever happening. She refuses to regale Mrs Bracey with stories and scraps of gossip for which the latter is so hungry.

Maisie secretly wishes that her mother dies soon. Maisie’s expectations from life are prosaic compared to those of Iris, but her onerous duties of a caregiver bog her down and dash her hopes. Given that Mrs Bracey can no longer rely on her body which has given up on her, she lets her imagination run freely, even occasionally displaying a sharp, perceptive mind, however unwelcome.

Last but not the least is Robert and Beth’s daughter Prudence, a blossoming young woman stuck in a dead-end town. Robert worries about Prudence’s prospects, she does not have the talent to carve out an independent life for herself and the possibility of marriage also seems remote. But Tory knows that Prudence is perceptive; she has gauged correctly that her father is having an affair, a development that torments her greatly.

Virago 40th Anniversary edition

A View of the Harbour, then, is a bleak but beautiful novel that explores the themes of loneliness, solitude, betrayal, dashed hopes and of feeling constricted in a small, dismal town. Lily’s loneliness is devastating. Ravaged by fear because of an uncertain future, she yearns for company, someone to talk to and at one time even contemplates spending time with the coarse Mrs Bracey if only to dispel the emptiness gnawing inside her. Tory is more self-possessed than Lily but also very lonely. She ponders over the future of her relationship with Robert which appears to be doomed. Can she afford to deeply hurt her best friend, the one anchor that possibly keeps Tory rooted in that town?

And what about Bertram? Bertram so far, considers himself lucky for not having formed any romantic attachments. But he is also beginning to feel the weight of his years and the idea of marriage and settling down sounds comforting in a way that it never did before, maybe something of the isolation of this seaside community begins to get mirrored in him too.

Elizabeth Taylor displays wonderful sensitivity towards her characters who are such lost souls, they are flawed but she does not judge them. She is great at depicting the small dramas playing out in the lives of these ordinary people with her characteristic flair for astute insights into human nature. This is a community struggling to feel important, where an annual innocuous, humdrum festival becomes an event to talk about given the lack of entertainment otherwise, and where the inhabitants’ lives never go unobserved.

She is also superb at showcasing a vivid sense of place – the vastness of the sea conjuring up infinite possibilities is juxtaposed against a small harbour town devoid of excitement, burdened by limits which induce a notion of being stalled and going nowhere. The light over the sea keeps changing, in sharp contrast to community life which essentially remains unaltered.

The view of the harbour (giving the novel its name), including the lighthouse, is a permanent fixture in the book and is symbolic of different perspectives to each individual. To Mrs Bracey, the view from the window is an opportunity to observe what’s happening outside and satisfy her need to be in the thick of things.

Up at her window, and in some discomfort, Mrs Bracey sat in judgment. Guilt she saw, treachery and deceit and self-indulgence. She did not see, as God might be expected to, their sensations of shame and horror, their compulsion towards one another, for which they dearly paid, nor in what danger they so helplessly stood, now, in middle-age, not in any safe harbour, but thrust out to sea with none of the brave equipment of youth to buoy them up, no romance, no delight.

To Prudence, the view from the window possibly signals danger, she did inadvertently chance upon her father and Tory together and its implications make her wonder whether their family life is in peril.

Female friendship also forms one of the core themes of the novel explored through the relationship between Beth and Tory. Beth and Tory’s personalities could not have been more different but they complement each other. But this bond could be derailed by Tory’s affair with Robert of which Beth is unaware and is unwittingly the cause.

“You and I…” Tory said. “We are so different. But nothing with men is so good as our friendship. If women love one another there is peace and delight, fun without effort. None of that wondering if the better side of one’s face is turned to the light…”

Strangely, for what it’s worth, Beth seems the happiest of the town residents, her books and writing keep her occupied and maybe protected from the harsh realities of life around her. We even scent a whiff of feminism in her when she secretly laments at how men can plunge headlong into their careers, a kind of freedom denied to women because of domestic responsibilities.

In a nutshell, A View of the Harbour is Taylor once again at her finest. Her stunning, gorgeous prose and evocative use of language effectively conveys the quiet, desperate dramas of a community dulled by the smallness of its existence, the bleakness made bearable by great compassion and depth in the portrayal of her characters who must navigate their private lives on their own. Highly recommended!

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

I absolutely loved Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a book that found a place on My Best Books of 2020 list. The Haunting of Hill House is also wonderful, and my lovely hardback edition with its striking cover and coloured black edges made for an excellent reading experience.

The Haunting of Hill House is a brilliant, spooky tale; a fascinating blend of the traditional ghost story with psychological horror.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Once again, Jackson enthralls the reader with this superb opening paragraph, and this coupled with the brilliant opening lines of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, prove that she is truly the queen of openings.

UNIQUE CHARACTERS AND BUILD-UP OF HORROR

Coming to the principal characters, we are first introduced to Dr John Montague, professor and researcher of psychic phenomena, who fuelled by intellectual curiosity, decides to rent Hill House for a period of time. Having ascertained that he needs a ‘haunted’ house to prove his theories, Dr Montague settles upon Hill House – its formidable reputation as a dwelling of malevolence and evil fits the bill perfectly. Having taken the permission of the current owners, the Sandersons, Dr Montague sets upon selecting and hiring a couple of assistants for his project.

Using this setup in the first few pages, Jackson provides brief snapshots of the main characters featuring in this novel. First, there’s Eleanor Vance, 32, a lonely young woman who is at the crossroads in her life post the death of her bitter, ailing mother. Burdened with the duty of caring for her, Eleanor’s life so far has been narrow and colourless. She has a married elder sister Carrie, but the two don’t get along at all, and Carrie is particularly patronizing taking pleasure in bossing over Eleanor. We then have Theodora, bright-eyed, belonging to “a world of delight and soft colours”, a sharp contrast to Eleanor’s anxious, reserved personality. The third and last member of Dr Montague’s team is Luke Sanderson, the future heir of Hill House. The Sandersons allow Dr Montague to rent Hill House on the condition that Luke becomes part of his team. Clearly, Luke is a troubled man and his family hopes that some time away will bring his thieving and gambling activities to a halt, if only for a temporary period.

These succinct biographies have hallmarks of Jackson’s typical style – strange, unique and a little fantastic, but because they are presented to us under the guise of Dr Montague’s scientific, methodical process of selection, the reader can’t help but accept it at face value.

But the novel’s pivotal character is none other than Hill House itself. Hill House is huge, ugly, menacing and sinister, a portent of evil, a sentient being. The house’s structure is distorted, it is not built on traditional architectural dimensions, and the effect it produces is capable of disorienting its inhabitants and throwing them off balance.

Once the party is ‘settled’ in the house, their task seems simple – record untoward events or disturbances and make notes, which Dr Montague will later analyse to determine whether there is really any psychic phenomena present, or it’s only an effect of subterranean waters. Jackson is brilliant at creating mood and atmosphere – the fear of the unknown, the mounting tension, the slow build-up of dread, and the uneasiness that creeps up on you. Heavy pounding on the doors, laughing noises, blasts of icy cold air at the entrance to the nursery, messages on the wall written in blood are some of the elements that throw the team off gear and also spook the reader. Dr Montague is compelled to give a warning…

Promise me absolutely that you will leave, as fast as you can, if you begin to feel the house catching at you.

But what makes Hill House haunted in the first place? Dr Montague regales his team with its history… as fascinating and eerie as their present circumstances – a tale that involves the eccentric designer of Hill House (Hugo Crain), a bitter and fractious relationship between two sisters (his daughters), death and suicide.

Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes lettings its guests get away. The last person who tried to leave Hill House in darkness—it was eighteen years ago, I grant you—was killed at the turn in the driveway, where his horse bolted and crushed him against the big tree.

But what of the characters themselves? We know that Eleanor’s life until now has been dreary and lonely. The expedition to Hill House offers the chance of adventure and an escape from her grim circumstances. Earlier on, we are privy to Eleanor’s vivid flights of imagination, especially on her long, arduous drive to Hill House – a state of mind that could possibly offer some clue to subsequent events that unravel in the house. Indeed, for Eleanor, a world of dreams is a far better alternative, a chance to lose herself in another world because the reality of her actual existence is stark and claustrophobic.

What about Theodora? It’s interesting that Theodora’s biography at the beginning does not really tell much about her, no concrete detail is provided other than the fact that she shares an apartment with a friend with whom she has had a quarrel. At one point I did wonder whether Theodora is a figment of Eleanor’s imagination, or her alter-ego, I could not really be sure.

THEMES

The Haunting of Hill House is laced with broken, destructive families, with particular emphasis on volatile relations between women, notably sisters. Just like in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the idea of sisterhood is central to this novel. Eleanor has a strained relationship with her elder sister, the animosity between the two Crain sisters forms one of the slippery foundations of what makes Hill House such a malevolent, monstrous place. But the crux really is the shaky relationship between Eleanor and Theodora which veers wildly from easy camaraderie and friendship to sudden quarrels, further exacerbated by Eleanor’s jealousy and rage and Theodora’s cruelty and suspicious nature.

The second theme is fear – how fear makes an individual vulnerable and malleable, easily influenced by fantastic events which would otherwise have been dismissed by the rational, thinking mind.

“Fear,” the doctor said, “is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.”

Isolation, loneliness is the other core theme explored in this novel particularly through Eleanor’s persona. A friendless, isolated woman, Eleanor finds some modicum of acceptance and happiness at Hill House, even if the house is not receptive to its inhabitants. She opens up in a way she would not have thought possible. Somewhere she is also ridden with guilt, palpable in the way allusions to her mother keep popping up. She is a complex woman, afraid of being alone and yet her flights of fancy indicate that she prefers a life of seclusion and solitude.

THE STRANGENESS OF JACKSON’S REALM

Jackson does a marvellous job of subverting the readers’ expectations. Is this a straightforward horror story or is there a psychological angle to it?

It is so cold, Eleanor thought childishly; I will never be able to sleep again with all this noise coming from inside my head; how can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head? I am disappearing inch by inch into this house, I am going apart a little bit at a time because all this noise is breaking me; why are the others frightened?

We are never quite sure of the dynamics between Dr Montague, Luke, Theo and Eleanor, their interactions sometimes appear as unbalanced as the house they occupy; the reader feels the same sense of disorientation as the characters. Many a time, Eleanor feels like she belongs, that she is an integral part of the team, but there are other times when she perceives herself an outsider, and thinks the others are talking behind her back. Guillermo del Toro states in his introduction aptly states that the haunting in Hill House feels real and everyone within it is alone, trapped in their own minds and blind to the plight of others.

Despite a narrative charged with tension and menace, moments of comedy shine through. For instance, the deadpan refrains delivered by the dour, inflexible Mrs Dudley sends the team into fits of laughter at one point, even drawing out a chuckle from this reader. The late entry of Mrs Montague (Dr Montague’s wife) considerably livens things up. Her domineering attitude coupled with her so-called empathy for the lost souls roaming Hill House make for some hilarious conversations with her husband.

Jackson truly excels at creating rich, striking imagery. There is one extraordinary scene where after a quarrel, Eleanor and Theo head out of the house for a walk in the dark against their better instincts. The scene around them is all black and white – a dark road winding through a pitch black sky with luminous white trees dotting the landscape. It’s a scene drained of all colour, both girls walk side-by-side, completely immersed in their own thoughts until they suddenly come upon a vibrant picnic scene bursting with a slew of colours. And then Theo spots something utterly frightening, screams, and the two girls run for dear life back to the house.

They perceived at the same moment the change in the path and each knew then the other’s knowledge of it; Theodora took Eleanor’s arm and, afraid to stop, they moved on slowly, close together, and ahead of them the path widened and blackened and curved. On either side of them the trees, silent, relinquished the dark color they had held, paled, grew transparent and stood white and ghastly against the black sky. The grass was colorless, the path wide and black; there was nothing else.

CONCLUSION

The Haunting of Hill House, then, is a wonderfully written, fluid, layered story of isolation, loneliness, horror and fear, ambiguous enough to throw up a lot of questions and unsettle the reader.

To learn what we fear is to learn who we are. Horror defies our boundaries and illuminates our souls.

Having now read both Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I do think the latter is the better of the two, but that does not make the former any less brilliant.