Books June 2002

New & Noteworthy

Fiction set in turn-of-the-century England and in the Australian bush; ghosts in the darkroom
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The Haunting of L.
by Howard Norman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 326 pages, $24.00

On the face of it, Howard Norman's fifth book is a nice, comfy historical novel, set in one of those decades most conducive to period detail: the 1920s, with its hip flasks and streetcars and (relative) innocence. From the very beginning, however, the narrator lets us know that something is askew. Waking in the middle of the night, Peter Duvett—a photographer's assistant who happens to be sharing his bed with the photographer's wife—is stricken with an epistemological unease. "This was natural to my character," he tells us. "It occurred to me that hidden deep inside my sense of the world in perfect order was the fear that the worst was on its way." How right he is. It would be difficult to explain the specific catastrophe in his path, given the author's penchant for intricate plotting and loop-the-loop flashbacks. Suffice it to say that Peter's boss, Vienna Linn, is not only a serial murderer but also an artistic fraud who fakes the apparitions of departed spirits in his photographs—and that Peter's lover, Kala Murie, is a true believer in these very images.

In a sense, The Haunting of L. offers a protracted debate about the existence of the soul. But here, too, Norman refuses to play by simple rules. Kala, who's supposed to be batting for the spiritualist team, ultimately seems to view those spectral snapshots as little more than an index of familial dysfunction. Meanwhile, her vicious materialist of a husband is tormented—or let's say spooked—by the memory of his victims, most of whom he has successively killed and preserved on film. "You cannot begin to imagine, Duvett, what demons occupy my mind," he confesses, "and they each and every one have a mortal's name. Those many faces float in front of my eyes day and night. They lay siege." And what of the meek and malleable narrator? Peter remains caught in the middle, unsure even of his own eccentricities. This makes him the exception in Norman's fictional universe, where everything—the plot, the prose, and the very names of the characters—is slightly but indelibly strange. There is considerable suspense here, and great depth of feeling, but it's the sheer, melancholic oddity of the book that will haunt most readers to the very end.

—James Marcus

The Idea of Perfection
by Kate Grenville
Viking, 401 pages, $24.95

The simple plot of this novel—a woman and a man have conflicting goals, hers to preserve history by establishing a museum, his to institute progress by replacing a picturesque old bridge with a new concrete one—functions merely as a dummy on which the Australian novelist Kate Grenville drapes a gorgeous and intricate study of three characters. Two are engaging and wildly imperfect—Harley Savage, a textile artist three times married, who fears attachment and has therefore forced herself to become hard and unapproachable (yes, Harley might be a cliché—if she weren't so quirky and fully realized); and Douglas Cheeseman, a ridiculously awkward and excruciatingly self-conscious engineer who's terrified of heights. The third, Felicity Porcelline, is disturbingly inhuman in her obsession with perfection (to avoid developing wrinkles she smiles only when necessary). Harley and Douglas, used to hiding comfortably, if unsatisfyingly, from themselves in the anonymity of Sydney, find themselves exposed under the "big pale simple skin of sky" in a small town in the Australian bush, with happy results. It's an amusing and moving story of unlikely love, but one could read it just to marvel at Grenville's astounding writing. Whether probing her eccentric characters' doubts and anxieties or describing the hot, desolate landscape of the bush or capturing the way its inhabitants talk and think, her sentences—deceptively casual in their diction and rhythm—peg every moment with exquisite and surprising aptness.

—Christina Schwarz

The Go-Between
by L. P. Hartley
New York Review Books, 339 pages, $14.95

From its celebrated opening—"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there"—a reader can deduce a great deal about the tone and theme of this 1953 novel, a recent reissue in the remarkable New York Review Books series. The narrative will be formal, even elegant (note that colon). Emotion will be recollected, perhaps in tranquillity, but certainly without moral judgment. Not least, however, that first sentence suggests the perplexity of a stranger in a place where people act in mysterious ways.

The story takes place in 1900, and is told fifty years later by the elderly Leo Colston, a lonesome man who has spent his life cataloguing books. The wheat fields glisten in the English sunshine and the temperature burns in the 80s and 90s when the nearly thirteen-year-old Leo is invited by a classmate to spend part of the summer at Brandham Hall. There, a poor boy among the wealthy, he is put at his ease by his friend Marcus's older sister, Marian, with whom he quietly falls in love. As the days go by, Leo comes to feel increasingly wary of the intimidating lady of the house, Mrs. Maudsley; to admire the kindly and easygoing Viscount Trimingham, who was wounded in the Boer War; and to identify with a muscular young tenant farmer named Ted Burgess. Above all, he rejoices with almost pagan delight in the hot weather and the fertile landscape. Then, one afternoon, Ted Burgess cautiously asks Leo to take a letter—without telling anyone—to Marian. The reader, of course, guesses the truth immediately. But Leo does not. Slowly the sensitive boy finds himself increasingly confused by complex emotions and conflicting obligations. As he carries messages back and forth between the illicit lovers, the summer advances: croquet on the lawn, visits to the local church, the big Hall-versus-Town cricket match, a concert, roughhousing with Marcus, the prospect of a ball, the announcement of Marian's engagement to Trimingham.

From the beginning we know that disaster awaits. But whom will it strike, and how? Methodically and inexorably Hartley's plot threads are all twisted together, pulled tight, tighter, and tighter still—until the tension makes everything snap. As a work of the highest formal artistry, The Go-Between must rank with Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. And like that masterpiece, it is "the saddest story": "I kept my sense of the general drama of the match and it was sharpened by an awareness, which I couldn't have explained, of a peculiar drama between the bowler and the batsman, between Lord Trimingham and Ted, who were now facing each other. Landlord and tenant, peer and commoner, Hall and village—these were elements in it. But there was another, the spot of bright colour on the pavilion steps which I knew was Marian."

Absolutely limpid in its telling, The Go-Between movingly evokes the heavy fruitfulness of summer, the orderly country-house life of late Victorian England, and what Colm Tóibín, in his introduction to this reissue, calls the drama of "Leo's deeply sensuous nature moving blindly, in a world of rich detail and beautiful sentences, toward a destruction that is impelled by his own intensity of feeling, and, despite everything, his own innocence."

—Michael Dirda
From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "History in a Cell" (April 26, 2002)
Steve Olson, the author of Mapping Human History, retells the story of humanity—including the creation of different "races"—through the information encoded in our DNA.

Interviews: "The Asylum on the Hill" (January 4, 2002)
Alex Beam, the author of Gracefully Insane, probes the rich past of a mental hospital renowned for ministering to prominent, creative, and aristocratic patients.

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes, by Steve Olson. Houghton Mifflin, 304 pages, $25.00. A portion of this book first appeared in the April 2001 Atlantic, as "The Genetic Archaeology of Race."

Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital, by Alex Beam. PublicAffairs, 288 pages, $26.00. Portions of this book appeared in slightly different form as "The Mad Poets Society," in the July/August 2001 Atlantic.

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