Caroline Lassalle breaks some of the few remaining rules about novel writing. Her first novel under her own name seems, almost to the end, like a collection of short stories about six wildly diverse women. And Lassalle, who has written thrillers under a pseudonym and presumably knows better, is cavalier here about suspense. "The five women were dead," the book opens, and it commences with a vignette about Celia, who remembers them.
Celia is a mature Englishwoman living alone in an old house on a Greek island. In Gissing, she reads, "The past is no part of our existing self; we are free of it; it is buried. That release is the pay time owes us for doing his work."
Later vignettes, one for each of the five years following 1977, are interspersed between stories about the other women, yet we learn only a little about Celia's past. She arrived on the island with 21 packing cases, 20 of them filled with books. A check of an ever-diminishing amount arrives from time to time. She takes long walks, eventually goes for long swims, and paces in her house like one of the caged animals in the Public Gardens. She drinks and smokes too much and reads incessantly. Mostly she seems to be remembering the five dead women.
The first story is about Charlotte, the last impoverished offshoot of a famous Catholic family. As an Oxford scholarship student reading English in 1952, she chafes at the restrictions on women. Also, the syllabus, which ends in 1880, and the teaching seem as dogmatic as that in the convent from which she was expelled. A truncated affair with a married man preceded her departure for Oxford. Drunken sex with an undergrad leads to the ultimate punishment for breaking the rules. Death hits her like a blundering deus ex machina.
Next, Eleanor, a provincial don's bored wife, has recently been liberated from the restrictions of teaching by her pregnancy. She and Julian, a friend of the couple, are annoyingly pretentious. They rank others on the "pseudometer," speak of "yawns," and generally flatter themselves about their superiority. Even with this shallow, exasperating character, death seems undeserved, since it follows an infraction of the rules in thought, rather than in deed.
For the next story, the scene shifts to South America. Laura is a talented advertising copywriter assigned to the agency's premier campaign, Creme de Coolay, a skin cream. About the time Laura's personal life is disrupted, her client insists on broaching the African market by asserting her cream's "lightening" properties. Laura, who is a character of more substance than Eleanor, rebels. Again death follows.
In the next story, Ida is also an Englishwoman living in South Africa. While she works in a bookstore, she becomes involved with a group opposing the government. Inevitably she is put under surveillance, arrested, incarcerated and interrogated. Solitude and stress make her more herself--brave, tolerant and forgiving. She aspires to emulate an African who faced his execution heroically. We want her death to be dramatically satisfying, so Ida can fulfill her destiny as the book's heroine. Instead, Ida's death, too, is accidental.
In the last story, Andrea is a dissatisfied wife having an affair with a broken-down poet. She works as an editor in a London paperback house, where she is known for her commercial instincts. On the side, she is trying her hand at writing a best seller to make herself independent of her husband. She also dies a sudden, brutal death for breaking the rules.
The individual stories, right up until their perfunctory endings, are well-written and engrossing, so much so that we regret losing each character, except perhaps Eleanor, to her trumped-up demise. The author seems so skillful otherwise, that we are annoyed by the way she toys with our empathy and our good will.
Finally, however, just when most first novels sink into holes of their own making, Lassalle's opens up like an astounding scenic vista at the end of a slippery switchback. The novel, for novel it is, glows with light.
Lassalle has pulled it off. She has broken the rules to offer a complex perception of the forces affecting women in the last 30 years.
If old-fashioned poetic justice were served, this book would sell enough copies so that the next one wouldn't have to be another pseudonymous thriller. We need another gem by Caroline Lassalle.