THERE is a distinctive ambience to an Alice Thompson novel. From Justine, her debut which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, through Pandora’s Box, Pharos, The Falconer, The Existential Detective and Burnt Island, there is a kind of gothic postmodernism.
The boundaries between reality and fantasy are peculiarly friable and tattered; characters are aware that they are in stories or are conforming to or confronted with archetypes; violence is eroticised and the erotic revealed as almost inherently violent. They tend to be spare books, concentrated rather than cut back. Her latest novel is no exception. It is an eerie and queasy tale of obsession and insanity.
I was at times reminded of Emma Tennant’s novels, or the underrated work of John Herdman. With its Edwardian setting, fascination with psychiatric control and understanding of how “putting women on a pedestal”, taken to extremes, becomes a parody of aesthetics and a literal fetish, it also seemed kith to the novels of Elaine di Rollo. All four writers are clever archaeologists of the obscene, both in its modern sense, and its original sense of being ill-omened.
The eponymous book collector is Lord Archie Murray, a recent widower, and the story is focused on his second wife, Violet. She has, literally, a fairytale existence. Born into a much humbler background, she now has a country pile outside London with Arcadian gardens, and is nursing her first child. But being in a fairy tale is a double-edged sword if that story might turn out to be Bluebeard, and every paradisiacal garden usually has a serpent somewhere nearby. Despite the references to traditional tales, the presiding spirit here is actually the least chthonic, most literary of writers of such work; Hans Christian Andersen. AS Byatt once said that she disliked Andersen’s work because of its melancholic sadism. That is exactly the spirit of The Book Collector.
Over the course of the novel Violet will be incarcerated, then returned to the family home only to discover Archie has moved a strange woman called Clara in as nursemaid, and wonder about her husband’s nocturnal absences and the disappearance of women from the asylum where she was once sequestered. One of the major questions that runs throughout the book is whether books, being, par excellence, the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, should be valued for their content or form. And how far will some people take the veneration of the book and the body? It’s not a spoiler as such – Archie’s caressing of his books drops a major hint early on – but if the curious want to know what to expect, then Google “anthropodermic bibliopegy”.
While there is a great deal to admire here, I was slightly surprised that Thompson had chosen a very linear chronology for the narration. In some ways it makes Violet’s rapid and absolute change from young woman looking for a job in a dress shop to lady of the manor and devoted wife rather quicker than is convincing. Had it been narrated, for example, from after her spell in the asylum, then a slight amnesia about how and why she is where she is, and having to learn what her story supposedly was, would have smudged the edges effectively. There is a slight sense of the author scrutinising her creations rather than knowing them: the problem with the contemporary fable is that the characters, almost unwillingly, revert to signs to be deciphered rather than twinkle into being humans that can be understood.
If that is a sin, it is venal rather than mortal. In a way, so many of Thompson’s authorial disquisitions around the characters – on desire, art, marriage, need, reading, motherhood, selfishness, insanity and whether we can ever really know anyone else at all – are such perfect little apothegms, that I wonder whether or not she might be tempted to try her hand at non-fiction.
The Book Collector shows a wry and sly mind at work. Scottish literature would be thinner without this kind of challenging and cleverly-wrought writing.
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