My friend Christine Poulson (her blog is over at Christine Poulson: A Reading Life) and I decided that we would set each other a book to read, then each publish our reviews (as yet unseen by the other) on the same day. So earlier this year she got me to read the wonderful Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins - my review is here, Chrissie’s here.
So then it was my turn - and this is what I offered:
*You can read Chrissie's review of Tony & Susan here.
the book: Tony & Susan by Austin Wright
My choice was a book I hadn’t read myself, always a chancy business. I have no idea, yet, what Chrissie made of it, and I had a very complicated reaction to it – but for sure it was a good choice because you wouldn’t run out of things to say about it, and I think it probably divides readers rather dramatically.
Some history: Austin Wright is an American academic (1922-2003) who wrote a handful of novels. This one was published in 1993 to very good reviews, but didn’t find many readers. It was republished a few years ago as one of those cult classics, with plenty of publicity to tell us all that we should have read it, that it was a lost masterpiece (a bit like John Williams’ Stoner).
This is the back-cover summary of the book:
Many years after their divorce, Susan Morrow receives a strange gift from her ex-husband [Edward]. A manuscript that tells the story of a terrible crime: an ambush on the highway, a secluded cabin in the woods; a thrilling chiller of death and corruption. How could such a harrowing story be told by the man she once loved? And why, after so long, has he sent her such a disturbing and personal message...?There are alternate sections of Edward’s novel, and of Susan’s reactions and circumstances as she sits at home reading it. She also looks back at what happened between her and Edward, how she left him for her long-time current husband, Arnold. He is away at a conference, up to who-knows-what.
So. For the first half of the book I was astonished and gripped, completely held by the story, and full of admiration for the writing and the structure. Edward’s thriller is a truly terrifying story of death and violence, as a cheerful happy family sets off for a vacation. You can imagine it as a standalone book. It is grim, with some very strange characters, and gruesome violence. (I wasn’t particularly expecting this to be the case – I knew of the double structure before starting, but naively thought the second tale would be some drama of US academics’ lovelives… couldn’t have been more wrong.)
Susan’s sections give the reader a welcome chance to draw breath, and are entertaining in a different way: this is everyday life and recognizable situations. (There’s a role for Susan’s cat – on reading the passage beginning ‘Jeffrey wants to go out. She opens the door, lets him go’ I had a few moments when I thought this was one of her children.)
Her reactions to the book are interesting:
She feels bruised by her reading, and by life too. She wonders, does she always fight her books before yielding to them? She rides back and forth between sympathy for Tony and exasperation. If only she didn’t have to talk to Edward afterwards. If you say Tony is going mad – or turning into a jerk – you need to be sure Tony is not really Edward.[Tony is the protagonist of the book-within-the-book]
But the book started to lose me in the second half. I still very much wanted to know the outcome, but the whole setup was starting to annoy me: a bit too clever, and the tribulations of Tony became less convincing. I think it’s often the case that when writers of literary fiction try to write a crime novel, they find it not as easy as they think.
I was very conflicted by the ending - because it was clear in one way, but inconclusive, and it actually took me completely by surprise and made me laugh, as well as mystifying me. You are left to make up your own mind here, he is not going to spell out for you what is going on, what you are supposed to take from the book. Can an ending be clear, and inconclusive, and mystifying, and enjoyable? Yes, apparently…
I really didn’t know what I was supposed to understand from the book. There were the classic questions from literary theory: who is the narrator? What is the story? – and I think Wright may have very clever and academic answers. But I was left rather puzzled by it all, I’m still not sure what I was reading. Looking at the (very varied) amazon reviewer responses to it was instructive, and then I came across this one:
Talk about nuance! If you're not a careful, close reader you will miss the staggering impact of this book's conclusion. Very well done.Which made me feel even worse. No, no idea.
One thing’s for sure – Wright thought about every aspect of this, nothing is casual or without meaning. I just don’t think I got all the meaning.
The book has been made into a film – it’s called Nocturnal Animals, which is the name of the book-within-the-book, and due out later this year. The picture above is a still from the film. It’s hard to imagine, but perhaps it will be something like the double-structure film version of John Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman in the 1980s.
Chrissie is an academic who also writes crime fiction – so might be the intended reader for this book, and I wonder if she understands better than I do the literary theory questions here. I am more than usually curious to see what she has to say, and am going over there in great anticipation – suggest you do the same.
ADDED LATER: Now I've read Chrissie's review - and obviously we had very similar reactions to the book. She and I have really got to find some books we disagree on!