On Being Uncomfortable: Good Night, Beautiful Women

I try not to stop reading a book because it makes me uncomfortable. There are exceptions. I had to set aside Sophie’s Choice for all the reasons…granted, I was reading it while I was pregnant with my daughter, so the timing probably could’ve been better. Still, for the most part, if a book makes me uncomfortable, I try to slow down and stick with it.

That approach got me through some tough reads – A Little Life, Homegoing and An Untamed State kicked me in the face with the tragedy of living but, for the most part I got through them, (admittedly, with occasional skimming). This does not make me a reading-bad ass. I read to escape more often than not. It’s just that, some stories strike me as being important on a human level, and I want to try to witness and understand other people’s experiences as much as the constraints of my life and circumstances allow. That’s why it surprised me when I had to set aside Anna Noyes’s debut collection, Goodnight, Beautiful Women

Books like A Little Life and An Untamed State, which are generally considered to be  triggering or, at the very least, emotionally challenging, come at an issue of global concern from a very specific, personal point of view – kidnapping, rape and economic disparity; child prostitution, trauma and abuse…. These issues are so present in our culture that they demand social awareness and discourse. They are issues that are, unfortunately, still relevant and resonant on a wide scale in the world we all live in. You could argue that the reasons novels like The Color Purple and Sophie’s Choice can be so upsetting is that they are deeply personal novels that deal, unflinchingly, with universal tragedies.

This is not the purview of Goodnight, Beautiful Women. Noyes’s collection of loosely linked short stories is quiet and deeply personal. Rather than the effects of cultural appropriation or sexual violence, Noyes drills into the uncertain tides of personal experience, like the reverberations of memory, or the deeply personal affect of a lie on the liar. Her stories reflect on the incidental choices that redirect a life; on a mother’s absence, and daughter’s subtle decline; on an injured woman’s quiet fall from grace.

The emotional tides these stories create ebb and flow, like water through a fen – quiet and almost disturbingly subtle. That’s why I found myself getting uncomfortable in ways that I didn’t expect as I read them. This wasn’t the distress at human tragedy. This was the discomfort of seeing myself reflected in the movement of those tides.

The effect is literally too subtle for me to qualify in any kind of accurate way, but it left me feeling both attracted and repulsed. While I was reading them, I couldn’t put these stories down…but I also didn’t want to pick them up again once the bookmark was in. So, that’s how it went – stopping and starting over more than a month. At one point, I even put it back on the shelf, but found myself hunting it down two weeks later, weirdly compelled to finish it.

When I first finished the collection, I gave it a lukewarm review on Litsy. Even as I did, I knew I was doing it partially out of spite…

“It’s beautiful…beautiful writing…beautiful prose…remarkable…but I’m not clear on Noyes’s point.”

In hindsight, that was bullshit. Noyes’s point is perfectly clear – the narrative arc of a life, unlike that of a story, isn’t clean or planned. It’s random, happens in shards and hinges on understandings you can’t accurately have at the time.

I edited my review to reflect this conclusion after sitting with the stories for awhile, because that’s the effect the book has had. As uncomfortable as it made me, I find myself turning these stories over in my mind, like polished stones. There is something alchemical with Anna Noyes’s prose – she unfurled my defenses and showed me to myself. It’s a shockingly intimate and deeply uncomfortable reading experience for reasons that I still can’t properly express.

Far from he lukewarm review I initially gave it, I can now honestly say that, while I have read collections that overwhelmed me with their rawness, their greatness, or their sheer inventiveness, this is the only one that has ever held a mirror right up to my face. That’s a rare thing, and the discomfort it gave me is a strange and unsettling gift. I’ll definitely be looking forward to more from Anna Noyes.

A Ramble on Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson

img_3978It’s the first day of winter! Hooray! I love winter. I LOVE winter in all of it’s quiet, cold, freezing, icy, white, profound, dark, cozy, blinding glory. Last year, I wrote this post on my other site about why winter is the most comforting, productive time of year for me, so I won’t rehash that. Instead, I’m going to have myself a ramble on the kind of books I love to read around Christmastime, which can pretty much be summed up by Jeanette Winterson’s new collection.

Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days is the book equivalent of a dark, frosty-windowed night, and the cosy home that protects you from the cold. I do a lot of re-reading this time of year- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sherlock Holmes, The Dark is Rising, fairy tales, Dracula and The Lord of the Rings (especially Return of the King) tend to get a lot of action this time of year. They aren’t particularly wintery books, but they all acknowledge an overarching darkness and the triumph of light (or logic, or goodness) over it.

That kind of story arc especially appeals to me at this time of year, when I’m reading under a blanket in my battered leather chair. While the stories in Christmas Days cover a lot of ground subject-wise, at the heart of them all is a shadowy snatch of darkness (whether from violence, grief, or loneliness) and an effort to transcend it.

Winterson is especially good at ghost stories, and there are some amazing ghost stories in this collection. There are isolated houses, unsolved murders, hotels with questionable histories and avenging brides. I got so caught up that I got that shifty, creepy feeling in my spine, which was fun because I almost never get that feeling from a book.

Some of the stories that made my heart ache too, like “The Snowmama” about a lonely little girl, or “Glow-Heart” about a man grieving his lover, and even “The Silver Frog” a super satisfying fairy tale about a horrible woman who runs a horrible orphanage and her horribly satisfying end. Interleaved between these stories were 12 recipes that doubled as essays on everything from estrangement and grief, to being married to a Jew at Christmas.

Jeanette Winterson gets winter. She’s written articles and essays about why the quiet, dark time is important, and I agree with her on every point. Winter is a time of contemplation, for slowing down, for taking stock. It’s a time to get re-centered with yourself. Where am I in my own landscape, and where I want to go in the coming year?

The essays and stories in this collection honor that impulse. They are a cosy nest of a reading experience and they set the perfect tone for that kind of quiet, ritualistic contemplation. They’re also just a pleasure to read for their own sake, which is probably why they worked for me on that deeper level. Plus, Winterson is funny and wry and wise and totally irreverent, even while she’s being very reverent. Plus, the biryani recipe is killer. And the mulled wine…god, that mulled wine was good. So, yes. Clearly, I’ve got another book to reread next year.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

On Narrative Flow

For my first official post on Reading Like a Writer, I want to talk about Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk.

I almost called this post “In Praise of Narrative Flow” because that’s what initially pulled me into H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald’s crazy-natural use of narrative flow.

But before I get into that, I should say up front that I kind of loved everything about this book. In a very personal way, it was exactly the right read at exactly the right time, so I can honestly say without any reservation that it’ll probably be one of my favorite books of 2016.

Now, to get back to narrative flow. What I mean by narrative flow is how the writer’s use of pacing, rhythm and execution, and how they interact with the reader. Here’s an example from Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”:

The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.

Side Note: If you haven’t read Hemingway, goddamn, check out his short stories. I’m not a huge fan of his novels, but his short stories are a-maze-ing. He really was a master of the form.

So, narrative flow. This quote captures the tone of the story – staccato, disjointed and ambiguous. Things are said in this story through what is not said – the way the woman looks at the girl, the way the girl is looking off, the way the hills seem separate from the land. The flow is a little choppy, a little disorienting and that’s perfect because it mirrors the heat of the day and the girl’s state of mind. In this case, the narrative flow feeds into the story’s overall tone. It’s brilliant.

Helen Macdonald does something equally brilliant in H is for Hawk. Narrative flow is important regardless of what kind of narrative it is – fiction or nonfiction, short or long. Whereas Hemingway used flow to give his short story a visceral impact, Macdonald uses it to a different effect – she weaves a tapestry with it so the reader becomes wrapped in her grieving state of mind. And yet, the hawk remains firm and clear in the middle of her grief. The hawk is always the focal point.

The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.

Macdonald’s imagery is threaded through her prose. It’s sensory and very specific. It also accurately reflects how thoroughly the hawk will come to define her life for a time. There are a million gorgeous quotes I could pull from this book, but they all have this quality – the prose is packed with more than words. Expand that out to the entire book and you get narrative flow.

There are two main threads in H is for Hawk and I’ll admit that, at first, I didn’t quite buy into one of them. In addition to her own autobiography of grief, Macdonald weaves in a mini-biography of T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King, as well as, (more importantly for this book), The Goshawk, an account of his failed attempt to train a hawk. In the beginning, the White chapters felt a bit strange and intrusive. But slowly, they began to make sense. Slowly, they begin to reflect Macdonald’s fears and isolation as she trains her own goshawk, Mabel. The White chapters become critical to understanding the depth of Macdonald’s grief and how falconry becomes a metaphor for the process of healing.

They also act as a counterpoint to her relationship to her own hawk. White botched his hawk’s training horribly. Macdonald, by comparison, is hyper-aware of the bird, to the point that she begins to over-identify. As she does, the flow becomes leaner, tighter, and narrower, almost reflecting the pinpointed focus of the bird she’s training. Then, as the training progresses and she processes her grief, the focus slowly expands. The flow loosens. Macdonald’s narrative develops a rhythm that underscores her emotional experience. That alone helped me, as the reader, to connect to the book on a basic, instinctive level – it bypassed my brain and hit my emotions, which for me is where it counts.

And that’s the power of narrative flow – it’s a way to by-pass the reader’s logic and burrow under their skin. I’m sure there are other names for it, but that’s essentially how I think of the structural rhythm of a book. Some writers engineer it ahead of time, but that almost never works for me. When I write, the flow kind of just happens in the first draft. Then I hone it through revision and edits. Macdonald’s narrative rhythm feels so natural, so deeply tied to the text, that I wonder how much of it was engineered and how much of it just happened. If I’m ever lucky enough to talk to her someday, I would love to ask.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Cover image of The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark for Mean Fiction by Malin James

On Mean Fiction

It took me all of an hour to read Muriel Spark’s novella, The Driver’s Seat. It’s lean and  incredibly mean in the way children can be. There’s something viciously natural in the way adolescent social politics play out, with mutable hierarchies determining social life and death.

That same, subtle viciousness underlies The Driver’s Seat, not in any textually obvious way, but in how it engages the reader’s sympathies, as well as that adolescent sense of assumption and judgment. I’ll be honest – it’s not a comfortable read, but it’s also why I loved the book. That subtle, dark, destabilizing meanness is what makes the story so very wrong, and so very good.

I don’t like doing plot summaries, but in this case, I think a brief one is important. The Driver’s Seat is about a woman named Lise who goes on holiday, ostensibly looking for her “boyfriend”. Lise’s goal for the trip deceptively simple and she executes everything with mad sort of meticulousness. It isn’t until towards the end that the reader fully grasps what her goal actually is.

What makes this book brilliant, is that the entire book hinges not so much on what happens, but on why and how it happens. In fact, Spark reveals Lise’s fate within the first few pages, but it doesn’t actually matter. The narrator drip feeds the reader a string of seemingly random oddities in Lise’s behavior, and she does it so effectively that you almost feel safe in what you’ve been told is going to happen. In fact, there were times when it felt like the narrator wants the reader to pass notes behind Lise’s back. After all, it’s obvious that Lise is unhinged but…not in the way Spark wants you to expect.

So, how does Spark play with the reader? She does it through Lise and how we’re meant to engage her. Lise’s oddness compounds itself in unsettling and somewhat ridiculous ways, from her hysteria at being told that a dress is stain resistant, to her single-minded search for her “boyfriend”. Spark plays on the reader’s empathy (or lack of empathy) in a very personal way, tapping into those early adolescent social experiences and memories – the ones that might prompt the reader to either feel sorry for Lise or laugh at her (or possibly both).

Everything in the way Lise interacts with people is not quite right. She’s a very deliberate portrait of what happens when a normal woman becomes unhinged, and the reader becomes complicit in that portrait. Our reactions to her are, in many ways, the reactions Lise has most likely experienced for a great deal of her life. We become part of the world she navigates, if only for the sliver of her life that we witness.

As a character, Lise feels dangerous and unpredictable, but only because she subverts our expectations of what a lonely spinster should be. Spark gives her a dismissable, almost laughable veneer and then slices it away to reveal an almost terrifying degree of personal agency in Lise. It’s that determined, single-minded agency that is, in fact, the novel’s central threat.

That trick of drawing the reader in and then destroying their expectations it what gives The Driver’s Seat it’s deep, satirical bite. It’s also what makes it such a marmite book – people either love it for its meanness, or they hate it. Becuase it isn’t a comfortable read – I knew that going into it (thanks to this awesome discussion) but I was still shocked at thoroughly I was manipulated, even as I admired Spark’s subtlety in pulling it off.

The triumph of all of the darkness and bite is that the reader becomes complicit in Lise’s fate, and her fate is not nearly as simple or straightforward as Spark implies at the start. It’s what makes this novel an experience as much as it is a story. In the end, it’s a tremendous portrait of a woman’s desperate, single-minded pursuit of autonomy, but whether or not she’s successful is left unclear. I may need to read it again to sort that out.

51FB7KX99ML._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_Side Note: 4/12/16

I just finished Aiding & Abetting, also by Spark, and it’s another example of author manipulation and reader complicity, though in a totally different (completely hilarious) way. Ultimately, in both novels, as different as they are, it’s Spark’s brutal lack of sentimentality that makes the dark, serrated edges work. She has razors in her fingers and I love it.

She once wrote that she “aims to startle as well as please” and, for my money, so manages both like a boss.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Woman in a library art nouveau for On Confronting Literature by Malin James

Dig by Sadie Wendall (1909)

On Books that Quietly Confront

I’ve had On Chesil Beach since it released in 2007. It’s a lovely little hardback and I picked it up without even looking at what it’s about because I love Ian McEwan. I remember taking it home and doing the rare thing of sitting down to start it right away (I usually buy books and put them in the long, long, long line of my TBR). But I got two pages in and stopped. I felt vaguely ill and I stopped. I slowly closed the book, set it on the shelf with my other McEwans and moved on without trying to think too much.

In the years since then, On Chesil Beach has sat on my shelf, biding its time. I say “biding its time” because it felt like an active presence in its own quiet way. I’d pull other books off the shelf to read, or to cull or consider, and think – I know you’re there. I’m going to read you, but I’m not ready yet. 

I couldn’t pick the book up, but I still mentally addressed because, in an odd way, it didn’t feel like an object. It felt like an experience I was going to have to have, one that was waiting patiently for me. It’s the most gently confrontational book I’ve ever read because the confrontation was very specific. Two pages in, it was clear that the experience of reading On Chesil Beach was going to be deeply personal. So I set it aside until I could process why. Here’s why:

I recognized too much of myself in those first pages. The situation in that narrow book resonated in a way that drew a personal line for me between literature that confronts by design (think Tampa or American Psycho) and literature that resonates to the point of confrontation. For me, On Chesil Beach is the latter, and it’s a very different thing than the former.

Literature that confronts by design is meant to challenge – you know what you’re getting into before you even start. Whether the challenge is emotional, psychological, moral or social depends on the book, but regardless of how it challenges, its intention (at least in part) is to challenge. I love a great many books that do this – The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark; The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan; Tampa by Alyssa Nutting and loads of others – some that I’ve actively enjoyed and others that were difficult but which I appreciate nonetheless.

That appreciation comes from the distance the intended effect allows me to have. If I pick up A Little LifeI’m going to brace myself for the experience of reading it. Same with An Untamed State. That doesn’t mean I won’t be emotionally affected – far from it. What it does mean is that the effect will very likely be tempered, somewhat, by two things – the fact that I was expecting it and the fact that others have been similarly affected by the book.

Cover of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan for On Confronting Literature by Malin JamesLiterature that resonates to the point of confrontation is different. For books like this, the confronting element is purely accidental and often deeply personal. On Chesil Beach is a perfect example. Nothing about it is directly confrontational – it’s about a young couple and their disastrous wedding night. No one gets killed, maimed, or traumatized. However, when you scratch the surface, it’s about a young woman’s complicated relationship with sex in the wake of sexual abuse, and the damage it does to her relationship. While it isn’t about trauma, it’s about the effect of trauma and that resonated with me in a deeply personal and challenging way.

Though the situation in the book is very different (and quite a lot simpler) than mine, it reverberated enough to feel dangerous when I first bought it. I’d suppressed a great deal and was, at the time, unprepared to examine large chunks of my childhood, my sexuality, my personality and my sexual / romantic relationships. This subtle, gentle book hit close enough to home that I knew within two pages that it was going to make me confront things I wasn’t prepared to acknowledge, so I set it aside and let it wait for me.

The fact that I was drawn to reading it now signals an important shift. I avoided it for years with the conscious understanding that I would “read it when I’m ready”. That I pulled it down from the shelf last week and read it in two days means that my relationship to those things I was trying to protect – memories of my childhood, my sexuality and my perceptions (of both myself and my relationships) – are strong enough now to bear the acknowledgement reading the book would mean.

Literature intended to confront is an important part of how you might understand experiences beyond your own. It’s a way to engage empathy and understanding and broaden your mind. Literature that resonates to the point of confrontation has the opposite effect. Rather than looking outward, it’s a passage inward to your personal experiences, one that can deepen your understanding of how you move through life.

Sometimes that’s a joyful thing. Sometimes that’s incredibly difficult. Either way, there’s great value in the challenge – so much so, in fact, that there’s nothing wrong with waiting until you’re able to process that value in a healthy productive way. It’s the difference between engaging your history and triggering yourself. When in doubt, opt for the approach that allows you to engage without hurting yourself.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

On Structure and Chronology

There aren’t many writers I trust completely, but Sarah Waters is one of them. Regardless of where she takes me, I know she’ll get me there and back safely, whether it’s a Victorian insane asylum or an ambiguously creepy manor house post-WWI. In fact, her writing is pretty much guaranteed to do three things for me:

1. Emotionally affect me, often in very uncomfortable ways.

2. Challenge my expectations.

3. Teach me how to be a better writer.

Her fourth novel, The Night Watch, which has been sitting on my shelf since 2006, (I was saving it for a rainy day), does all three things so well that it may replace Affinity as my favorite of her books.

What surprised me most about The Night Watch was the structure. I know that doesn’t sound super exciting, but everything about it, from plot to characters, feels heightened because of it.

Rather than adhering to a standard, chronological structure, the narrative unfolds in reverse, starting in 1947 and moving backward through to 1941. The effect is amazing – events that would have struck me as suspenseful became massively poignant because of structural hindsight. The reader knows what’s coming, but the characters don’t, and yet, Waters balances that readerly omniscience with a lot of unknowns. She opens the novel with a clear picture of the characters’ fates, but you don’t understand the significance of those fates until the very end (or rather, beginning) in 1941. The tension that created anchored me to the book so hard I couldn’t put it down. (That’s where #3 – Teach me how to be a better writer – came in).

The Night Watch is comprised of the seemingly separate stories of three women and one man, but they are, in reality, tightly interwoven, a fact that Waters reveals slowly as their histories unfold. I don’t want to get too deep into how their stories interweave because spoilers would really ruin it, so instead I’ll talk about the characters who touched me most…which is to say, all of them – even the ones who were awfully flawed.

It’s the trick that Sarah Waters always manages to pull – that of putting difficult things in front of you while compelling you to read on. And I was compelled, just as I always am. The characters in The Night Watch ache with love, jealousy, desperation, fear, shame and the longing for things they can’t have. But while there is a lovely sense of hope for some of them, the future, for others, is left opaque, most affectingly, for me, the ambulance driver, Kay.

Kay may win or Kay may lose, but to see her win, Waters would have to allow us to see past the chronology of the book. The fact that we can’t might drive some people nuts, but it made me love the book even more. It underscores the fact that Waters is only giving us a sliver of their lives, which made their difficulties bear even more weight while casting the good in an even more poignant light.

I’m a glutton for that kind of thing, which is why I’m a fan of Sarah Waters. Though it took me ten years to read The Night Watch, I’m glad I waited for that rainy day. As a reader, I brought much more to the table at 38 than I would’ve at 28. That said, I’m going to try not to make it another ten years before I read The Paying Guests.


Review: Shadow of the Wind

Shadow of the WindThe Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I loved this book so much that I re-instated this blog because I needed a place to talk about it. That’s a lot of love, so, while it’s called a “review” for tagging purposes, it’s not really what I’d call critical. It’s more of an enthusiastic, oh-my-god-THIS-BOOK!!! recommendation. Fair warning.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is not a new book. It came out in 2001 and became an international best-seller, which is probably why, whenever I ecstatically mentioned it, someone said something like, oh, yeah – I read that 15 years ago and I loved it! So, yes. I’m a bit late to the party, but whatever. I got there, thanks entirely to the recommendation of someone whose opinion I value in pretty much all things.

This was one of those alchemical, magical reading experiences that reminds me of why I love books as much as I do. In fact, it’s the first time in ages that I’ve gotten the “book tingle” (if you’ve never felt the “book tingle”, I’m sorry. It’s awesome. Read until you feel it and you’ll see what I mean). Now that I’ve exhaustively established that I do, in fact, love this book, I’ll try get past “OMG SO GOOD” to why it worked for me, and there was a lot that worked for me.

Zafon pulls a million disparate elements together to make a layered, suspenseful, compelling whole. The plot is as tight as it is labyrinthian; the prose is gorgeous, even in translation; the setting – Barcelona during Franco’s regime – is so effortlessly realized that I found myself transported (cliched but true); the tone of elegant decay and creeping danger really got under my skin; and through it all, there is something that I can only call a “Spanish-ness” that I found incredibly familiar and comforting. I felt as if I were lying on the floor, reading it at my grandparents’ house. I could practically smell the garlic simmering on the stove.

In short, there are about ten different things I could pull out of the book and point to as reasons to read it, but that would be boring. Instead, I’ll focus on the thing that compelled me most – the characters and how effectively Zafon drew me into their lives.

Whether rendered through first person narration or third party accounts, every character feels whole unto him(or her)self. Zafon treats all of them with such warmth of detail that I felt as if I were people watching in a cafe – they each had histories and lives, I just wasn’t privvy to all of them.

It’s rare to find a book that is not only fast-paced and plot-driven, but emotionally affecting.While the novel itself could best be described as a literary or historical thriller, Zafon spends as much energy on characterization as he does on pacing and plot. I connected with even the most tertiary characters – like a nurse, unjustly warehoused in an old-age asylum and a gently deviant clockmaker – because Zafon made me care without every feeling manipulated.

This worked especially well with the book’s narrator / protagonist, a bookseller’s son named Daniel. The death of his mother endears you to him immediately, so that, when his father takes him to the gorgeously conceived Cemetary of Forgotten Books [Side Note: I want to live there] you want something special to happen. And it does.

The young Daniel chooses one boo – The Shadow of the Wind by a brilliant but forgotten author named Julian Carax. Daniel’s quest to protect Carax’s legacy drives him deep into the past with a doggedness that eludes him in other areas of his life. There is an unspoken, latitudinal connection between Carax and Daniel that works quietly on how the reader engages the book. Their unfolding connection gives the novel much of its gothic pull. And don’t be mistaken – The Shadow of the Wind gets dark. Bad things happen to good people, and it’s a credit to Zafon that the tragic is balanced by goodness and empathy without feeling contrived.

Finally, The Shadow of the Wind (Zafon’s – not Carax’s) is full of books – the love of books, the writing of books, the preservation, destruction, selling and buying of books. This is a book about people who love books, from the bookstore that Daniel’s father owns to the (aforementioned paradise on earth) Cemetary of Forgotten Books.

The Shadow of the Wind works on nearly every level and Carlos Ruiz Zafon knocked me out with it. So, if you haven’t read it, read it. Really. Do. And if you already have feel free to let me know what you think…especially if you disagree with me. I’m so blinded by enthusiasm that I’d be curious to hear what other people think


I purposely left out a summary and full list of characters. If you’d like either, click here.

And if you want to buy Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of Wind or any of his other titles, (including others set in the same milieu), click here.

The Devil’s in the Details (and The Deep Blue Sea)

Rachel Weisz as Hester Collyer for The Devil's in the Deep Blue Sea post by Malin James

Rachel Weisz as Hester Collyer

I watched a film awhile ago – Terrence Davies’ adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s play, The Deep Blue Sea. It’s a beautiful, melancholy play, and a beautiful melancholy film about a woman named Hester Collyer, who escapes a stifling marriage to have an affair with a damaged RAF pilot named Freddie Page.

Set in the years following WWII, the film, (and the play), examines a particular slice of cultural history through Hester’s emotional decent. She’s a beautiful woman with two choices – remain wedded to stifling traditions or deviate from accepted social norms. Neither is particularly promising as they are born out in the choice between a dry, unsatisfying marriage to a  kind, older judge, or wildly sexual but emotionally fraught affair with a younger man.

There are a lot of things I like about this film. Visually, it’s a beautiful thing, full of saturated color and all the  soft edges of an old Hollywood film. The acting is also first rate – Rachel Weisz is heart-breaking as Hester and Tom Hiddleston turns in a edgy, nuanced performance as Freddie Page. But, as they say, the devil’s in the details, and that’s true for this film.

Take a look at this short trailer, and keep your ear open to one of Freddie’s lines. It starts about 19 seconds in.

That line – “I really think you’re the most attractive girl I’ve ever met” – is the detail that stands out most to me in this film. That one line, and Hester’s silent response to it, tells viewers everything they need to know about what’s going to happen. Here’s what I mean.

Arguably, Hester’s defining characteristic is that she needs. She is driven by unfulfilled need, and her needs – for love, and respect, and fulfillment, and romance, and desire, and safety, and belonging, and etc. etc. etc. – run incredibly deep. Freddie, on the other hand, skates the surface of need. He cannot tolerate entanglements for reasons of his own.

So, while he can offer Hester, “I really think you’re the most attractive girl I’ve ever met”, what Hesters needs is “You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. I love you. Stay with me.” That need of hers is naked on her face, and as soon as you see her cling to the bon-bon Freddie’s offered, you know it’s going to go badly for them.  There is too much distance between what Hester needs, and what Freddie can give.

And that’s why I love this film, even though it makes my stomach hurt. No one is at fault. They are just, fundamentally, not right for each other. Love and attraction are not enough. What breaks my heart is that nothing will ever be enough for Hester. Her needs went ignored for so long that there is a hole inside of her that cannot be filled. That’s why this film is a tragedy, and that’s why it’s so good.