This novel is like a Russian Doll. One story inside another inside three or four more. It begins with a meeting between two sisters, their first real contact for fifteen years. It starts so simply.
Directly Madeleine came to the door, Dinah said, without looking at her:
‘You’ve got the blue tubs.’
But the next paragraph warns us of what is to come:
Holding a dog tight on the lead, she went on staring at the pair of baroque objects in peacock-blue glazed pottery set one on each side of the porch; tracing the convoluted garlands, shells, tritons, dolphins with an intent expression of amusement and surprise.
Inside these two tubs we will find a marriage crisis, an affair, a breakdown, a wild meadow of emotional chaos, some stability, more affairs, and a secret story, that a sister can only glimpse at - seeds can spread to other parts of the garden; others have their stories too.
Like all metaphors the Russian Doll one has its limits. In the novel the stories flow in and out of another, like roads across the nation. The action is over two days, and is simply the two sisters reflecting on their pasts. They recall turning points, significant events, odd people or those they think important, moments of crisis, and a few obsessive images that monumentalize all meaning – fixing it forever in their memories. Their first real meeting for 15 years and Dinah’s dog fatally injures a rat, that she later kills. It upsets the emotional balance and neither can quite cope with it. Though oddly it brings them just a little closer; confidences can be exchanged, however warily, and a warmth returns between them. It is a huge symbol of course! Too large I wondered for a while. The strength of the scene is that at some level they know this too. They talk, and a connection is restored between them, until they go to bed, where the past covers them like a warm blanket… Later, it is like suddenly waking to bright sunshine, we discover we are back in the present. It is the second day, and Madeleine is suffering from her own love affair. Today echoes yesterday; this weekend the past of decades ago: Dinah came by bus, Madeleine returns by car; there is suffering at each and every stop, but somehow we know Madeleine will handle it more circumspectly. Though Dinah seems now to have recovered too. That gunshot of long ago, amongst the close packed trees in the forest’s centre, is fainter here at its rim…
We get used to the flow of previous events, comfortably travelling down the motorway, sliding in and out of the passing cars, when without warning we find ourselves on other roads, with Rickie, Georgie and the sisters’ mother. Here we see new sights, and fresh perspectives on old scenes. We are in an echoing grove, where sounds become confused, separate out, only to combine again in a muffled haze. A suspicion is cleared up into fact: Madeleine’s intuition of a sexual sympathy between her husband and his friend’s wife confirmed many years later. Thoughts and feelings are picked up, copied, and distorted; actions are repeated, thoughts are imitated; there are different viewpoints, and time changes everything. Their history passes us like clouds in the sky; a dog becomes a dragon turns into islands in a light blue sea, eventually to sink into transparency. All suffer in their own slightly different ways the consequences of their love affairs. Passion, like a hammer smashing a pretty vase, is always elementally the same, as it wrecks the well-crafted life. But each vase breaks in its own unique way…
So much talk. Some of it odd.
… It is kind of unmanly being carried around the way you are all those nine months. And then having no choice but to submit to all those female processes – being born, fed and all the rest. It must be a big humiliation – confusing too. No wonder you’re scared you may be women in disguise.
Too knowing, too full of Freud, or at least his influence, too analytical; there is too much posturing, all that showing off - they have to make an impression, to show they are clever, kind, a little soft and very sophisticated. It is all just a little off-key. It is the confused mixture, another kind of echo and grove, of lives lived on the emotional edge; and therefore absolutely right for conversations on the threshold of a love affair. It is talk at a moment of crisis: the start or end of a relationship, where the tension between making an impression and striving to be truthful, all that analysis, creates such long and confusing monologues. Oh for the comfort, one thinks, of the quiet living room, of The Times, an old book, and the orange flames playfully cavorting in the fireplace. Those comfortable habits, a dull peace, that shoreline they can never quite reach… This it seems is her specialty, and she does it superbly.
On the pavement we hesitated, pausing for a final check-up, making sure that nothing had been left undone. It was a tepid washed-out June evening, grey, steamy after a day of thunder showers; the air was penetrated with the smell of exhausted strawberries and pinks and stocks from a barrow on the corner. The person who strummed every evening upon a twanging piano in a house across the road was playing scales. A group of children burst out of the valley-way behind us, dragging an orange box screwed to a pair of rusty iron wheels. In it sat two tiny Negro children, twins, boy and girl, in magenta flannel jackets. Their faces, black, tender, designed in harmony with the skull’s perfect globe, had an extraordinary abstract dignity. They tore past us brushing our legs, on up the street. Behind the opaque glass windows of the pub on the opposite corner shadows passed and re-passed. Everything looked expectant, supercharged, dramatic: opening shots in a French film, camera turning on doors, pavements, lamp-posts, street-vistas, housefronts, on selected figures; sound track picking up the thin invisible piano, the screech of a rusty wheel, shouts, motor horns and running footsteps, all intermittent between loaded silences, all to build up the atmosphere for what would happen. Anything might happen. Who would slouch shady from that narrow passage, on the heels of that penny-for-the-guy prelude, that flurry of infant mummers? Whom would the swing-swinging pub doors reveal at last, solid against the phantoms? When will they move, that pair of lovers? What are they muttering, their lips stiff, looking hard at each other, then away? She wears her hair shoulder-length, rolled under, she wears a mackintosh and carries a shabby suitcase: clearly she is the heroine. He has a virile sensuous distinction, a prosperous suit of clothes. Upper-class philanderer caught in a fatal net with waif? … Why does that taxi crawl along the street, slow down beside them? Watch now, the plot is about to thicken.
This scene is being recounted, almost in reverie. The details are so sharp: the heightened emotions soaking up the scene like chemicals on photographic paper. Everything is so strong and clear. A sense of stillness, one single moment fixed eternally like a painting on the gallery wall. Yet there is movement too. That tension, found often in Chinese poetry, where the stillness is disturbed by a small action; the dissonance exaggerating the silence and general calm, but also giving it life. Here the author deepens the effect: a quiet moment fixed within the movement; the two children still in the moving cart. It is so hard to capture emotions, so fleeting and so fast, all mixed up and confused, and hardly comprehended, for the most part, so complex and evanescent they can be. Rosamond Lehmann so rich, and so rounded, and so sharp - does it brilliantly. She is the big game hunter of our domestic interiors. Her rooms full of lions and tigers, even elephants… What a strange metaphor, but right in its own way.
Did you notice that first sentence:
On the pavement we hesitated, pausing for a final check-up, making sure that nothing had been left undone.
What is she referring to? The flat they have just left, or the relationship that is over? The paragraph flows easily between different times, perspectives and registers. After the act we reflect upon it; and feelings are turned into ideas, formulas, images and all that analysis. What if, we should have done that, but what if, but but… all those questions without an answer, a spiral of unceasing misery; though there is beauty towards its end.
The children have left, a stillness returns, it brings back self-consciousness. She is looking at herself from the outside. Distancing it, domesticating it, understanding it in a new way; and always with that self-protected irony. That prophylactic against pain.