18 April 2017

Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark, UK, 1971

Witty and intelligently written, this novella is set in a upper-class home outside Geneva on a particularly stormy and inclement night. The Baron and the Baroness have withdrawn to the library with their secretary and have impressed upon the staff that they are not to be disturbed.

With the three central characters off-stage in the library, the butler, Lister, orchestrates the entire evening as though it is a play; reality and the absurd are expertly woven together; and it is difficult to know where the one begins and the other ends. The butler and the other members of the staff prepare for a three-way tragedy, although why or how this should be happening remains a partial mystery. With great flair, Lister organizes everything for the expected onslaught by police, the media and outsiders at daybreak; he has even given taken care of things like the Baron’s mad brother cloistered in the attic and the inheritance of the estate. Everyone practises the lines he or she will later repeat for the police and others, and, like the director of a play, Lister adds a word here, removes a sentence there, makes suggestions...

Not to Disturb needs to be read several times in order to appreciate the satire and the very clever twists and turns of language. The ending leaves the reader with many questions: how much did the staff actually know in advance? Were they complicit in the tragedy? What happened afterwards? . . . Perhaps one of the strengths of the novella is that there are no definite answers to these many questions.

The photo of Muriel Spark in 1960 is from Wikipedia

04 April 2017

The Good People by Hannah Kent, Australia, 2016

Hannah Kent’s second book follows in the footsteps of her first book, Burial Rites, where the story plays out against a background that is harsh, grey, cold and unforgiving. While Burial Rites is set in Iceland, The Good People has the Irish winter of 1825/1826 as its background. Kent’s ability to capture a physical sensation of cold and deprivation in her writing is to be admired.

This is a book about the complexity of myth and superstition and the way in which it merges with traditional religious belief. The story, situated in an Irish rural village of the early nineteenth century, centres on three women: Nόra, newly widowed and the guardian of her deceased daughter’s four-year-old child, Micheál; Nance, the village wise woman; and Mary, a fourteen-year-old girl hired by Nόra to help her with Micheál.

Micheál is disabled, though, if we are to believe Nόra, he began life as well and healthy as any other child. Although she fears that her daughter and son-in-law may have failed to care for him and feed him properly, Nance strongly believes that he is a changeling: the real Micheál has been taken by the fairies or the good people.

The story unwinds against a background where a depressing Irish winter competes only with ignorance, herbal remedies and an unbelievable array of concoctions to ward off harm and/or bring luck. Traditional religious practices may be part of every-day life for these people, but as the new priest soon realizes (much to his chagrin) his flock is not only Christian but also pagan.

The Good People should appeal to most readers but especially to those who have experienced Irish superstitions and folk lore at first hand. It is a book that once commenced cannot be put down.

Photo of Hannah Kent from The Australian