I was prepared to dislike this book very much. Claire Messud is a distinguished critic, and critics who turn to writing fiction are generally mules aspiring to be horses. Fellow critics are strangely reluctant to point this out, and the rave reviews that Messud's two previous novels had received were, I was prepared to bet, a result of this corruption.
Messud's two novellas, each a study of isolated women whose existence revolves around petty domesticity, are inspired by Gustave Flaubert and Henry James. The first, A Simple Tale, is derived from Flaubert's Un Coeur Simple, whose simple servant Felicite confuses the Holy Ghost with a stuffed parrot. Maria's life, at least in its early part, scarcely lacks incident. A Ukrainian peasant, she was uprooted, not unwillingly, by the Nazis from her starving family. Resourceful, young and hard-working, she escaped from a labour camp, and eventually washed up in a postwar camp for displaced persons, where she met her husband, Lev, and had their son, Radek.
They emigrated to Canada, and it is here, as an old woman with the different parts of her life "like fragments of a broken mirror", that we first meet Maria, a solitary widow, looking after another old lady, Mrs Ellington. Her son has grown up, changed his name to Rod, married the sluttish Anita and has two children. The story follows her quiet existence, the death of Lev from asbestos poisoning to the way Maria, as a "DP", never quite fits into Canada despite a material improvement in her conditions.
So many writers use the short story form as a lazy way of presenting a single idea, but Messud gets right under this old woman's skin and evokes her so you can almost smell her sweat. Her relationship with the increasingly impossible Mrs Ellington is one of mutual dependence. This mistress-servant relationship is one that has often been explored, and is rich in possible reversals that Messud does not fully examine here. What she does instead is to create a beauty in the manner of certain Dutch Old Masters, observing her subject at work. There are touches of comedy, but the uncompromising seriousness of Messud's gaze never turns to mockery. Maria's epiphany comes from describing a colourful painting she has bought to her dying employer; less flamboyant than Felicite's and lacking in irony, it is also more gentle, and more humane.
Mockery is what the second tale, The Hunters, is all about. An American academic writing a thesis on death rents a flat in Kilburn, north London. "I felt at once, and palindromically, like a dog and a god, and these were not contradictory experiences," he tells us with a stylishness that simultaneously irritates and delights. His intelligence, his wit, his inventiveness all build an edifice of supposition and fear that an intrusive neighbour, Ridley Wandor, is murdering her patients. There is a murder but, in a thoroughly Jamesian twist, he misunderstands the victim's identity until he returns to London on honeymoon.
The narrator is someone uncomfortably familiar. His snobby cleverness, and guilty distaste for Ridley Wandor's desperate loneliness and his wish that she "would not be", is recounted in retrospect. As we learn at the end, this disturbing London summer is one of spiritual and emotional growth that allows him eventual insight into his own heart and hers. Compassion comes too late, however. Perhaps because its territory and tone are more familiar, The Hunters is the marginally less impressive of the pair. Both stories, however, are of a quality that made me immediately, and shamefacedly, order Messud's two previous novels.
Amanda Craig's new novel, Love in Idleness, will be published by Little, Brown next summer