Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The inner machinations of an almost invisible life

Claire Messud
Writer Claire Messud, who has won acclaim for her books including the
best-selling The Emperor's Children, made the closing address at the Sydney Writers' Festival this year.

     Her husband, James Wood, the New Yorker book critic, also made several guest appearances at the festival. We were lucky to host them. In the U.S, the duo are feted as "the first couple of American fiction".
     Perhaps that's why some critics - rivals possibly in the rarified world of book reviews and awards - have been damning of Messud's latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, the story of a lonely spinster who looks back on her friendship with a glamorous couple and their adorable child with anger and a strong sense of betrayal. While one critic has described Messud's latest work as "dazzling", another has described it as depressing and "awful".

I lean more to the "dazzling" as opposed to the "awful" viewpoint, swayed by the quality of Messud's writing.
Messud is not a creative writing teacher by profession for nothing; au contraire, she describes totally believably her somewhat charmless heroine, Nora, a 42-year-old spinster who has all but 'disappeared' from human view.

One critic suggested she would find it hard to befriend Nora Eldridge if she materialised in real life to which Messud responded, understandably, with disbelief. Who ever said we had to like the heroes or heroines of our non-fiction, asked Messud, and the answer is: we don't.
In fact, you would have to be part-zombie not to realise that countless people like Nora exist and that she would indeed, in all likelihood, become galvanized out of her shadowy existence once she came into the orbit of beautiful, glamorous folk like the Shahids from Paris.
Messud weaves a tender, touching, tragic tale that unravels masterfully as we witness the interactions of the lonely teacher and the parents of her eight-year-old pupil. I'd be surprised if readers who like minutely detailed psychological portraits, like me, don't lap up this revelatory account of friendship gone awry.

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