Your novel The Blank Wall (1947) is a gripping psychological thriller, in which a housewife get entangled in a web of murder, blackmail and pressing domestic demands, while remaining fiercely determined to protect her family from scandal.
The novel is set during World War II in the countryside near New York. Lucia Holley is a thirty-eight year-old housewife, whose husband, Tom, is out at war, serving overseas. Left alone to care for her family, while her husband is away, she has recently moved into a rented lakeside house with her elderly British father and her two self-centered teenaged children, Bee and David.
For about three years, Lucia has struggled with shortages of food and petrol, loneliness and the threat of widowhood, trying to hold her family together while remaining thoroughly incapable of efficiently running a house all by herself. Lucia married young, at seventeen, when she was barely out of school. Because she moved directly from her domineering father’s home to the care of a protective husband, she was never led to thrive for herself, and never had to be self-reliant. Before the war, she had always been confined in the domestic sphere. Now that her contact with Tom, through letters, is erratic, Lucia is thrown into a situation which will will test her resourcefulness to the limit – and not only by the war.
When her daughter’s lover, Ted Darby, a shady 34-year-old art dealer, turns up at their boathouse late one night, Lucia asks her elderly father to see him off the premises. Early in the morning, however, as she goes out to the lake to swim, Lucia finds Ted dead near their boat house. Imagining that her father had inadvertently caused the death, Lucia sets off in her motorboat to dispose of the corpse on a nearby island, in order to cover up the murder. However, she is soon to be approached by one of Ted Darby’s shady acquantances, the charming Donnelly, who attempts to blackmail her, alleging to have some scandalous letters written by Bee.
From then on, her life is turned upside down, in a spiral of dreadful events – of which her family, for the most part, remains in blissful ignorance. And this for me is the book’s main strength: this strange and pulpy plot is entangled in a subtle veil of black humour and irony. Here we have an ordinary suburban housewife, who is thrown into a spiral of blackmail, conspiracy, blackmarket, and murder. Despite being deeply ineffectual, utterly unprepared to deal with the most trivial daily tasks, and despite having poor decision-making skills, this woman manages to juggle her housekeeping duties with having to conceal a corpse, while being interrogated the police and having to negotiate with blackmailers. Murder becomes just one of her many small deceptions, like sneaking a cigarette now and then, or writing dull letters to her husband to conceal her misgivings and general wartime domestic problems.
Moreover, all her abilities to deal with crime are drawn from what she had learnt as a housewife: “She had the resourcefulness of the mother, the domestic woman, accustomed to emergencies. Again and again she had to deal with accidents, sudden illnesses, breakdowns. For years she had been the person who was responsible in an emergency (…).” Concealing a corpse is nothing in comparison with her responsabilities as a housekeeper: “No, I can do this.”
As the tension escalates, the bizarre nature of it all becomes even more funny – and suspenseful. Every small invisible domestic task or detail – a piece of ham being delivered, a guy who comes to pick up the laundry – can be dangerous or may not be what it seems. Even Donnelly possesses a doublesided nature: he is a blackmailer, but a compassionate one; a thief, but honest; a fallen angel. The doom Lucia foresees and tries to protect her family from can be more imagined than real. Lucia could be even making things worse by trying to protect the people she loves. We simply don’t know.
And that is precisely what gives the book its page-turning effect. From the beginning we know there is a murder and we suspect who may have done it, but this is not really important. Even more suspenseful than the “whodunit” or the “whydunit” is the story of how Lucia deals with the spiraling of panic she is thrown into. We are not only curious to find out what people’s motives really are or what happens next, but also to see how much further this crime story can be turned into a comedy of manners.
The war lingers insistently on the background: her son is afraid of being called down to the army; the family is short of petrol and food; people do strange things; there is a tension in the air. The criminal events Lucia gets involved with are also inextricable from the war, as Bee says at some point: “He had lots of nice qualities (…) Only, the war makes people do – queer, horrible things.”
As an accomplished psychological thriller, the novel is also a keen character study. Although told in third-person narration, the story follows closely Lucia’s internal monologues – so that the ramping tension is as much a reflection of her panicked mind, as it is of the troubling events. The more Lucia imagines to be unable to deal with the situation, the more she reveals the qualities she – and her family – believed to be deprived of.
Her self-deprecating internal voice becomes more and more enchanting. As well as her bizarre sense of priority: for Lucia, washing the dishes and tidying up the house is more important than meeting a policeman or a dangerous blackmailer. They can wait, her house and family come always first. Equally enchanting is the contrast between what she says to people and what she is really thinking while doing so; as well as the contrast between the dullness of what she writes to her husband and the desperate situation she is facing. In fact, full of adventure as her life begins to be, she still thinks of it only in dull terms.
And so does her family. Not only her father, but also her children and Sibyl, the hired help, dismiss Lucia as a mindless housewife. To Bee, Lucia is no role model: the girl despises her mother’s life choices. Lucia is treated by all of them like a child who needs looking after – while, in fact, she is the one who is protecting them from a danger they are not even aware of. They think Lucia has no understanding of the real world, but she is the one who realized from the beginning that Darby was not to be trusted; she knows whom she can rely upon. Bee thinks of herself as an adventurous young woman, but she has no idea how risky her mother’s life has become; furthermore, despite her claim to be a modern young woman, Bee becomes deeply disturbed by her mother’s shady dealings with Donnolly, disapproving of what she imagines to be a forbidden romance.
You mix not only domestic and unusual events, but also the ideas of right and wrong: morality and its lack or even its opposite are deeply interwoven here. Lucia is vocal about the fact that legality not always equates justice; for your enchanting protagonist, honesty not necessarily is a virtue, and one is immersed neither in good nor in evil, but most often than not in the grey zone between both: “She believed that a shell or a bullet could strike a brave and hopeful man as readily as a miserable one. She did not believe that the guilty were always punished; or the innocent always spared. She believed, like Sibyl, that life was incalculable, and that the only shield against injustice was courage.” Lucia is deeply concerned that an innocent would be punished for a murder he had not committed; however, at the same time, there is nothing she won’t do to save her family – not even murder.
The more Lucia becomes immersed in crime and lies, more she becomes aware of how trapped in domestic life she is. Not that she resents her responsabilities as a housewife; on the contrary, she is eager to be finished with the shady world she was thrown into, she is eager to come back home, to become invisible again. However, the family expectations and household demands not only constrain her personal life, but most importantly prevent her from doing what she must to protect her family. She lacks the independence she needs; she has to move within a very narrow space – to the point that she has to become a criminal herself, as the only means to overcome such constraints.
She is constantly struggling with herself to be the person her family expects her to be; while, at the same time, struggling with the limited – and limiting – image of her they have. Somewhat ironically, only by entering a shady world has she been able to get out of the shade, and fully assume a central role. The strange events that keep on happening force her family members to think of Lucia in a whole new light. However, they are constantly resisting this new Lucia – adventurous, brave, attractive, even possibly unfaithful. They are constantly forcing upon her a more convenient identity: the passive, dull, mindless, helpless housewife. To the point that the book ends on an ambiguous note: we don’t know, but is very likely that Lucia will be thrown back to the shade, to her usual invisibility. “And all that had happen to her would be, must be, pushed down, out of sight; the details of daily living would come like falling leaves to cover it.”
You managed to weave together a layered novel: we have a psychological thriller that is also a social satire, a character study, a sharp feminist critique – and an entertaining page-turner. We don’t know what is to come of our dear Lucia – after all, as a housewife, she is a master at keeping up appearances, and skilled in the art of deceiving – be it either in order to commit a crime, or to simply maintain a middle class facade of fulfillment.
“Her husband and her children did not consider her beyond criticism. She belonged to them; whatever she did affected them; their pride, their good name in the world lay in her hands. They would give her love, protection, even a sort of homage, but in return for that she must be what they wanted and needed her to be.”
― Elisabeth Sanxay Holding,
She had no power to protect her own people, her own children. The walls of her home were falling down; there was no refuge.
― Elisabeth Sanxay Holding,
About the book
- Persephone Books, 2003, 231 p. Goodreads.
- First published 1947
- My rating: 3,5 stars
- The novel was made into a movie twice: as The Reckless Moment (IMDb), in 1949; and The Deep End (IMDb), in 2001.
- This book was read for The 1947 Club.