Absent in the Spring (1944) is a character study and a psychological exploration of self-denial, crossed through by a growing sense of unease at each hard truth the protagonist is made to face.
The book centres on Joan Scudamore, a middle-aged housewife who is returning from a visit to her daughter in Baghdad. Having missed her train connection, Joan finds herself stranded in the middle of nowhere, in a railway rest house in a desert on the Turkish border. To make matters worse, the floods have rendered the railway lines unsafe, so that the train she is waiting to take her home is delayed.
She is stuck in the rest house with no one to talk to and nowhere to go – and no perspective of when the train may come. Even the meals at this place are repetitive and boring. Joan tries to occupy herself by reading, but she soon finishes the two books she had brought with her. Then she decides to spend some time writing letters, but it soon becomes clear that, in those missives, she is feigning an excitement that she is not really feeling. Truth is, Joan is bored. She has spent her life keeping herself busy in all sorts of activities, and has never stopped to truly reflect on anything. Joan is not used to solitude. Upon finding herself alone for the first time, she begins to reassess her life.
Gradually, she reminisces about her past, her school years, her marriage, her children. At first, her life feels perfect: she has a successful husband, her children have grown and seem to do well in life. However, as her memories unfold, so do some uncomfortable thoughts: they keep surging forward in her mind, even though she tries to push them back.
It feels as if, every time she tries to move away from some idea or event in her past, she is immediately and more deeply thrown back into herself, bewildered at what she finds; as if she were looking at a mirror and seeing the image of someone else, but had strangely started to feel a certain unease of faint recognition. Slowly, we start to see the large cracks in the beautiful image Joan had made of her life. The fact that everything happens while she is alone in the desert only adds a symbolic layer to her torment, as she is being tempted by her determination to avoid truth.
The highlight of the book, for me, was the way in which the most uncomfortable facts about Joan are disclosed to the reader – and, in a sense, to herself. It happens gradually, in fragments that go back and forth between past and present, and that overlap into each other – much like the way the mind works, or the way a therapy session goes. We have a feeling that we are in search of the real Joan, as if we were in a detective story, gathering clues – the in-between lines – about what is true in her life, and what is only part of her self-delusion or self-denial.
As much as our protagonist, we will be made to face the hard truths she is constantly trying to keep at the back of her mind. Not only our first perception of Joan – as her own image of herself – will prove to have been completely distorted, but also her epiphany, her hard-won self-knowledge and her resolution will slowly change, once she leaves the desert behind – as if everything had only been a distant mirage, dissolving into thin air.
“What was it Blanche had said? You’ve gone up in the world and I’ve gone down.’ No, she had qualified it afterwards – she had said, ‘You’ve stayed where you were – a St Anne’s girl who’s been a credit to the school.’” – Agatha Christie, Absent in the Spring
About the book
- HarperCollins, 1997, 190 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1944, under the nom de plume Mary Westmacott
- Agatha Christie described this novel as “the one book that has satisfied me completely – the book I always wanted to write.”
- The title came from Shakespeare’s sonnet 98: “From you have I been absent in the spring…”
- My rating: 3,5 stars
- I read this book for The #1944Club, hosted by Karen and Simon in October