In Bitter Orange (2018), we are made accomplices of the main character’s voyeurism, caught in a claustrophobic atmosphere that grows ever more disturbing as we gradually realize the twisted nature of the events with which she gets involved.
When the novel opens, in the late 1980’s, our narrator, Frances Jellico, is dying, confined to a bed in an unspecified institution. Her mind wanders between the present time, when she receives frequent visits by a vicar, and a summer she spent twenty years earlier in an old English country mansion. As the story progresses, the two narratives begin to converge, and we feel that Frances’ memories might have a bitter taste: the mysterious vicar, glued to her death bed, seems intent on extracting a confession from her about that strange summer many years ago.
In 1969, when our protagonist was thirty-nine years old, she was commissioned to write a report on the garden architecture of Lyntons, an old, dilapidated mansion in the English countryside which had been bought by a rich man living in the United States. Frances has just buried her sick mother, whom she had spent her life taking care of. Arriving at Lyntons, Frances finds out she will not be alone for the summer: an exotic couple will be living in the rooms below hers. Peter has been hired to assess the inner state of the house and has brought along Cara, his carefree, glamorous woman.
From the beginning, the lonely, socially awkward Frances will become enraptured by this mysterious couple, as they seem to represent everything she had been denied in life: freedom, love, pleasure, sex. Cara’s exotic stories only keep our protagonist ever more intrigued. When Frances discovers a peephole in her bathroom floor, she cannot help but to watch the couple from above: together with her, we gradually realize that they are bound by a bitter trauma. “I am a voyeur, the person who stands at the police tape watching someone’s life unravel, I am in the car slowing beside the accident but not stopping. I am the perpetrator returning to the scene of the crime.”
Meanwhile, sinister things begin to happen: the house makes strange noises in the night, a ghostly face appears at an attic window, a character vomits upon receiving the holy communion, a pillow is found in the bathtub, with the indentation of what can only be a ghostly head. The house also seems to be inhabited by animals taken out of a dark fairy tale: a dead bird, a wounded fox, a hare. And not only that: we almost feel as if Lyntons itself were alive and growing from the inside, as a labyrinth of secret rooms.
And yet, it could all be only a product of our imagination: none of the characters, we soon learn, is very much reliable; and Frances herself, as she is telling us this story from her deathbed, may be suffering from dementia. The narrative moves from present to past and the time before that – very much like the mind of a character who is either dreaming or losing her grip on reality. We are caught in the grey zone between nightmare, memory, and lies. Nothing is what it seems, and there is only one thing we can be sure of: something is terribly wrong with this place and these people.
The highlight of the book, for me, was your take on the gothic tropes: here we have a sunny background that is nonetheless unsettling, simmering with danger; the overripe, sometimes decaying fruit, the luscious green, and the noises all around make for a suffocating atmosphere; and we cannot help but to have a growing claustrophobic feeling, even though all the doors and windows are wide open. It just feels as if the house were about to be invaded by some strange force, from the inside out.
The characters themselves seem to be locked up in their pasts, desperate to get out, as if they were caught in a nightmare from which they cannot awake. The haunted house may very well be their own minds: each memory, an airless, secret room about to be invaded. Much like the dilapidated house they are inhabiting, Frances, Peter and Cara are also falling apart, and we find ourselves caught in the middle of the ruins. We are caught inside the stories they tell themselves in order to cope with or escape from some kind of pain: the ghosts they carry around with them wherever they go.
“The all-seeing eye. What has it seen? Nothing as interesting as the things I saw through the judas hole at Lyntons. But of course, the difference is privacy. The other women will complain and shout about being looked at without warning. But I think it is better to know when someone is watching rather than to live your life under an invisible gaze.” ―
“I learned from the wig-men that the law is not about finding the truth, it is about who can tell the most convincing story. It is a game that must be grasped swiftly if you want to win, even if to everyone else it looks as though you have lost.” ―
About the book
- Penguin Books, 2018, 288 p. Goodreads
- Tin House, 2018, 320 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 4,5 stars
- This book was kindly sent to me by Penguin for review.