Two half drowned things, clinging together in a shipwreck

Dear Elizabeth, Vera (1921) is the story of a toxic relationship which gradually unfolds into a full-blown tale of psychological horror, made ever more disturbing by the restrained way in which it is told. The story revolves around the main character, the naïve, twenty-two-year-old Lucy Entwhistle, whose father has just suddenly passed away, while they…

Nothing holds the wind back from its wings

Dear Anna, Moving back and forth between early modern Italy and Nazi-occupied Florence, your book Artemisia, tr. Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo (2003. Original: Artemisia, 1947) unfolds as in a game of hide-and-seek: we are constantly drawn out of your protagonist and into your narrator; out of your narrator and into yourself as an author – and then…

To disentangle true from false

Dear Delphine, Based on a True Story (2017, tr. George Miller. Original: D’aprés une histoire vraie, 2015) is an atmospheric book that revolves around a woman who may or may not have been taken hostage by another – and by her readers. The narrator is a middle-aged woman who lives in Paris with her two…

One gets the criminals one deserves

Dear Amélie, The Enemy’s Cosmetique (Cosmétique de l’ennemi, 2001, not translated into English yet) reads like an ouroboros, a snail swallowing its own tail: in a sequence of increasing macabre tales, the two characters are brought into their innermost self, caught in a sadistic kind of seduction game: the interplay between guilt and punishment. The story…

Hardened to stone by the Medusa head of misery

Dear Mary, Like a daughter who never really got to know her mother, your novella Mathilda was not published during your lifetime. Written between 1819 and 1820, it had its publication denied by your father, William Godwin, because of its scandalous nature. The book only saw the light of day in 1959, after being discovered…

There was always a wind blowing

Dear Monica, Do you know this feeling of slowly being enveloped by coldness? Like at the end of a sunny day: with the faint memory of the sun on our skin, we are caught unawares by the first wind. That’s more or less how your novel The Winds of Heaven (1955) feels like: as an…

That indefinitely extended requirement that one human being makes upon another

Dear Iris, “I think it’s terrible to be in danger of writing a philosophical novel”, you said in an interview. And I know you have systematically refused to be called a philosophical novelist. However, may I politely disagree? Anatole Broyard attributes to you the idea that good art is philosophy swimming, or philosophy drowning. I could not trace…

She was still her own indomitable self,

Dear Willa, A Lost Lady (1923) is a story drenched in melancholy. A short-lived world is coming of age and, caught in its remaking, its inhabitants seem to be constantly circumscribing a void and falling through to the other side. They are not so much losing themselves in its changing, as they are disclosing to…

She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment

Dear Daphne, In My Cousin Rachel (1951), you build up tension, chapter after chapter, by unravelling the personality of the eponymous character in all its complexity and ambiguity: as if it were a game of hide-and-seek, where we follow a clue, only to have it undermined a few steps ahead; much like a dog, running…

I’ll describe my insanity through a sudden insight

Dear Christine, Do you know that feeling we have when we know where a book was going, and we know it could have worked – but it simply didn’t? I feel that about your novel Incest (2017) translated by Tess Lewis (L’Incest, 1999). Trying to be experimental while never giving up control over what the experiment…

To show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business

Dear Sylvia, Lolly Willowes (1926) is a satirical comedy of manners centred on an unmarried woman who suddenly decides to escape the claustrophobic domestic role her family tries to force on her. Funnily enough, the means she will use to fight against her family are no less morally equivocal than the life they were trying to…

Virtue can sometimes be a little depressing

Dear Barbara, Excellent Women (1952) is a comedy of manners about a spinster surrounded by people who cannot see why she shouldn’t suffer for being single. She is perfectly fine, though – if anything, the married people in the book are the ones really struggling, or in pain. The narrator, Mildred Lathbury, is an unmarried…

Hope is a wound

Dear Marianne, The Weight of Things (2015), translated by Adrian Nathan West (Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse, 1978) is this odd thing: something in-between a horror story, a domestic satire and an allegory of the insanity of war – a tale where the only character who does not lack in accountability and personal responsability is the…

A woman with a mission

Dear Margaret, In your novel Miss Marjoribanks (1866), your protagonist seems to have set herself the difficult task of trying to overcome the confines of Victorian views on women. However, at the same time, she does so by remaining dutifully bound to these very narrow confines. Much like your protagonist, you seem to write from…

That loud music of the wild geese

Dear Ethel, Your novella Hetty Dorval (1947), about a childhood affection that gradually turns into a confrontation of good and evil, had a puzzling effect on me. It is a ‘tale of two readings’, as two confluent rivers, colliding. The story opens in the 1930s, when the mysterious Hetty Dorval moves to Lytton, a small…

She sounded like a killing wind

Dear Sarah, In your debut novel See What I Have Done (2017), we are brought inside the dysfunctional household of the Border family, only to be trapped, along with the characters, in a suffocating atmosphere of sweat, sweltering heat, mutilated pigeons, rotten food, a plate of leftovers, and ripening fruit. It’s claustrophobic. It’s salty, dirty,…