A small tear in the fabric of reality

Dear Nicole, Most of the time, we tend to think of fiction as a mirror held up, facing reality. Never mind if this is a clear mirror, a cloudy or an openly distorted one – our gaze rarely changes direction. Some books, however, attempt to cross through the looking-glass: they direct our gaze away from…

The sky was red and all my life was in it.

Dear Jean, In your novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), you seem to be holding up a distorting mirror to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847): if we look at this mirror for too long, illusion and reality will gradually lose their once sharp outlines; madness will be less a departure than a never-ending journey back home,…

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’d forgotten it was summer outside

Dear Barbara, In your novel The Vet’s Daughter (1959), I felt I was being lured into a strange place, tender and cruel. I was being lured by a voice, tenuous but powerful, pushing me through the door into a confined domestic horror. It was lonely, dangerous and grotesque, but it was a voice I very…

Trespassing on one’s own ground

Dear Monica, The atmosphere in your novel Mariana (1940) feels like a bright surface tinted by an added layer of nostalgia, and a pervading sense of loss. Like a moss-covered surface, damp to the touch, but, for that very reason, very much alive. When the book opens, Mary Shannon is spending a weekend alone with…

For this book is the talking voice that runs on,

Dear Stevie, Once I entered your Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), I immediately noticed three things: that I was being held captive; that I was complicit in my captivity; and that the thing that held me inside was neither plot nor character, but something less tangible. I had fallen in love with a voice. Yours,…

The taste of the fog was at the back of their throats

Dear Elizabeth, Do you know this feeling we have when we quite unexpectedly understand why a particular book is a classic? When we understand what it means; when we suddenly get to know what it feels like. Have you ever felt it? When a book draws from a tradition it so thoroughly understands that it…

Shut the noise out with your own noise

Dear Patricia, WHILE READING your novel Deep Water (1957), I felt as if you had gradually thrust us into the muddy waters of your protagonist’s troubled mind. The book is narrated in third person through the perspective of Vic Van Allen, an inhibited man in his late thirties, who runs a small press in the…

And it could have been any street in the city

Dear Ann, How can one write a naturalist novel and still convey strong symbolic effect? I don’t know the answer, but I think you achieved that. The Street (1946) in your first novel is both a concrete space and a distorting mirror for a perverse version of the American Dream, a thin surface impossible to…

Everyone was fleeing and everything was temporary

Dear Anna, Do you know this feeling we have when something terrible happens in a dream and we must scream or run, but we find ourselves suddenly unable to do it? We have no voice, or our legs are suddenly unbearably heavy. This feeling of being trapped: that’s the stuff your novel Transit (tr. Margot…