“For there is nothing awe-inspiring about a personal mess. It is a thing for the sensible man to forget, rather than to try to remember.”
I was very impressed with Mine Own Executioner , a tale of a psychologist and his patient set in London, post WWII from British novelist Nigel Balchin, so I turned to A Way Through the Wood–also known as Separate Lies. A Way Through the Wood is a psychologically complex, Graham Greenesque tale that explores the moral tug-of-war that takes place between three characters. There’s a film version of Separate Lies, featuring Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson and Rupert Everett, and while it’s an excellent film, it’s quite different from the book. Mine Own Executioner and A Way Through the Woods are a fascinating study in contrasts; the former book with its almost claustrophobic intensity begins as the marital and professional trials and tribulations of a London therapist but ends up as a thriller. While A Way Through the Woods may ostensibly be about a crime, the novel ultimately focuses on the moral fallout of a man’s death. The plot goes global as its characters trot around the world in a vain attempt to solve their problems: Venice, Spain, Paris–all these glamorous exciting places, but they serve as mere background noise to the central character’s internal drama as he wrestles with a difficult moral dilemma which challenges his conflicting obligations to class, duty, love and justice.
A Way Through the Wood is narrated by 39-year-old James Manning, who would appear to be, when the novel begins, a very lucky man and the envy of his peers. He’s survived WWII intact, and he’s been married for eleven years to his beautiful wife, Jill. While James has a stellar, lucrative career in London, he lives in the country, and commutes from his large manor house, Crossways. James is one of those true-blue characters–dependable, strait-laced, conservative and someone who prides himself on his position of magistrate within the community. James would appear to have the perfect life, but there are a few distant rumblings of trouble and these faint signs are manifested in the very public roles Manning and his wife, Jill, a shallow, superficial woman, assume with the locals during the village Easter Fete. Manning excels at playing lord-of-the-manor, but Jill is neither interested in nor capable of playing Lady Bountiful to the locals. Manning’s role with Jill is fatherly and corrective rather than passionate, but as is so typical with relationships, it takes both people to play their roles and so while Manning is the disapproving father, Jill is the naughty child to be scolded, but also spoiled & indulged. This sort of arrangement has apparently worked for some years, and according to Manning, Jill simply “has never picked up the knack of living in the country. ” This is a polite way of explaining her crass behaviour with some of the locals. This seemingly small crack in the Manning’s marriage rapidly expands into an unbreachable fissure when a local man, Joe, the husband of the Manning’s cleaner Elsie, is found in ditch following a hit-and-run accident.
At first, Manning, true to form, is determined to discover the identity of the driver who left Joe dying in a ditch. He reasons that it can’t be too difficult to track down the owner of a large car that careened down that isolated country road. Manning suspects that the driver is Bill Bule, and Manning’s quest for justice is at least partially motivated by the fact that he loathes Bule–an irresponsible playboy who is the antithesis of Manning.
Balchin involves the reader initially by presenting the crime and then we are committed to its solution, sharing Manning’s outrage at the callousness of the hit-and-run accident. As Manning makes subsequent choices, it’s inevitable that most readers will come to a parting of the ways with the decisions he makes. However, Manning ultimately remains true to himself, and that is the issue at the heart of this marvellous novel. Here’s a quote which captures the tepidness of the Mannings’ marriage. This is Manning on a trip to Paris with his wife who ”has always been a confirmed buyer-of-tickets-to-somewhere-else”:
We went to Paris. it wasn’t very imaginative of us, but we went there because it was a place where we had always been happy and very much together. There must be a lot of people who still go to Paris, just as they used to go to Vienna, not because of what it is, but because of what it was when they were younger. Indeed, I can imagine that if you take your happiness with you, Paris would still be a very nice place to sit and enjoy it, just as any field is a delightful place for lunch–as long as you have remembered to bring the lunch. But it is no good just going to a field and expecting it to provide the lunch for you; and it is no good going to Paris nowadays, if it ever was, and expecting to be able to order happiness at a cafe. You can still nearly do it in some other parts of France. But you can’t do it in Paris.
A Way Through the Wood explores how our certainty regarding moral positions is a mere chimera until that position is tested, and when competing moral obligations clash, Manning enters a private hell as he shoulders toxic knowledge about the crime. Through the three characters: Jill, Bule and Manning, Balchin shows how some people sail through life untouched by their actions while others in their sphere pay a heavy price–it’s contamination by association. But A Way Through the Wood, an extremely clever, multilayered novel also shows that Manning’s interest in Joe’s death is hardly self-interested as he intuitively suspects Bule and also intuitively sees Bule as a threat to his marriage. Also as the plot unfolds, it’s certainly arguable that Jill’s immaturity is at least partly the result of Manning’s insistence on acting as a father-figure. There’s simply no room in their relationship for Jill to be anything other than a child, so who do we hold responsible when she continues on with her feckless choices? As the story unfolds, Balchin strips away the layers of deceit in his character’s lives, and what’s underneath is not pleasant. It’s all done with infinite politeness and good manners, and perhaps it’s all the more chilling for the utter lack of passion.