Tag Archives: Canadian fiction

Beast in View: Margaret Millar (1955)

“In the mirror above the telephone stand she saw her mouth repeating the lie, enjoying it, and she saw her head nod in quick affirmation–this lie is true, yes, this is a very true lie.”

Thirty-year old Helen Clarvoe has a lot to be grateful for, and yet she lives a miserable, solitary existence at a bleak, second-rate hotel. After the death of her father, she left the family home and has very little to do with her flighty mother and dilettante brother. Beast is View is an exploration of loneliness, madness and manipulation, a claustrophobic novel with few characters and very little down time.

Beast in view

The novel wastes no time on preliminaries, and we are dropped right into the action when Helen Clarvoe picks up the phone, and begins a conversation with someone who purports to be an old friend. As the conversation becomes increasingly disturbing, Helen demands to know who is calling her: the caller identifies herself as Ellen Merrick, and that they met at school.

Peculiar things begin to happen to Helen. She hardly goes out as it is, but the phone call and the subsequent events rattle Helen so much, she turns to her late father’s financial advisor, 50-year-old Paul Blackshear for help.

What a graceless woman she was, Blackshear thought, hoarding herself like a miser, spending only what she had to, to keep alive. 

Blackshear, a widower, is already semi retired, and when Helen tells him about the threatening phone call, and that she’s beginning to wonder if someone has access to her apartment, initially he doesn’t want to get involved. Then he changes his mind. Armed with scant information, Paul begins to track down the mysterious Evelyn Merrick. Soon he finds himself on the track of a woman who leaves a trail of damage through poisonous innuendo, and this trail leads him right back to the Clarvoe family. ….

Blackshear discovers that Evelyn Merrick has an almost hypnotic power over her victims. There’s one scene that takes place at the Lydia Hudson School of Charm and Modelling.

The outer office was a stylized mixture of glass brick and wrought iron and self-conscious young women in various stages of charm. Two of them were apparently graduates: they carried their professional equipment in hat-boxes, and they wore identical expressions, half disillusioned, half-alert, like travelers who had been waiting too long for their train and were eying the tracks for a relief car.  

This scene is representative of  the novel’s premise of truth vs. illusion. The charm school students feed the business–the graduates don’t feed the modelling industry. Millar creates a schism, a mirror fractured in two in the very first scene, and this sensation continues through Blackshear’s quest. Most of the (unpleasant) characters appear to have some sort of duality–whether they’re two-faced or living some sort of lie. Millar feeds this unsettling thread throughout the plot’s twists and turns.

Beast in View is an unnerving, classic woman-in-peril novel with an emphasis on terror through psychological suspense–something along the lines of Midnight Lace (although the plots are dissimilar). After reading this, it’s easy to see why it was picked up for an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour, for in this novel, terror exists (mostly) in the mind. This book should appeal to fans of Ruth Rendell.

Margaret Millar was the wife of Kenneth Millar AKA Ross Macdonald

review copy

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Infrared by Nancy Huston

I’ve been curious about the novels of Nancy Huston for some time, thanks to the enthusiasm of Emma who first put this Canadian author on my radar. Infrared is the latest novel from Huston; it’s the story of Rena, a forty-five-year-old photographer who arranges a holiday for her father and step-mother in Florence. Right away, I was intrigued by the premise as I have a weakness for stories about people on holiday–after all people unmoored from their usual social surroundings and obligations make great subjects for fiction.

The holiday begins with signs of trouble. Seventy-year-old Simon Greenblatt and his second wife, Ingrid arrive from Montreal and check into the Hotel Guelfa in the middle of the night after they “narrowly escaped a tragedy.” In this case, the tragedy involved Simon and Ingrid getting lost and temporarily losing the most important piece of their luggage en route to the hotel. When Rena joins them, arriving from Paris the next morning, the tone for the holiday is set, and for the rest of the week, she’s more or less dragging them from one tourist destination to another. The days are short and frustrating for Rena; Simon and Ingrid often don’t get started until noon and then frequent meal breaks and rests absorb a huge portion of what’s left. All of this empty time for Rena lends itself to contemplation of her past life.

While there’s a sense that Simon and Ingrid operate at an entirely different speed to Rena, there are also different types of discourse taking place in this triangular relationship . There’s an insider discourse between Simon and Ingrid which excludes Rena, but then Rena and her Timothy Leary worshipping father also have a way of speaking to one another which excludes Ingrid. As for the words which pass between Ingrid and Rena, well they’re loaded with disapproving innuendo. Here’s Rena ordering for Simon and Ingrid in a cafe:

“But …you speak Italian!” exclaims Ingrid.

No, not really, it’s just that … communication’s so much easier between strangers.

“Easy to be a ployglot,” says Ingrid, pursuing her reflection on Rena’s linguistic gifts. “when you’ve been married to a whole slew of foreigners and travelled to the four corners of the world for your profession.”

And what of the “slew of foreigners” Rena married? Ingrid’s comment makes her step-daughter sounded like a polygamous transient. She’s been married three times–although when Rena discusses her sex life with Subra, her imaginary doppelgänger, she professes to have been married four times. To be perfectly accurate, Rena lives with her current much younger muslim love-interest, Aziz, who is dealing with his own problems back in Paris. Aziz and Rena are not married yet, and if his mother has anything to say on the matter, a marriage will never take place. Here’s Rena on her choice of husbands:

Fabrice the Haitian, Khim the Cambodian, Alioune the Senegalese, and Aziz the Algerian–were all, thanks to the unstinting generosity of French colonialism, francophones…as, indeed, were my Québecois lovers–all the professors, truck drivers, waiters, singers and garbage men whose t’es belle, fais-moi une ‘tite bec, chu tombé en amour avec toué graced my teenage years…I much preferred them to my anglophone neighbours and classmates–far too healthy for my taste, approaching sex in much the same way as they approached jogging (though usually removing their shoes first), interrogating me in the thick of things as to the nature and intensity of my pleasure, and dashing off to shower the minute they’d climaxed.

That passage should give you a good sense of Rena’s voice and also her attitude towards sexuality (note this is not a book for prudes). Rena takes what she wants, and she also enjoys being taken. She acknowledges that there’s “something hypnotic about a man’s desire,” and this feeling she describes rather interestingly as a mixture of “fright and euphoria.” That a man has “chosen” her provides a “violent thrill,” which always manages to amaze her. An interesting emotional response to sex and desire.

As the book continues, and Rena provides a guided tour of the splendours of Florence to her father and stepmother who are both decidedly underwhelmed by the city’s beauty and much more interested in its pastries, Rena falls to contemplation of the past, and that includes her troubled familial relationship. Gradually, as the narrative moves back and forth between first and third person, we discover the deeply troubled tracks of Rena’s past.

For this reader, and it’s entirely a matter of personal taste, I’ve long since been OD’ed with the sort of revelations regarding Rena’s childhood. Bring on something new, I say, and the new and interesting part of this novel concerns not the major dirty revelations of  Rena’s wee years but instead her difficult relationship with her father (what was he thinking?), her  interest in photography and how her profession ties into her views on sexuality. For Rena, sex is very much about giving and taking. She approaches the act of sex–no matter how often it is repeated or with how many different partners–with awe and the sense of a gift. Perhaps this explains why she loves to photograph her lovers as they climax, and also why she enjoys taking photographs of lover’s lovers–in fact My Lover’s Loved Ones is even the title of one of Rena’s photography shows. I’ll add here that while some of Rena’s memories of sex are real, others are pure fantasy and exercises in the distracting power of seduction.

Rena seems to understand that with the act of sex, one gives a little of oneself away. She literally achieves this with photographic mementos taken with infrared film in order to disguise the features of her lovers, but she is fully aware that while partners share their bodies, sex is also a study in selfishness. She photographs prostitutes who exist for their male clients by renting out their bodies without any of the ramifications of pregnancy or responsibly for the males, and in their turn”few hookers mentioned anything vaguely synonymous with desire or pleasure; all, on the other hand mentioned money.”

There’s a lot going on in Infrared, and while the book’s intelligence and the author’s talent is never in doubt, the book’s two main storylines–Rena shepherding her father and stepmother through Florence and the memories of Rena’s past and career–compete with each other. The former storyline is diminished by Rena’s story, and so it fades from view constantly, almost making the trip a backdrop, and yet right at the end, the novel veers back to the familial relationship with a crisis that is somewhat predictable. For this reader, there was a lot that worked, and a lot that didn’t.

Another review can be found on Kevin’s blog.

Review copy from the publisher.

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Filed under Fiction, Huston Nancy