I’ve been at work a bit more than usual lately, so I’ve had a lot of time to read at work. So instead of reading what I should be reading, I picked something off the shelves that just came out. I really enjoyed Carroll’s previous novel, The Time We Have Taken, and people kept telling me to read his other stuff, so what better place to start than with the latest?
Catherine and Daniel have escaped their small English village for a bit of private time in an abandoned property on the outskirts. Unfortunately for them, so have Emily Hale and her friend, Tom Eliot. This autumn afternoon in 1934 sets up events that bring Catherine, a young eighteen year old, with the world ahead of her, and Miss Hale, a woman in her thirties, still waiting for true love to come to her, together. And so Catherine will discover what she truly has with Daniel, what it is to wait for an entire lifetime for something that will never come, and what it can do to you.
This is a short novel, but I think it works well that way. While Carroll’s writing is beautiful, and very much a joy to read, for me, there’s a finite amount of nice prose I can take before it gets in the way of what’s actually going on. Fortunately, Carroll manages to get the mix right, and so I can sit back and enjoy the way he writes, as well as what he is actually trying to tell me. And what he is trying to tell me is also very good.
The mirroring of Catherine and Daniel with Emily and Tom is clearly no accident. One couple at the beginning of their love for each other (and obviously very much in love) juxtaposed with one couple who have had to live through so much that they can barely be called a couple any more. As such, we really focus on Emily as a way of investigating this theme. T.S. Eliot (for that is who Tom is) remains in the sidelines, and while his influence penetrates every sentence of the novel, it is Emily who is deeply affected by their inability to ever be together. The first scene manages to capture the whole novel in a moment – Tom and Emily, so close to finally understanding one another, only to be interrupted by the next young couple – is perfectly captured, and reminded me of Ian McEwan at his best (that’s a good thing).
Also important to the novel is its temporal setting (how pretentious am I!). Setting it between the war, in the autumn of 1934, perfectly captures the feel of the story – it could not have existed anywhere else. Autumn is a season of death and disappearances, but it is also ironically beautiful. There’s something almost ethereal about the moment of beauty that only lasts a moment (very Japanese, that), and I think that’s what Carroll’s getting at. The “lost life” is that of Emily Hale – the life she could have had staring right at her, but she is clearly unable to have that life, and so she cannot have any other either. She cannot settle for anything other than what she thinks she should have. She becomes almost bitter and pathetic about the whole thing, but you see she is very much in love with the man she obsesses over. When Catherine sees this, though, she is awakened to the fact that what she has with Daniel may not last (especially considering he is moving to Europe for a year), and her coming to terms with that is very sensible.
The opening and closing scenes of this novel are its strength. They are beautiful situations, with sympathetic characters, and though provoking meditations on lost love and lost opportunities. It does get a little muddy in the middle, but I think this is because it is very easy to get lost in Carroll’s prose and lose where you are with the characters and plot. Not a bad thing, but something to watch out for.