Trust Claire Messud. Have faith that the clear, untroubled surface of her prose will sooner or later break open to reveal a dark, troubling interior, as it did in 1999’s critically acclaimed novel The Last Life. Her latest offering is The Hunters, a volume containing two short novels (or long short stories, or novellas). “A Simple Tale” tells the story of Maria Poniatowski, a cleaning woman in Toronto who has tidied up for the crabby, loyal Mrs. Ellington every Tuesday for 46 years. As the story opens, Mrs. Ellington has cut her hand trying to make dinner—a sign she can no longer live independently. The cut has left a trail of blood on the wall, and Maria reads the blood as an omen: “This was the end.” Maria can’t fathom Tuesdays without Mrs. Ellington. For more than half her life she has dusted this woman’s knickknacks and folded her tea towels.
The second story in this volume, “The Hunters,” also concerns two tenuously connected women, both living in states of precarious loneliness. The narrator, an academic studying death, moves into an apartment and becomes obsessed with her downstairs neighbor. The reason for her obsession remains murky, but it has something to do with the neighbor’s special brand of ugliness: a “jutting chin, a pale and, I would have said, Victorian chin, almost upwardly hooked like a Punch and Judy puppet’s; but the ensemble made not for the sort of thrilling ugliness that so closely resembles, and sometimes outstrips, beauty: quite the opposite. She did not call out to be looked at but rather she called out to be ignored.” As the story develops, the narrator loses the ability to sleep or work because she’s so preoccupied by the presence of this girl, turning her into a sad monster in her own head.
The intricate, nagging patterns of a neurotic mind, the distances between people who find themselves in close daily proximity, the myths they manufacture in an attempt to collapse these distances: These are themes which occupy Messud. The Last Life told the story of the LaBasse family, repatriated French Algerians living on the coast of the Mediterranean, where the grandfather runs a swank hotel. A melancholy story of displacement and lust that at times recalls Tender Is the Night, The Last Life is unforgettable for its scenes of swimming pools at night, groping desire between sun-kissed teenagers, and the pervasive sense that soon something will occur that irrevocably shatters the momentary season of peace. With elegance and skill, Messud evokes the violence of history pressing against this protected world, always about to break through.
Readers of The Last Life will recognize shimmers of that book’s mood here, although these are inherently more compact, contained works, given their short form. The most satisfying of the two is “A Simple Tale,” which manages in under 100 pages to evoke the depths of Maria’s life—her childhood in the Ukraine, an adolescence in Nazi slave labor camps, and finally freedom as a “displaced person” in Toronto. The catalyst for the telling of Maria’s life is the blood on Mrs. Ellington’s wall, which signals the approaching end of 46 years of employment. Facing the void, childhood comes back. For Maria, childhood means a lost family and years of hard labor and malnutrition. Once she escaped from a Nazi camp and ran through the countryside at night with a girlfriend, both of them “foraging in pig slop or gnawing at roots and fungi among the trees.” Through a few terrifying glimpses of her life during wartime, we come to understand Maria’s desire for routine, domestic peace. She has seen enough chaos already. Now she wants to make sure every plate is spotless, dried, and put away.
Maria is a truly remarkable creation—at once heroic and irritating. She frets over imagined insults and carries silent grudges. The way Messud writes her, we feel completely invested in her fate, even as she gripes for pages about her son and his slattern of a wife who has never really cleaned a house in her life. Less successful is “The Hunters,” which reads at times like an exercise—Messud effortlessly creates suspense here, but the suspense never leads anywhere. Key questions in the story are never answered—about the narrator’s obsession, and about the fate of the girl she is obsessed with. Where in “A Simple Tale” each detail moves the reader closer to a moment of insight, “The Hunters” feels a little jokey and arbitrary. An ongoing pun about “dog versus god” never quite works, nor do themes of “hunters versus the hunted.” This short novel ends up feeling unfinished, unrealized.
Messud’s prose has a mannered, upper-crust tone; she’s a clear descendant of Henry James. There’s an elegance here that is rarely found in contemporary American fiction. Although she was born in America, Messud, 35, has also lived in Canada, Australia, and Britain. Like her characters, she seems somehow out of place and out of time. She’s a writer without a country. Reading her is like being enclosed in a train compartment and crossing over a series of borders. You’re transfixed by the world going by, and you absolutely want to know where this train is going to stop.