I'm beginning to see the method in Pym's light-touch writing style: it turns the authorial voice into a constant subliminal whisper, with each episode in a person's life dropping softly, like a handful of earth on a coffin, piling layer after layer of disappointment, self-denial, delusion and quiet unprotesting despair, until I feel interred in the lives of these women.
The two men don't interest me. They seem to me to be platitudinous, speaking only the ritual words that those of us with marginal social skills through the enforced proximity of working in a shared office.
This can be seen in the way the men in the responses of the men in the office to Letty's disclosure of unexpected and undesirable changes in her retirement plans and in her new landlord, a Nigerian priest in the Aladura Christian sect.
'It never rains but it pours," said Norman the next morning when Letty has told them in the office about the new development in her retirement plans. ‘First your friend getting married and now this –whatever next? There’ll be a third thing, just you wait.’
‘Yes, troubles do tend to come in threes, or so people say,’ Edwin remarked. There was of course an undeniable interest and even unadmitted pleasure in the contemplation of other people’s misfortunes, and for a moment Edwin basked in this, shaking his head and speculating on what the third disaster might be.
‘Don’t tell us you’re getting married too,’ said Norman jauntily. ‘That might be the third thing.’
Letty had to smile, as she was meant to, at such a fantastic suggestion. ‘No chance of that,’ she said.
The hurt inflicted by the unthinking use of these boiler-plate phrases goes unobserved by the men using them. To some extent, the hurt is created by Letty, who can neither deafen herself to the negative implications of what has been said nor free herself from the pattern of ritual responses.
Letty, who I first thought of as independent and self-aware increasingly seems to me to be broken, not in a fractured by trauma way but more in the way of someone whose hands are swollen and callused through habitual misuse. Her manners constrain her perceived ability to act. Her expectations are meagre and vague yet she lacks the will actively to pursue them.
Part of Letty's passivity or paralysis may come from her inability to understand the course her life has taken. She asks herself:
How had it come about that she, an Englishwoman born in Malvern in 1914 of middle-class English parents, should find herself in this room in London surrounded by enthusiastic, shouting, hymn-singing Nigerians?
The answer she gives herself denies her agency over her life in a way that she seems quite unaware of. She concludes:
It must surely be because she had not married. No man had taken her away and immured her in some comfortable suburb where hymn-singing was confined to Sundays and nobody was fired with enthusiasm.
The way Letty thinks about her religious or spiritual life points to the heart of her inertia. When her new landlord asks her is she is a Christian lady:
Letty hesitated. Her first instinct had been to say ‘yes’, for of course one was a Christian lady, even if one would not have put it quite like that. How was she to explain to this vital, ebullient black man her own blend of Christianity –a grey, formal, respectable thing of measured observances and mild general undemanding kindness to all?
I was left thinking that her "grey, formal, respectable" life felt like a shroud that she has donned too early.
Then there is Marcia, whose damage is of the traumatic kind. I find being inside Marcia's head disturbing. She has a strong will. Her behaviour is disciplined, she reaches logical conclusions, takes responsibility for her life and yet she is trapped by fears and anxieties that shape everything she sees.
Marcia has an obsession with keeping a supply of canned goods in her house and having a collection of milk bottles set aside against some unspecified future disaster.
This hit me harder than it should. My mother was eight-years-old when the blitz destroyed large sections of her Liverpool. She lived through times when food was either not available or closely rationed and when baths were filled at night in case there was no running water in the morning. She was not Marcia but throughout her life, she had a cupboard full of canned foods and a chest freezer full of meals "just in case". Some things, usually the worst things, never leave you.
I find Marcia entirely believable and I really wish I didn't.