Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Blank Wall


The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding is a tense and suspenseful thriller. Adapted in 1949 into the movie A Reckless Moment starring James Mason (remade in 2001 as The Deep End with Tilda Swinton), it is a very atmospheric novel with a period feel to it; whilst reading it I envisaged events in black & white celluloid with Cary Grant in Mason's role as Martin Donnelly.

Lucia Holley is a surburban housewife in 1940s America; her husband is serving in WWII and she cares for her teenage children and her elderly father, dealing with the domestic dramas of running a home during wartime, with the help of her loyal maid Sibyl. In the opening chapter Lucia has the problem of the unsavoury Ted Darby to deal with, an older man that her daughter Bee is inappropriately involved with; this problem is solved accidentally by her father, Mr Harper, who "sent him off with a flea in his ear". It transpires a couple of pages later that Mr Harper has actually -and unknowingly- killed Ted Darby and to protect her father Lucia disposes of the body.

The Blank Wall has highly melodramatic moments juxtaposed with moments of domestic hilarity. Whilst Lucia is counting ration points, worrying about the lack of gas for the family car, is frustrated by a broken washing machine, frets that her letters to her husband are too dull, she also has to evade detection by police Lieutenant Levy, engage with blackmailing black marketeers, pawn her jewels in order to pay them and persuade her children that she is not having an affair with the sympathetic criminal, Donnelly. A very suspenseful yet amusing read ensues and I was completely gripped in finding out if Lucia managed to stay calm, keep it together, and maintain her integrity and freedom from prosecution. Uppermost in Lucia's daily efforts is to keep her family safe and she is aided in this by the wonderful Sibyl, who also cooks the illegal meat that Donnelly sends as gifts. Evocative of the time period and the uneasy undercurrent of helplessness in the face of war (especially as a woman), The Blank Wall is not just a fun read but one that is historically intriguing and a precursor for later psychological crime novels. Lucia is a fabulously strong and funny female protagonist, a middle-aged housewife caught up in a surreal case of murder and intrigue, and this is another great and unique Persephone novel.

Some favourite passages, the first central to the plots and themes of the novel:

She got a book and read it in bed, with stubborn determination. It was a mystery story she had got out of the lending library for her father, and she was not fond of mystery stories. Nobody in them ever seems to feel sorry about the murders, she had said. They're presented as a problem, m'dear, her father said. What's more they generally show the murdered person as someone you can't waste any pity on. I'm sorry for them, she said, I hate it when they're found with daggers sticking in them and their eyes all staring from poison and things like that.
Yet how little pity did she feel for Ted Darby! I really did that, she thought amazed. I concealed a body. Anyhow I took it away. And when I came back-after that-nobody could see anything wrong with me-anything queer. Maybe I haven't got so much feeling, after all. Maybe I'm rather too tough.
I'd better be, too, she thought, as she rose and began to dress.

She had never felt anything like this turmoil of the spirit, this anger. He's the one who brought the letters here. He's the one I'm to pay the blackmail to. And he says he did that. For me. Liar. Blackmailer. Contemptible crook. I hate him so...


This my first book read for the R.I.P. IV challenge; although it wasn't by any means scary it was thrilling and suspenseful.




27 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

This sounds like another great Persephone book. I am keeping my eye out for them all now. I am sure that I'll love them, as they are such a lovely series.

Darlene said...

Oh that does sound quite melodramatic doesn't it, I love it! I can see why it has been made into a movie more than once.

Jenny said...

Ooh, sounds fun. I'll have to read this & watch the films - I loooove Tilda Swinton and will watch her in anything. :)

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, I've still to read a Persephone that I didn't enjoy. I'm hoping to fit in a few more before the year is out.

Darlene, it is incredibly melodramatic and lends itself to movies in the vein of Hitchcock (I was reminded a little of the wonderful overblown hyperbole of North by Northwest).

Jenny, it was a very fun book to read. I love Tilda Swinton too! Have you see Burn after Reading? Crazy but great.

Steph said...

This sounds great! I love the idea of the juxtaposition of the mundane domestic duties whilst also juggling all these zany bits as well. I think this is one that will go to the top of my Persephone wishlist!

Paperback Reader said...

Steph, it's wonderful well done and she maintains a balance between the mundane and the extraordinary. It's one that didn't pop out of the Persephone catalogue at me until recently and I'm so glad it finally did.

kimbofo said...

I read this a couple of years back and thought it was fantastic. It was one of those books in which the more the main character tried to manage events beyond her control, the more she muddled things up and made things worse!

My review is here:

http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2007/08/the-blank-wall-.html

Annabel Gaskell said...

I have this one in my TBR mountain - spotted it this morning actually and thought I must read this soon ... what a coincidence!

anothercookiecrumbles said...

I quite like the sound of this. Melodrama, murder and suspense, against a World War II background, just speaks volumes to me - I'm definitely going to add this to the list, specially as I haven't read a Persephone book yet.

Paperback Reader said...

Kim, fantastic review! It was an intense read; Lucia's experience is one of my worst fears - things spiralling out of control and people believing the worst.

Annabel, curious coincidence! I would take it as a sign to read it.

anothercookie, I can't speak highly enough about Persephones and the versatility of their publishing choices; this one was a real treat and far more than I was expecting.

Danielle said...

This is one that I've flipped over many times in the Persephone catalog not entirely sure I would like it, but after reading your review, I think I would. Will have to add it to my list next time I order... :)

Paperback Reader said...

Danielle, I tend to miss a few things in the catalogue as there are so many others I would love to own first of all; this one more or less escaped my notice until I found out it was a mystery and suitable for the RIP challenge. It is fabulously fun though with some very good social commentary; definitely a Persephone to read but aren't they all?!

savidgereads said...

I have to read this now, Persephone publishing "a tense and suspenseful thriller" just sounds too wonderful, thats another book for the wishlist then. Why do you do this to me Claire!?

softdrink said...

I just requested a Persephone catalogue. Which might have been a very dangerous thing to do.

verity said...

Ooh, I can't wait to get this back and read it (but it's ok, you can save the postage and hang onto it until we meet)

Rachel said...

Ooooh I've often wavered about buying this one but now I know I want it! Sounds fabulous!! I love a bit of melodrama.

Paperback Reader said...

Simon, apologies! Hee. There are so many Persephones to choose from, that appeal to every mood and genre specification really.

Hi softdrink, requesting a catalogue is dangerous... but you won't regret it!

Verity, thanks so much for allowing to me to borrow this unread; it was a great read. Let me know if you want me to post it and Hetty Dorval back at any point before I see you and I'll try to have Making Conversation read for then too.

Rachel, the melodrama was such a welcome change and thoroughly relaxing despite the suspense and intensity.

SFP said...

Based on your review, I've just ordered this. But since the Persephone version was out of stock at Book Depository, I went with an edition that also includes The Innocent Mrs. Duff. I'm looking forward to reading both!

Paperback Reader said...

I hope you enjoy it, SFP, and the other novel in the volume - I'll be interested to find out what that's like.

Nymeth said...

An atmospheric Persephone thriller sounds just like the kind of thing I'm in the mood for. *shakes fist at book buying ban* Well, there's always next year's RIP - it's good to plan ahead :P

And yes, Tilda Swinton=LOVE. Do you like Patrick Wolf? The spoken word pieces that she recorded for his album and that he incorporated into songs are a thing of beauty.

Paperback Reader said...

Ana, I didn't know how much I was in the mood for it and how much I craved something like it until I was in the thick of it! I was reading along with last year's RIP and read The Victorian Chaise-longue - there really is a Persephone to fit every mood and challenge!

I'm not familiar with Patrick Wolf and now in research mode...

Book pusher said...

Paperback Reader you have just made me add another book to the wish list.

Paperback Reader said...

A worthy addition, book pusher, and one I hope you enjoy!

Samantha said...

This sounds to be a very singular type of novel! Funny and suspenseful - what a mix. I just want to read so many Persephone books!

Paperback Reader said...

Samantha, the mix works surprisingly well. I have so many Persephones that I want to read too...

Iliana said...

Wonderful review! I finished it last night and you are right, it was so much about the mystery but man, did it have suspense! I was so curious to see how Lucia was going to get out of everything.

Paperback Reader said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Iliana! It was wonderfully suspenseful and Lucia was a great character; I loved that insight into how she was coping with her husband away at War in regards to money and the opposition of her children.