Magazine article The Spectator

Small, but Perfectly Formed

Magazine article The Spectator

Small, but Perfectly Formed

Article excerpt

THE HUNTERS by Claire Messud Picador, L12.99, pp. 181, ISBN 0330488147

Coming to the end of A Simple Tale, the first of two novellas in this volume, I found myself so full of admiration that I couldn't think of anything critical to say at all. Conscious that the term 'perfect' is not illuminating, I read the story again, determined to do better. With relief, I noted that Messud's sentences can be long and convoluted; I tutted as I went back a few lines. But each time I reread a sentence, I found that her language stretched meaning in such a way that I could not wish it otherwise. And her precision compels attention:

The bed was high ... her feet dangled a few inches above the carpet, sweeping, like divining rods, in search of her slippers.

Who would not read on?

A Simple Tale tells the story of Maria Poniatowski. Born in a village in the Ukraine in the 1920s, she was carried off to Germany as slave labour. After the war she emigrated to Canada with the man she married in the DP camp, and together they built a life for their son, Radek, with opportunities that had not been available to them. For 47 years in Toronto, Maria cleans for (among others) Mrs Ellington, to whom she grumbles about her son, whom she does not understand, and her daughterin-law, Anita, whom she detests. Anita is a slob, like her mother; even worse, a German slob.

Simply put, this `simple tale' is about Maria's sense of connectedness to the world. Despite the horrors of her early life, it is when she is on a boat trip with her son's family, during a longed-for vacation, that Maria feels 'a more profound sense of not belonging than she had ever before, in all her life, experienced'. She is desperately ill at ease and, to Anita's fury, she buzzes around cleaning the house. Appalled by Radek and Anita's lives, she is then dismayed by the discovery that she cannot adapt:

She had never had to adapt in quite this manner before, although adaptation had been, in her youth, not merely her forte but her survival. She was accustomed to accommodation into the lives of families only as a housekeeper...

But

problems like those that beset Radek and his family made no sense to her, they had no logic. …

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