Pale Wire (Popscene)

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Dark Days

On Friday I finished Claire Massud's The Hunters, a collection of two novellas that did well on the 2001 prize curcuit.

Chicken soup, they ain't.

The first novella tells the harrowing life story of a Ukranian women who escapes the blitz to grind out the rest of her life in domestic purgatory as a cleaning woman for upper-class Canadians. She's had a tough life, and the day we join her for the recounting is one of the uglier ones.

The second is the first-person account of a lonely summer in London told by that most common of literary fiction characters: the depressed English professor. Massud does a fine Nabokov, dazzling at times with her narrator's rhetorical filigree. But as with M. Humbert—whose charm and oratory could not erase his culpability in a most beastial act—a dark strand woven through the story prevents us from welcoming Massud's protagonist as anything more than an entertaining, and gratefully passing, companion.

But, brighten now, dear reader, because where Nabokov offered little solace to the depraved père of his most famous creation—to whom damanation, if it came with peaceful rest, would almost seem a gift—Massud allows her characters to escape their pain, if only temporarily. The first story finds relief in coping with the cruelties, mysteries, and frustrations of life with an open-hearted and humble acceptance. The second, in the comfort and intoxicating thrill of unexpected, youthful love. There's too much painful, guilty history for any Happily Ever After, but it was enough to keep me away from the cognac.

In a general way, I'm disinclined from letting authors get away with happy endings to sad stories. But, I think because Massud does it so skillfully, and in a way that embraces sentiments I'm sympathetic to, I'll let this one slide.