I have been coveting the Persephone imprint for some time, but the high overseas postage kept me from ordering any of these lovelies from England. My birthday last month was the perfect moment to ask for — and receive — a sixth month subscription. Happy birthday to me!
The first book to arrive was The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. First, can I say how very surprised I was by the size and the material; I thought Persephones were hardbacks! They are much smaller than I expected, too, but just right to hold and open widely without cracking the spine. Being a fabric hound, I love the hidden pattern reproductions on the endpapers and matching bookmark. My only disappointment, at least with this copy of The Blank Wall, was the quality of the printing; there are several places where letters did not completely print. It doesn’t make the book unreadable, it’s just a surprising to find these flaws. Although in some way, the flaws increase the charmingly retro feel of the book.
The Blank Wall is a wonderful suspense/thriller that reminded me a bit of an Eric Ambler novel in pacing. Set during World War II, the main character, Lucia, is a middle-age housewife living in a “nice” suburban neighborhood with her two teenage children and elderly father while her husband serves overseas. She has an efficient housekeeper who helps her deal with wartime shortages and inconveniences. Life runs as smoothly as it can during wartime, until Lucia discovers her daughter has been having an affair with an older man that Lucia disapproves of most strongly. Determined to stop the affair and protect her daughter, Lucia soon finds herself involved in an ever-increasing spiral of serious troubles: murder, blackmail, and unsolicited interest from a man not her husband.
Sanxay Holding does a fantastic job of showing us Lucia’s mindset — how deeply stressed, confused, and fearful she becomes as she navigates events and circumstances that are quite outside her normal experience or imagination of what a woman like her could possibly get involved in. While I found her decisions often foolish and flawed, she is nevertheless very sympathetic. She manages to hold together her stress and worry, until the novel resolves almost as quickly as events fell apart.
Another thing I really liked about the book was the character of Sybil, Lucia’s housekeeper. She was a mysterious character, particularly to Lucia who notes at one point that she knows nothing about Sybil’s personal life or background. Yet Sybil was integral to keeping Lucia’s household running and seemed to understand her mistress’s needs before she knew them herself. We do end up learning something about Sybil, but I felt like there was more to her story. In particular, she seemed to know more about the three men that Lucia gets involved with than she should have, or that she let on. Sybil remains rather mysterious to the end, but rather than having her character feel unresolved, I liked that Holding left a small thread dangling.
Persephone and I are off to an excellent start. Next up: Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance.
Persephone No. 42
Persephone Books Ltd. 2003
First published 1947 by Simon & Schuster