Susanna Moore is a great writer I’ve recently discovered–her novel, In the Cut, was made into a film by Jane Campion in 2003 with Meg Ryan. It’s a dark movie about a reserved teacher and her erotic relationship with a cop whose investigating a possible serial killer, slightly controversial at the time because Ryan shows a lot of nudity in the film. Moore is keenly apt at portraying transformation, her characters, who appear comfortable in wholesome skins, seem to molt recklessly revealing rough underbellies that had seemingly always been there–almost a necessary seediness for their newer, grittier lives. One wonders if the author’s past as an original playboy bunny at the Hefner clubs has any part of this.
The Big Girls, set in women’s prison follows four characters, focusing mostly on an Andrea Yates type character, who has killed her children and the psychiatrist who treats her. Moore creates a subjective, sensory view of the prison, it like reading the prison diaries of Sylvia Plath if there were such a thing. Moore’s not looking for sympathy from the reader, more like palpable apathy-the killer isn’t vile but mentally ill, broken from an abused childhood–cliché, yes but so skilled in the rendering of the character and her past/present life, one forgives easily. The psychiatrist is equally a mess, with a sporadic, distant childhood, mother dead at an early age, low self esteem, broken marriage, etc .
Moore has a remarkable way of turning the subversive into something ordinary or rather expected-something less repulsive than one thought initially, she shakes your morals and throws them about, leaving one or two behind in the process.
One Last Look is an amazing novel, set in India in the mid 19th century; it’s based on the diaries of Emily Eden–a writer and artist traveling with her sister and brother–appointed Governor-General to India at the time. Sure, the Raj is a depleted subject, squeezed to death at this point by Merchant Ivory films or by nostalgic English novelists itching to portray a sliver of that age. But Moore is sly; much of the beginning of the book is Eleanor’s (as she’s called in the novel) and family, guarded disdain of the culture they see around them, their staff, customs, the land etc. Eleanor’s perspective is a sort of feigned acknowledgment of her world, not necessarily good, not necessarily bad, an underhanded nod at the strangeness then slowly we see changes in her outlook. Moore is so skilled and subtle, it’s not a blatant awakening but a steady, cloying rebirth that allows the reader to imbue the character and change perspective along with her. Perhaps I’m partial as I lived in India before so at once I am aware of the odors, colors, people she is describing but if I had never been before, I would be at one repelled and intrigued–a common reaction to a new culture, we are entranced and enthralled one minute, the next utterly repulsed.
Moore is great at bathing scenery and character over you like a light rainfall, you’ve not aware it’s there but soon you’re soaked, seeping in it’s wondrous clarity. Her language is sparse but not terse, there’s nothing flowery here, no flowing abundance of heavy words or cleverness yet each paragraph in its simplicity is of a startlingly weight, a deep thickness to push through. Eleanor begins to comment widely on the insular, supercilious habits of the English, shows alliance with her servants, her sister has gone “native”, smoking hookahs and wrapping herself in silken robes yet her brother remains indifferent, not cruel just weary and dissapointed by his surrounding. Eleanor’s relationship with him hints strongly at incest, which doesn’t seem subversive but more oddly acceptable as their relationship is warm with mutual respect. Eventually the trio is sent out of India, back to England and Lady Eleanor becomes a displaced person, her world neither here nor there.