Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Minotaur

What a wonderful book. This is the second Barbara Vine novel I’ve read and it’s nearly perfect. Finishing it, I got an incredible sense of loss and sadness, sympathy and longing. The protagonist is a levelheaded yet caring young nurse from Sweden who is hired to take care of "mad" John Cosway, a man in his thirties who lives at home with his awful mother and three eccentric spinster daughters. Of course darkness lies at the heart of any proper English family in their isolate country mansion, and the book is devoted to delivering these details.

What also gets me is the incredible atmosphere, the creepiness, and the great symbolism. There is a labyrinth in this house, in the library, one of the most vivid images and symbols from the book. The house itself and its odd inhabitants remind the protagonist, Kerstin, of a nineteenth century novel, Jane Eyre perhaps, and much of the book’s delightfulness stems from playing with this notion.

But I think what I liked most of all, even more than the pleasant feeling of sadness I had when I closed the book, was the way it played with (what I call) the Mary and Martha paradigm. I’ve been thinking about this for some time now, possibly because of a recent exhibit of biblical drawings I saw at the Frick museum in New York. One of the only bible stories I ever remember is the one where JC stays at a house with two daughters, Mary and Martha, and Martha works like a drudge in the kitchen while Mary hangs out with Jesus and listens to him preach, and then when she gets to anoint his feet with oil, the lucky bitch, Martha gets pissed and says, "Hey I’m doing all the work here, why is she allowed to anoint you?" And JC says something to the effect that listening to him preach is more important than mundane household duties, which I personally really like and which is why I always consider reading novels a holier task than, say, washing the dishes.

There are three spinster daughters in The Minotaur, two of whom carry on like a couple of schoolgirls with a handsome, new-in-town bohemian. One of them does so while engaged to a staid, possibly closeted preacher, enraging the third sister, who spends all her time cooking and cleaning – and getting no credit for it, mind you, not even a thank you – the perfect housewife without a husband who, incidentally, is in love with the preacher man who’s being so ill treated by her sister. Will Ida, the repressed and harassed "Martha" sister, lash out at Winifred, the liberated "Mary" sister, for all her carrying on?

Meanwhile, what about "mad" John? And embittered mother dearest? She seems awfully eager to be rid of her burdensome son, who, incidentally, was willed the house and fortune by his dying father … I can tell you one thing: she won’t take kindly to the meddling of the young nurse in the family affairs.

Read it. Read it now.

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