Thursday, March 12, 2009

Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor

I first heard of this Elizabeth Taylor from the book blog world, maybe early last year, and couldn't help be intrigued. The Atlantic described her as being "best known for not being better known", and lists her contemporaries - E. H. Young, Rose Macaulay, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann, Mollie Panter-Downes, Sybille Bedford, Barbara Pym, and Edith Templeton - almost all of whom (with the exception of Bowen) I have yet to check out.

My library had several of Taylor's books, but I was headed straight for Blaming, which is on the '1001 books to read before you die' list, which I often use to pick my next to-read books.

The book is a story of two women, who meet on a cruise of the Mediterranean. The middle-aged British couple, Amy and Nick, meet Martha, an American writer: "The three of them, knowing nothing of one another, were cast together by their language and nothing else."

Nick has only recently come out of a hospital stay after a surgery and he dies suddenly while on board (it's not a spoiler). And Amy heads on back home, with Martha accompanying her. Amy is reluctant to have any further contact with the rather rumpled Martha, but she manages to secure herself a visit to Amy's home. Martha is a constant source of irritation to Amy, they being two diverse characters: "Yes, she is just like a tiresome child, Amy thought - but unlike a child, she can't be reprimanded".

But Amy has almost no one - few friends, and her family makes the usual pitying motions, but hardly wholeheartedly. So the two women settle into a new relationship. "Martha became part of the passing of time", she "came and went in Laurel Walk, rather taken for granted than welcomed".

It is not easy to like either Martha or Amy. Amy is quite a sad creature, having lived her life for her husband, as her daughter-in-law Maggie opines: "Amy was simply his guardian, companion, the one who had so often made barriers to protect him, even from this family. Her life was null, otherwise, Maggie considered. She did nothing for anyone but Nick, and nothing like as much as he had done for her. The wrong one had died". And Martha is indeed, quite irritating and untidy, not someone I would want as a houseguest myself! Instead I find myself leaning towards the very cute Dora, Amy's granddaughter, who says some very funny things - Taylor I think truly shines when she puts words into the children's mouths; and also Ernie Pounce (what a name!), the manservant and his dentures and smoked salmon sandwiches. I love the world which Taylor so effortlessly creates.

Blaming was written when Taylor was dying of cancer and published posthumously. I definitely look forward to reading her other books - according to The Atlantic article, she wrote 12 novels, four story collections, and one children’s book in 30 years.

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