This book reminded us of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the way it shifts back and forth in time to tell the story. At several points in the book the narrator Mr. Dowell remarks that he has brought his story up to a point that he has already referenced. In the introduction, Mark Schorer likens the style to a hall of mirrors. The beginning of Part Four makes this explicit:
I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find his path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair--a long, sad affair--one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognizes that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression.We don't quite know what to make of this book. It was certainly not as smashing as we had expected. The story concerns two conventional, mostly sterile, marriages, and an affair between one of the women and the other man. Dowell does not find out his wife has been involved with his friend until after she dies. Through it all Dowell takes pains to assure his silent listener that the other man, Mr. Ashburnham, is a fine gentleman, a good soldier. Mrs. Dowell, however, is only one in a line of women with whom Ashburnham dallies.
The four major characters all seem as if they are wandering without moral compass. All that seems to matter is the pretence of happiness. Perhaps today, with the rampant popularity of divorce, we look back at such marriages differently. In order to find Ashburnham "the model of humanity," Dowell must have suspended certain standards. In spite of everything, he says,
It is impossible for me to think of Edward Ashburnham as anything but straight, upright, and honourable.Yet we must take Dowell's word for it, because he never describes any of the innumerable wonderful deeds Ashburnham performs.
Dowell idolizes Ashburnham, wants to be like him, and indeed, he even comes to mimic Ashburnham's desire for a young lady. Perhaps he harbors a secret love for Ashburnham. His unwavering esteem for Ashburnham makes his judgement suspect. And he certainly relates many details about his wife's affair for having been oblivious to it until her death. These things make him seem an unreliable narrator. This begs the question: What is the point of an unreliable narrator? Without the balance of another point-of-view, how is the reader to understand the degree of the narrator's delusions? Or the reason?
Mr. Ford thought this his best work. We have not read anything else by him, so we cannot offer any comparison. This book is certainly well-written, with correct grammar and sentence structure and punctuation. This book also presents us with another narrator who feels nothing, and so the reader feels nothing as well.
Since the book began at the time of the ending, the ending seemed to come all at once. The characters lived on, but there was simply no more story to tell. All the change and lessons learned had come along the way, and all that remained was anticlimax. We have a decided preference for stories that end dramatically, with a conclusion that we suddenly realise has been pointed to from the very beginning. Though this novel is subtitled "A Tale of Passion," it could be better described as reserved. And though the narrator calls it the saddest story he has ever heard, there is more consolation than sadness.
...cross-posted at Slaves of Golconda.