I’ve really enjoyed the serendipity (if that’s not too great a stretch) of finding 1947 books that have been on my shelves for ages, waiting to be read – and particularly glad when it happens to be a Persephone title. The Blank Wall has been on my radar since Persephone reprinted it in 2009 – and it was nice to finally read it.
The Blank Wall concerns Lucia Holley, left with her teenage daughter Bee, son David, and her father while her husband is away ‘somewhere in the Pacific’; left to manage the home and the emotional tangles of Bee, who fancies herself much mature than she is, and who is involved with an older man. (When I said ‘manage the home’, I should add that her maid Sibyl is also there – The Blank Wall is a fascinating depiction of the relationship between a white employer and a black maid in 1940s America; a loving and close relationship that is yet divided by the rules and restrictions of the period.)
After this, Lucia gets involved in some dodgy dealings – feeling out of her depth, she somehow manages to take control of the situation nonetheless. Despite a few rather doubtful moments, the novel does a good job of showing ordinary people experiencing extraordinary events – and, somehow, the power of that ordinariness overcoming everything. That is, Lucia always feels like she is experiencing real life – even when that life is far from normal reality. That shows an impressive strength in depiction of an everyday wife, mother, and daughter – who earns our affection along with our respect and our anxieties. In some ways, this is far more a domestic portrait than it is a thriller.
Oh, and the brief depiction of New York – where Lucia travels, from her lakeside rurality, to try to raise funds for blackmail (yes indeed!) – is equally interesting for its snapshot of the time and place.
I read it in its entirety on the plane back from Siena – well, probably with time sitting in the airport added on too – which gives you an indication of how quickly I was able to race through around 230 pages. It is certainly a page turner – maybe even a thriller, though there is nothing particularly tense or terrifying here. There is very little in the way of a mystery to solve (though the reader does wonder if the carpet will be pulled from under their feet). Raymond Chandler called her ‘the best character and suspense writer (for consistent but not large production)’ and particularly championed this one and – though his judgements are not always to my taste; he was no fan of A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery – but in this case he has picked a charming writer. Her strengths perhaps lie more in character than in suspense (though I suspect suspense has taken more of centre stage in the decades since he made that pronouncement), but The Blank Wall was certainly an extremely entertaining way to pass a flight.