The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

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.

Not the cover I had. Purloined from Book Snob.
Not the cover I had. Purloined from Book Snob.

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.

20 thoughts on “The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

  • October 14, 2016 at 12:17 am
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    It is always a treat to visit you and find an author who is new to me. The cover is a classic and consistent with when it was published.

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    • October 15, 2016 at 8:41 pm
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      That’s nice, Terra :) I do wonder what her other books are like now. I certainly wouldn’t pick one up with that cover!

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  • October 14, 2016 at 2:05 am
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    I know that Frances Hodgson Burnett was a naturalized American, but I still think of her as British and for some reason I didn’t think that Persephone published American authors. I have been schooled! And on the surface, a suspense thriller seems not to fit the Persephone mold, but maybe the emphasis on character and its depiction of the quotidian routine is what made it a Persephone pick?

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    • October 15, 2016 at 8:51 pm
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      Yes, a handful of them! Dorothy Canfield Fisher is the example I always think of – and one Canadian, Ethel Wilson! I think it’s exactly that – the emphasis on character and setting over suspense make it fit in the Persephone canon.

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  • October 14, 2016 at 6:52 am
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    You have a Dell Pocket Book? Has Dell ever been fully appreciated and wildly applauded for bringing affordable writing to the readers of America?

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    • October 15, 2016 at 8:53 pm
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      Not mine, I’m afraid! I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this over here – indeed, Dell only means laptops to me!

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  • October 14, 2016 at 7:42 am
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    I love that cover image you’ve found!! I read this back in 2009, so will have to add it to your main post for older reviews, as I’ve found my review. I also loved the fact that it was a typical Persephone heroine put in a strange situation.

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    • October 15, 2016 at 8:53 pm
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      That’s exactly it – a typical Persephone heroine in a strange situation. Well put!

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  • October 14, 2016 at 8:11 am
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    Did i suggest THE BLANK WALL initially?
    Let me believe i am useful.

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    • October 15, 2016 at 8:55 pm
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      Nope, I did know about this one, but I think you put me wise to Chatterton Square.

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  • October 14, 2016 at 8:12 am
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    The film of the book is occasionally on Film Four.”THE RECKLESS MOMENT” 1949.

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    • October 15, 2016 at 8:56 pm
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      It’s quite something, isn’t it?

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  • October 14, 2016 at 7:41 pm
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    I liked this one a lot when I read it – very much a page turner, as you say, and I did like the fact that she was an ordinary woman having to deal with very un-ordinary things!

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    • October 15, 2016 at 8:56 pm
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      More of those sorts of heroines in thrillers, and I would maybe read them!

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  • October 15, 2016 at 9:16 am
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    THE RECKLESS MOMENT is on FILM FOUR October 17th at 11am.Great film seen it loads of times.

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  • October 15, 2016 at 12:13 pm
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    I liked this one too. It was also remade into a film back in 2001 called “The Deep End.” It’s updated and set near Lake Tahoe and stars Tilda Swinton as the main character and Goran Visnjic as the blackmailer. It was really good and quite easy to find on DVD. I highly recommend it.

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    • October 15, 2016 at 8:59 pm
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      I once went to a conference paper which compared the two film adaptations, and it made me keen to read the book and then watch both – thanks for the further encouragement!

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  • October 16, 2016 at 10:09 am
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    It’s well worth getting hold of all the Elisabeth Sanxay Holding novels you can find, several once published as two in one editions. A fine fore-runner of and possibly influence on Patricia Highsmith.

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  • October 17, 2016 at 10:48 am
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    I love that vintage cover! It’s perfect for the period. The Blank Wall has been on the periphery of my radar for a few years, ever since I saw it mentioned in a broadsheet article on hidden gems/lesser-known classics. Dorothy Baker’s marvellous novel ‘Cassandra at the Wedding’ was on the same list, so you can imagine my interest in it. And now your review has sealed the deal – thanks for the reminder!

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