Serendipity! Have you ever reached for a book purely on whim, started to read, not been able to put it down (or simply been drawn to it again and again) and when you turned that last page realized what a hidden treasure you had sitting there on your bookshelf so very unobtrusively? Do you know what motivated me to pick up Isobel English's Every Eye? Earlier this month when I was thinking about my Century of Books progress and contemplating potential reads to fill in empty slots, I turned my gaze to a stack of Persephones sitting next to my bookcase. A pile of perfect contenders of Twentieth Century literature, surely. On the top sat the English. A slim book that when I first ordered it I was excited to begin reading no doubt. Ages ago, of course. But I sort of forgot what it was about the story that made me buy it. Pull it off the pile, turn to the first page, begin reading.
"I heard today that Cynthia died, last Friday afternoon at the Ipswich County Hospital, just after a cup of tea."
"This news has affected me in a way that I did not expect. One minute I was all set with my resentments close-knit and compressed, and the next it was as if a great wave had suddenly crashed shorewards undercutting and breaking into the very foundations of my life."
Have you noticed that Persephone books don't tend to have very detailed story descriptions on the jacket? There may be something about the response to the book when originally published (in this case--John Betjeman's quote, "Sometimes, but not often, a novel comes along which makes the rest one has to review seem commonplace. Such a novel is Every Eye.") or an excerpt from the text, but often you don't necessarily know much about the plot going into it--(which honestly I sort of prefer).
I only knew that Isobel English used an unusual technique in her writing. Not so unusual is moving from one period to another using parallel voices, but in this case the main protagonist is the narrator of both sections (alternately told) but using both present and past tenses. I found it not only intriguing but engaging as well. Reading the same voice both living in the moment and looking back at events in her earlier life had a pleasing rhythm for me. Of course it all comes together at the end and meets up in a climatic revelation. That 'aha!' moment that you wait for and is so satisfying. I could easily turn back to the first page and begin reading again and likely it would be an even richer read than the first go and equally enjoyable. So typical of a Persephone novel (shaking head at the thought of how critics have dismissed so much of women's writing--always so perplexing to me in the face of stories such as this one), this is a story that has hidden depths belied by the slimness of the book.
In Every Eye, Hatty Latterly spends her youth dealing with a lazy eye. As a young woman it is her older lover who pays for her to have an operation so it can be corrected. She cannot see the world straight on but always at a slant. Despite having the problem fixed she feels she carries the infirmity with her always. Maybe not so curious that it's Hatty who finally sees the hidden lives of those around her by story's end. I like the play on seeing yet not being able to see perfectly. There are a number of striking and creative juxtapositions in this novel.
In the present, Hatty has recently married a much younger man, and is soon off to Ibiza on her honeymoon when she gets news that her uncle's wife, Cynthia, has passed away. It's Cynthia who first told Hatty about the place she will shortly be traveling to. This news about a woman she had not seen for six years begins her reminiscences of the past. Cynthia will have a huge impact on Hatty's life and leave an indelible mark. It's through Cynthia and her uncle that she meets Jasper with whom she has that first love affair. Jasper is a man whose life is surrounded by mystery. Ultimately the two part ways leaving Hatty to age on her own, and it is not until much later when Hatty is nearing dreaded spinsterhood that she meets and marries a much younger man. There is something circular about this story, things move in parallel casting light on present and past depending which Hatty is speaking--the youthful or more experienced. It's almost as if parts are told in B&W and others in vivid color so rich are some of the descriptions--some observations clearer than others.
Every Eye is such a beautifully crafted story and written with real elegance. Tone, description and style all play off each other nicely making this one of my great finds of the year. Surely she wrote more novels than just this one, but according to the biographic information she wrote only three books between 1954-1960.
After all that my 1956 slot, when this book was published, had already been taken, but I don't mind a bit. In search of my next (serendipitously) good read . . .