Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Hunters

The “two short novels” in Claire Messud’s The Hunters could have been written by two different authors: the writing style, themes, and tones vary drastically.

The first novella, “A Simple Tale,” centers around Maria, a “displaced person” in Canada (i.e., a WWII-era Ukrainian refugee). She works as a housekeeper, abandoning her old life without fully embracing the new. As she watches her employer deteriorate due to old age, Maria questions the authenticity of the life she’s built in Toronto.

In the second novella, “The Hunters,” an unnamed narrator recounts the summer he (or is it she?) spends researching death in London. S/he grows obsessed with her downstairs neighbor, a dumpy middle-aged woman who lives with her ailing mother and is a professional caregiver. The narrator describes Ridley as needy and aggressive, yet it is the narrator who creates a fantasy world surrounding her.

The premise of the novella is intriguing, but the narrator’s rambling internal dialogue is often confusing and off putting. Scenes with Ridley’s rabbits, the titular Hunters, are bizarrely reminiscent of the Shelley Winters’ camp film What’s the Matter with Helen?

Perhaps what intrigues—and disturbs—me most about Messud’s writing is her choice of vocabulary. Intriguing: her multiple use of the word “fug.” I’m trying to seamlessly weave the word into an everyday conversation. Disturbing: her narrator’s description of Ridley as almost “mongoloid” in appearance. I felt like I was reading a book written by a 90-year-old man and not a young woman.

Messud has an interesting perspective and imagination. Stylistically speaking, I was more comfortable with the straightforward “A Simple Tale” than the sometimes-incoherent “The Hunters,” but I’m impressed with her willingness to take chances as a writer.

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