"Poor girl," he whispered. His face looked strange, as if for a long time she had not seen it, the deep eye sockets spaced wide, the strong spring of the nose, the lean cheeks with lines past the corners of the wide, mobile lips. Quite suddenly it changed, and she knew it in her fingertips, the feel of the forehead, fine skin over hard rounded skull, up to the v's in which dark hair grew over the temples. Geoffrey. Hand still shut in his, she moved slowly in the file past the casket. She felt his grasp quicken: he knew about death, its anger and its fear.
There's nothing more exciting for readers like me than discovering a new and wonderful author. And Helen Hull is one such, at least if this novel is anything to go by. Published in 1932, this is a novel about love, about marriage, about parenting, about families -- but it's also about the melting pot of America, about social class, about morality and about belief. Quite a lot to encompass in a mere 327 pages, but Helen Hull does it with the utmost subtlety and skill.
This is the story of Amy Norton who, at the start of the novel, has arrived in the small mid-western town where she grew up. It is high summer, and Amy has left her home in New York City and her troubled marriage to pay a visit to her parents. But though Amy has been hoping for a period of peace and quiet to help her get her thoughts straight, she finds herself instead plunged into the midst of various serious family dramas. A reprobate cousin has made the maid pregant, another is having problems with her lesbian partner, an uncle is in severe financial difficulties, and an unexpected death flings the whole family into panic and overdrive.
Contemplating the problems of her own marriage, Amy looks hard at those of her relatives, finding numerous points of comparison -- what works, what doesn't, and why. A cousin has married a girl of German extraction, from a lower social class than his own, and the family looks down on her and her mother -- but the marriage works, and Amy can't help but admire the girl for her open enjoyment of her sexuality. Amy's brother has a French wife, whose alien status enables her to look on the family dramas with a clear and philosophical eye. In fact overall it seems to be the new Americans who are doing better than the old families -- Amy's uncle's financial disasters seem to be due to his wife's insistence in living way above their means.In the midst of all this, Amy's parents at least offer a safe haven of sorts. Her mother, in particular, has a quiet wisdom which, towards the end of the novel, she puts into words. Her two principles are, first, 'acting so I don't feel ashamed of myself, so I feel comfortable with myself', and second is 'People. Loving them. Not a general, vague love for everybody. But for your special ones'.
So as the week goes by, Amy comes to an important realisation:
If she could have patience, could watch these shifting scenes with sympathy enough, out of them would come the wisdom she needed. It would, far more potent than any Aristotelian tragedy, constitute a personal catharsis, a purging of herself of blindness and other faults of vision -- distortion, perhaps.
This passage is really the key to what goes on in this excellent novel. While her world seems to be deteriorating into chaos around her, Amy slowly comes to form her own code. Though conscious of how much she is hampered by her lack of any kind of religious belief, she practices a severe form of self examination, and gradually her thoughts and feelings become more settled and clear. Nowhere is this more evident than in the remarkable episode in which she finally learns what her absent husband has been doing, and is forced to confront the reality of her deepest fears. Rather than causing a split between the couple, or leading to bitterness and defeat, the revelation brings her to a deeper understanding of Geoffrey's feelings and a rigorous comparison with her own, which she sees to be not as different as she first believed.
In her excellent review of the novel earlier this year, Rachel of Book Snob calls Helen Hull an American Dorothy Whipple. And yes, there's certainly some truth in that -- the domestic setting, the examination of unspoken thoughts and feelings. But think I'd rather call her an American Elizabeth Bowen, whose superb To the North was published in the same year as Heat Lightening. Bowen is notoriously challenging to read for the intensity of her prose and the subtlety of her observations of women's lives, and Hull seems to me to fall into that category. I am so glad I read this great novel and look forward to discovering more of Helen Hull in the future.