Sadly I did not read this edition of Elizabeth Sanxay Holding's terrific novel -- I have a great fondness for tacky covers, though I must say this one is rather too tacky for the extremely delicate and moving subject matter of the novel. I read the Persephone edition instead, and I was very happy to get hold of it as I'd been longing to read it since I first heard of the novel in the Guardian's March feature on Ten Best Neglected Classics.
In fact this illustration does represent, after a fashion, the event which precipitates the plot. Lucia Holley goes for a swim in the early morning (not in her undies, though -- that's a fantasy of the illustrator's) and discovers a dead body in a boat. The body is that of her teenage daughter Bee's extremely dodgy lover, and Lucia, knowing that her elderly father has had an altercation with him the night before, realises that the man's death was an unfortunate accident.
He had fallen on the spare anchor and it had pierced his throat.
Father did that, she thought.
She stood in the gently rocking boat, feet apart, tall and long-legged in her white robe. Of course it means the police, she thought. Then Father will have to know that he did this. They'll find out why Ted came here, and Bee will be dragged into it. And I shan't be able to keep it from Tom. Not possibly. It'll be in the tabloids.
Now what you need to know is that all this is taking place in wartime New York State -- the novel was published in 1946. Lucia's husband Tom is in the Pacific and she feels increasingly distant from him as she tries to hold the family together on her own. Like most women of her class and generation, she has led a drastically limited existence. Married at seventeen, she has depended on Tom for everything and now he is away she is struggling with rationing, difficult teenagers, and an increasingly frail ageing father. The children love her, but regard her with rather patronising pity for her innocence of what they think of as real life. But now, with the discovery of Ted Danby's body, real life has come and hit Lucia squarely between the eyes. Fiercely protective of the family, terrified at the thought of involving her young daughter in a scandal, Lucia decides to conceal the body, an act which will have the most appalling repercussions.
This is generally described as a crime novel, but it's not a conventional one. No crime has actually taken place apart from Lucia's panic stricken act of concealment. But crime soon seeps into her ordered existence, and she finds herself subjected to blackmail and facing threats from both the police and the dark underworld from which Ted had emerged to attempt his seduction of Bee. It also brings her into contact with Martin Donnelly, a one-time associate of Ted's, with whom she starts to forge an unlikely but powerful bond.
I've been writing this in an amazingly cliched way! But don't get the idea that this is a cliched novel. Far from it. What is so fascinating about it is what happens to Lucia as a result of the increasingly huge gap between the extraordinary circumstances she finds herself in and the everyday life that continues despite it all. Lucia must go to the market and decide what food to buy with her limited "points", take tea with the neighbours, make sure the children have clean clothes, and write to Tom over there in the Pacific even though she cannot think of anything sensible and normal to say to him. Suffering from appallingly insomniac nights, terrified of discovery, drawn despite herself to the complex, good-hearted Donnelly, she must still get up every day and choose what to wear, keep her hair tidy and her make-up attractive. She must fend off her children's anxious enquiries as she is forced to disappear for whole days and cannot explain where she has gone, and she must at all costs prevent her beloved father from realising that anything is wrong. As a result she discovers a layer of toughness she never knew she had, and she is astonished at herself for some of the things she is forced to do:
I really did that, she thought amazed. I concealed a body. Anyhow, I took it away. And when I came back -- after that -- nobody could see anything wrong with me -- anything queer. Maybe I haven't got so much feeling, after all. Maybe I'm rather too tough.
I'd better be, too, she thought, as she rose and began to dress.
I really loved this novel. It was absolutely rivetting, but interestingly so much so that I didn't want to read it too fast -- I took my time and savoured every minute. I said at the beginning that it was moving and so it is -- for Lucia's struggles and her pain, but also for the wonderful characterisation of Martin Donnelly and the relationship that develops between the two of them, which is brilliantly understated but so clearly there. I can't recommend it highly enough.
The novel has been filmed twice, as The Reckless Moment in 1949 and as The Deep End in 2001 (with Tilda Swinton). I haven't seen either and I don't want to because I can tell that both of them have changed the novel and I would be sad to see anything changed. It's perfect as it is. Read it!