Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Much to savour in novel despite lack of tension

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The protagonist and narrator of this quietly affecting literary novel is a 42-year-old elementary school teacher in greater Boston, childless herself, unmarried, dutiful to job, friends and aging parents, and, in her words, "completely invisible."

But when Nora Eldridge introduces herself, she is extremely angry, both at herself and the world. "Don't all women feel the same?" she asks. "The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury."

It takes 250 pages for American author Claire Messud to reveal the reason for Nora's fury. Suffice it to say it relates to her heroine's obsessive relationship with a family of exotic immigrants who had colonized her life in Cambridge, Mass.

Like many literary novels, The Woman Upstairs starts in the present and casts backward, advancing gradually to where it began, as Nora first encounters an eight-year-old boy, Reza, in her classroom, then meets his parents, a stylish Italian artist and her husband, a Lebanase-born academic.

Despite Messud's superb narrative control, the flashback structure is not the wisest of strategies, because it removes narrative tension. Readers know Nora's situation; the only surprise is how Messud is going to get them there.

Yet Messud gives us much to savour along the way.

First and foremost is the rhythmic quality of Messud's prose. Her sentences, though not pretentious or showy, are precise and melodic. Here, for example, she describes an instance of schoolyard bullying:

"Inside, we register the blow as silence falling, as if outside the world in chorus only took a breath, as if a curtain fell upon the scene." Sentence after sentence boasts this kind of musicality.

She also displays a womanly understanding of human psychology. Nora emphasizes that she "gets" children, and Messud clearly "gets" people.

With these traits and the novel's feminist themes, Canadian readers will be reminded of the late Carol Shields, especially in her overtly feminist novels like The Stone Diaries and Unless.

Messud, who had a literary hit with her last novel, The Emperor's Children in 2006, has a Canadian connection. Born in the U.S., she spent some of her youth in Toronto, with her Ontario-born mother and French-Algerian father.

Like Nora, she now lives in Cambridge, but with her children and her husband, The New Yorker magazine literary critic James Wood.

A thwarted visual artist, Nora finds in Reza's mother, Sirena, a kindred spirit, and the two women are soon sharing an art studio and daily confidences.

Nora's attraction to Sirena is both emotional and sexual, as it is toward the husband, Skandar. While Sirena makes an installation piece, Nora builds a doll-house-sized diorama, Messud's obvious allusion to Henrik Ibsen's heroine Nora in A Doll's House. The studio becomes the setting for a betrayal that justifies Nora's state of mind.

The drone of U.S. politics hums in the background of The Woman Upstairs -- giving it an extra resonance in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing -- though much differently than in The Emperor's Children, a kind of Bonfire of the Vanities for sensitive types.

This novel is also much different than Messud's first two outings, When the World Was Steady (1995) and The Hunters (2001). Arguably, she is one of those writers whose versatility works against them, in that she is too much of a chameleon to be pinned down.

Still, The Woman Upstairs should turn a few heads.

Morley Walker edits the Free Press Books section.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 J8

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