The devil inside

The Woman Upstairs: A Novel, by Claire Messud, Virago, RRP£14.99/Knopf, RRP$25.95, 320 pages

This is one weird book. It should be boring, since surprisingly little happens in it. The narrator, a lonely schoolteacher, should be boring as well. If anyone, it should engage only – one is tempted to say “merely” – female readers. Given its limited parameters, it ought to be a small novel, a minor work.

Yet The Woman Upstairs defies all these expectations. The story is riveting – tense with suspense and dark with foreknowledge that it cannot end well. The seemingly innocuous schoolteacher teems with an unnerving rage, a turbid inner life. If my recent sampling serves, this book is every bit as transfixing for men as for women. And there’s nothing small about Claire Messud’s new novel, which so well realises an insidiously unhinged interior world that it constitutes a sizeable literary achievement.

Call it a love story – of a warped, particular sort.

Childless and unmarried at 37, Nora Eldridge is what we once called a spinster, or what Nora terms “the woman upstairs” – “the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting”. Rather than pursue the artistic career she once dreamt of, she has squandered her prime on teaching other people’s kids to read and caring for her dying mother.

Enter Reza Shahid, a charming, beatific eight-year-old addition to her class in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nora is no sooner beguiled by this young import from Paris than she grows equally fascinated by his parents: Sirena, an alluring Italian bursting with the same artistic ambition that Nora has all but forsaken, and Sirena’s husband Skandar, a seductive Lebanese academic doing a stint at Harvard.

Over the course of one school year, Nora involves herself intimately in the family’s affairs. She shares a rented art studio with Sirena and takes long, reflective rambles with Skandar when he walks her home after she’s been babysitting Reza (for free, mind you). Not only does Nora’s own artwork take off but her entire life switches from black and white to colour.

Nora is in love: “I was in love with Reza. I was in love with Sirena. I was in love with Skandar. All of these things were true; they were not mutually exclusive, but they also, most important, did not, as far as I could see, pertain to one another.” Nora doesn’t want you to imagine she is “fond of a family”. To the contrary, she writes, “I hated to think of them all together, in the evenings and on the weekends, without me and with barely a thought for me.” Though the obsession begins with an eerie purity, an erotic attraction to both the parents begins to insist itself.

This is a textbook unreliable narrator. The bizarre triangular passion Nora describes is wholly convincing but the reader is nagged by an increasing anxiety about the reality outside her head. How aware are the Shahids of their volunteer babysitter’s consuming fixation on them? To what degree are they consciously using her entrancement to meet their own practical ends – to pay half the art studio’s rent, to enlist Nora’s help in constructing Sirena’s ambitiously vulgar art installation, to fetch dry cleaning, to care for their little boy? Do they feel anything at all for Nora – or, worse, do they hold her in contempt?

The answers lie in Messud’s devastating ending, a betrayal whose exact nature comes as a shock but one that has been well prepared for. “The very fact that I can tell you without blinking that I could kill them – that above all I could kill her,” says Nora early in the novel, “says all that needs to be said. Don’t worry, I won’t. I’m harmless. We Women Upstairs are that, too. But I could.” It may be the Shahids’ very ruthlessness, the quality Nora identifies as crucial to being a successful artist, that draws her to them.

Messud’s prose is a delight, full of artful touches: “urinously bright mint tea”, a “powdery malodor”, an “ointment-pink apartment”. As aware as we grow that there is something deeply disturbed about our narrator, the author evokes full-on the revelation and release of passion. Nora rejects her former life of phone calls to her father, beers with friends, and jogging as “the opiated husk of a life, the treadmill of the ordinary, a cage built of convention and consumerism and obligation and fear, in which I’d lolled for decades, oblivious, like a lotus eater, as my body aged and time advanced”. She feels all this “with the zeal of someone newly awakened – by God I felt and felt and felt”.

Nora is a type, and transcends type by realising type to a tee. Nursing her mother, visiting her ageing father, teaching primary school, always putting aside whatever she might want for herself, she is a model of female dutifulness. Yet, horrifically, her concept of liberation from all this tending and schlepping and coming second is to further enslave herself – to become another family’s dogsbody. To reduce herself still further. Hence the metaphor of Nora’s art, miniature reconstructions of other artists’ rooms like Virginia Woolf’s and Emily Dickinson’s: tiny and derivative to boot. Meanwhile, Sirena’s garish “Wonderland” installation eats all the space in the studio and wins Nora’s manipulative pseudo-soul mate depressingly plausible acclaim.

Addictive, memorable, intense ... Gosh. I guess you could say I liked it.

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel is ‘Big Brother’ (HarperCollins)

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