Rebecca Rouillard, the winner of Mslexia’s Novel Competition 2017, writes her first novel about her childhood as a white girl in South Africa. ‘Who’s going to read it?’ she thought, believing there would be little market for it. Her winning novel, however, is her attempt for another one; a story of a brother and sister living in a lighthouse – their parents absent.
The theme of childhood is an intriguing one; yet grappling with minutiae details authors are required to thread their way of presenting them as a fiction. Rouillard may have a point; a number of debut novels is semi-autobiographical. Their scenes and settings derive from either personal traumas or reflections; reminiscences or deep-seated memories.
Meet and Celia J. Larraby. One is a woman on a crossroads in her life and the other is a portrait artist before he lost his hands in the Great War. Both are on holiday – for respective reasons. Their encounter trigger sharing a night together, although far from the inclination to enjoy the pleasure of the flesh between them.
Mary Westmacott is not a name muttered in the highbrow circles of literature. Her first book, Giant’s Bread, comes out four years earlier in 1930; the number of the copies sold are likely to have been modest despite the good reviews. By the same token, her second novel about a thirty-nine-year-old protagonist with a sense of an ending would have drawn little fanfare in its wake; what with the unrivalled success Murder on the Orient Express . It might have been a much more exciting tale than a limbless man listening to a rumbling childhood stories from an opposite sex with low self efficacy.
What goes on without a bang could actually generate a louder noise. Only a handful people are willing to say the other name of Westmacott towards the thinly-disguised story on the state of mind of a household name whom eleven days of disappearance has been engulfed in mystery. Still an enigma, Agatha Christie neither explains nor clarify the rumours surrounding her breakdown until her last breath.
Unfinished Portrait opens with a Foreword. Sometime after meeting Celia Larraby writes a letter to Mary. It’s accompanied by a manuscript; his take on Celia’s story. Would his bulk of words, being judged as poor in terms of writing techniques, be possible to ‘see the light of day’? Larraby seems to trust Mary’s judgements on the matter – should she wish to alter some parts so it would be fit for publication.
A fan of Freud’s psychoanalysis theory, Christie has deployed the pyschoanalyst’s The Ego and the Id – Sigmund Freud essay– Das ich un das Es in German- in her depicting her characters and particularly in her analyses of the perpetrators. In writing under her pseudo name she also has applied the same principles; Celia is the Id – the unconscious thoughts and J.Larraby the Ego – the preconscious that blends the unconscious and the conscious. Consequently, Mary becomes the super-ego. In her hands the edited version of the Id and the Ego are conjured.
As many would have been aware, Freud’s theory is flawed due to the extreme difficulty to gain an exact understanding on the significance between the Id or the Ego. Which one that is more in determining people’s behaviour?
Christie’s unwavering support to the three-tiered of human’s mind nevertheless is apparent; in the book she’s positioned Mary as an agent and a listener whilst Larraby is a mere messenger to the supposedly true account of events. As a narrator he’s felt the pulling of a string in a balancing act between his cognitive realisation about his subject and his drive to give Celia a fair representation.
Having given each of them a respective role, Christie allows herself to detach from either Mary, Larraby or Celia. As a result, their voices are distinct. Mary can neither be Celia nor can Larraby know everything about Celia. But he has sufficient details about her. Moreover, what does it matter if Celia only exists in his imagination?
Christie’s approach isn’t unheard of; her blurring the lines and her ‘splitting’ herself in the characters make the seemingly an ordinary unrequited love tale have layers of subplots. On the one hand, explanations are due on her part in order to stop the speculations and on the other she must spare some very personal details that known to her and for her only.
It’s an odd question, when you come to think of it, the things we choose to remember. For choice there must be, make it as unconscious as you like. Think back yourself- take any year of your childhood. You will remember perhaps five-six incidents. They weren’t important, probably; why have you remembered them out of those three hundred and sixty-five days? Some of them didn’t even mean much to you at the time. And yet, somehow, they’ve persisted….
The above excerpt of Larraby’s words to Mary sounds whimsical. Bearing in mind he isn’t soundly equipped as a writer, his somewhat rambling phrases might be justifiable. Fortunately there’s Mary – a good friend?- who would not just bin the manuscript right away; the fact that Louillard has had an insight before sending out her first novel to an agent.
Perusing the book can be likened to a meal made in a slow cooker. Christie as a cook seems to have thrown in the ingredients from the depth of her memories and in the meantime lets its gradual pace mature in the hours that require. As a reader, however, the slothful process of ploughing through to reach the end can be unattractive. After the high notes on Vernon Deyre in Giant’s Bread, J. Larraby plays no encore in Westmacott’s repertoire.
Whether Larraby’s visceral emotions and his poorly constructed narratives are deliberate, Christie has chosen her way to release her version of events through Celia’s confidence in a stranger. For Larraby has never seen her again after the night; the key fact that might score in Mary’s bringing it forward.
Be that as it may, the care in the aspects of a novel is ostensible. Christie ensures that Larraby’s viewpoints are properly challenged by Celia’s admissions concerning the battle with faults in herself. If anything, the book is soul-searching; there’s a touch of raw honesty in her pondering over her part in the failure of her marriage and as far as her mother’s dominance over her are concerned.
Be it unfinished, it’s a portrait after all. Whatever details that have been omitted underline Christie’s determination to take control of her privacy.
Last but not least, Louillard might wish to reconsider submitting her first novel; just as Winnie M. Lie’s Dark Chapter has done. No rush.