I had not heard of this author’s work until a few weeks ago when I read an article in praise of her novels. I did some research and bought this, her first. And I am so glad I did for this is a deliciously cryptic novel in which Gee’s confessed influences shine through strongly. This is not a bad thing because, like all good authors, Gee has used those influences to help forge her own vision of the world. The writing is poetic and intense, yet never strays from the very simple need to tell the stories that surround this single event.
Moira Penny, a writer, is found dead one morning on the cold pavement outside her attic lodgings. A simple starting point that could have led to an upmarket thriller, Gee takes a sideways step into an alternate reality. All through the book we learn of the other inhabitants of the lodging house and of the crescent in which the house is situated. They are obsessional, deluded, and bizarre - almost to the point of cartoonish. Yet this is just the surface. Because as we begin to delve into the lives of these people through delicately painted vignettes that echo with madness, we are always conscious of the empty attic room where the mad person is traditionally locked away. And from there, the sound of typing clacks through the whole story.
One by one the characters are written out of the story. Dying, in other words. Flickering out like the flames of birthday candles. And as the novel progresses it becomes increasingly surreal, steering a twisting course along the borders of strange worlds that remain rooted very firmly in our own. The juxtaposition of mundane realities such as milk machines (a beautiful period touch) and the strange mental struggle of one of the lodgers who struggles to disentangle her own confused thoughts about whether she was a child or had a child make the work both odd and very real.
The whole piece is circular in nature. Whilst it builds on the opening fact that Moira Penny is dead, by the time you reach the end, all assumptions have been explored and subtly destroyed. We are left with the notion that the dead woman wrote the book after she died, that she never existed, that the end is the beginning and the journey is one that ‘begins’ in madness and ‘ends’ with the clarity of death. For me, the very best of the work came at the end of the book, the last of a collection of shorter pieces, perhaps written by the now dead Moira Penny. Beckettian in its scope and power, this is an extraordinary and visionary piece of writing to cap an extraordinary book.