Jul/Aug 2003 Book Reviews

The Hunters

Claire Messud
Picador, Macmillan (April 2003) 181 pages
ISBN: 0 330 48815 5

reviewed by Ann Skea

Maria Poniatowski is in her seventies. Sometimes she feels as if she is unseen—to the women she cleans for, and to her grown-up son and his family, for instance. No one wants to know about her past or much about her present. But she is tough and resilient. She has endured too much already to let present disappointments undo her. So, when she lets herself into ninety-two year-old Mrs Ellington's flat one Tuesday morning and sees a trail of blood streaked along the walls, she thinks the worst and accepts it philosophically.

Claire Messud is a masterly story-teller. She catches your interest, raises your curiosity, then keeps your attention as the tale unfolds. She is clever at painting in the colours so that "unseen" people like Maria come into focus, and she draws their lives so well that you begin to see that in many ways they are just like you.

Maria Poniatowski is a D.P., a "Displaced Person," a post-war refugee from a small village in the Ukraine, who, with her husband and son, began a new life in Canada after World War II. Maria has cleaned Mrs Ellington's home every week for forty-five years. She is happy with this routine, enjoys the company, knows Mrs Ellington's daily living needs in detail, and is immune to her growing bad-temper, sympathetic about her near-blindness, and understanding of her need for independence.

Messud tells us all this. And tells us, almost in passing, about Maria's past—"the long woven filament of life that stretched back through the years and across continents"—and about the strange, strained, limited friendship between the two women, which is about to end. The story is as ordinary and yet as extraordinary as many peoples' lives, and Messud tells it with subtly and insight. Rightly, she calls it "A Simple Tale."

The second story in this book gives the book its title. I'm still not sure why this story is called "The Hunters," unless it is meant to suggest that the story is about the lengths to which some people will go to give meaning to their lives. I felt less empathy with the narrator of this tale, which was probably due to Messud's subtle and deliberate manipulation of my feelings, and I was kept reading partly by my curiosity as to this narrator's gender.

Messud's narrator is an American who is doing academic research in London and is living in a rented flat in Kilburn—not, as planned, in Maida Vale. Concern for appearances—snobbishness, if you like—about the address means that the narrator spends several paragraphs telling us of this mistake and complaining of the deviousness of the estate agent with whom he/she negotiated the deal. As the tale unfolds (and it is quite an ordinary tale) the teller's capacity for the imaginative re-creation of a world which clearly revolves around him or her becomes apparent. And the tale unfolds in prose which is exotic, full of reported speech, and richly descriptive, as befits an academic who is (as he/she makes sure we know) an expert on the French novelist Malreaux. But his/her view of situations borders on fantasy and obsession, and there is enough plausibility in the fantasy for it to be dangerous. Chief of his/her preoccupations is the woman who lives with her mother (or does she?) in the downstairs flat.

Various scenarios for this mother/daughter relationship start to occupy the narrator's mind and, eventually, much of his/her life. But in the end, despite the spying and the guessing, it is all a game. The sabbatical ends, the narrator returns to America, and new obsessions displace the old, until a return visit to Kilburn offers more food for thought and, briefly, some new fantasies. This is a subtle character study, shaped by Messud with admirable skill.

So, The Hunters contains two very different stories, both beautifully told. Messud shows her readers that the seemingly mundane can be very unusual if you look beneath the surface, and her stories prompt us to look again at the ordinary people around us and to never again believe that the way they appear to us tells all.


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