” ‘A peacock of a sort of ghastly green. With one immense golden eye. And in this reflections of something tiny and – ‘
‘Grotesque,’ she finished for him.”
McCullers’ second novel, published shortly after the stunning The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is a puzzling work to assess. Like Hunter, this story has five main characters, and the plot flits expertly between each protagonist’s private desolation in their trapped-in-amber-like existence (and how beautifully the opening lines of the novel evoke this existential ennui: “An army post in peacetime is a dull place. Things happen, but then they happen over and over again.”) There’s Captain Penderton, a rigid conformist, coming to terms with his own sexuality, as Leonora, his sporty, promiscuous and vacuously cruel wife has a languid affair (one of many, we sense) with his neighbour, Major Langdon. Across the road, the Major’s invalid wife broods over her stagnant life, held captive by financial dependency on her wayward husband, with no-one but a flamboyant houseboy for company with whom she plots dashing getaways, only to be foiled by illness and despair. Into this simmering discontent steps Private Williams – silent, unknowable, increasingly ominous. The Captain is viscerally outraged by Williams’ passivity, but also, to his horror, fascinated. Williams’ presence derails the uneasy peace between the two households and his obsession with Leonora inevitably leads to tragedy.
In her work McCuller’s demonstrated remarkable ability to bring to life the complex interiority of marginalised characters, but here her characterisation, though steady and true as far as it goes, feels underdeveloped. Without a gloss of pathos, the pared-down writing has something of the parable about it, reminiscent of McCullers’ later The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. However, what had lyrical heft and touching strangeness in Ballad, here only feels like a short, nasty tale about tiny, grotesque lives, observed from too far a distance.
Picture credit: Waterstones website.