Friday, 13 June 2014

'I would rather be gulled than do the gulling'

As this novel opens, its narrator, Nell Benjamin, is silently arguing with her husband, Charlie. After a few minutes of brooding, she eventually confronts him over the behaviour of one of their old friends, Frank Tucker, at a party last night. Despite his distinguished record of civil rights activism and liberal journalism, Frank is an old-school misogynist, and Nell has always struggled to reconcile her admiration of his achievements with the ease with which he can say things like 'women are too dumb to do anything but type, file and fuck'. As Charlie leaves for work, things are still tense between them. However, when Nell receives a phone call half an hour later, she receives devastating news that throws her life into chaos. Then, only a little while later, JFK is shot dead in Texas. Unknown to Nell, this day both marks the end of the happiest period of her life and her idealistic, unswerving commitment to the liberal ideals she expresses through her journalism.

Pivoting around November 22nd, 1963, the novel jumps back to the early 1950s to explore the beginnings of Nell and Charlie's relationship. Soon after they meet, Charlie is offered a job on a liberal, anti-Soviet journal, Compass. Nell is equally committed to the journal's remit, to oppose both 'the totalitarianism of the left' and that of the right. In the McCarthy era, a number of its writers fall under suspicion, including Charlie himself; and Nell is, dimly, suspicious of where Compass's financial backing is coming from. In the loose-living circles that they frequent, it would be easy for Nell to lose her trust in Charlie, and suspect he was cheating on her, but she trusts completely in his faithfulness. What niggles at her is the loose threads that never quite seem to make sense - like the story on the coup in Guatemala that she wrote for Compass, but which was rejected at the last moment. Flashing forward beyond 1963, we see Nell uncovering the truth behind her suspicions, but also realising that some of her questions will never be answered. A particularly satisfying thread in The Unwitting is the way in which Feldman turns the traditional plot - a woman's happy marriage is shattered by the discovery of adultery - on its head, by suggesting that, for Nell at least, there are worse crimes than sexual unfaithfulness.

As in Scottsboro and Next to Love, her two previous novels, I admired Ellen Feldman's deft, precise and clever writing in The Unwitting. Like Next to Love, it can occasionally read like a bit of a 'tick-box' approach to social inequalities, covering race, religion and gender. I felt that Feldman's approach was more subtle here than in the earlier novel, however; for example, in her handling of Nell's relationship with the one major black character, Woody, an old boyfriend from her college days. Here, Nell's ideals trip her up; when travelling with a group of Americans, including Woody, to Russia in overcrowded sleepers, she is placed in a sleeper with Woody and another black couple. Worried that Woody is trying to rekindle the spark between them, she starts to protest, and the organiser of the trip reacts immediately: 'Oh, lordy, what was I thinking? Putting a white woman in with three Negroes'. Nell has no choice: 'I told her I'd bunk with Woody and the Delaneys.' At other times, however, The Unwitting feels a little shallow, a little too neatly-constructed, although it is never less than gripping. Feldman undercuts the tidiness of her plotting occasionally, and the story becomes stronger when she does. For example, near the end of the novel, Nell re-encounters Frank Tucker, her boorish dinner guest; although she still deplores his sexism, his penchant for 'pretty, leggy girls', she has to admit that he is one of the few figures from her 1950s circle who really stuck to his principles.

Feldman's grasp of structure and suspense is incredibly assured. Nell, too, is a convincing character. However, I doubt there is enough depth in The Unwitting for me to want to read it again. Some of the publicity compares the book to Ian McEwan's recent Sweet Tooth (which I was dubious about for entirely unrelated reasons), but, outside the Cold War setting, the comparison isn't that accurate. It reminded me most of Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, which also negotiates a marriage that is 'political' in the broadest sense - although under far more scrutiny than Nell's and Charlie's - and a wife's ultimate choice between her husband and her own principles. In comparison to Sittenfeld's writing, however, Feldman gives us less to think about beyond the obvious, and is so economic with her narrative choices that the novel feels over-schematic. Nevertheless, I will certainly read her next book.

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