A Shriek Heard Through a Wall

IN lesser hands, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's novel "Poet and Dancer" would read like a soap-opera episode on that fashionable malady, codependency.

Bruised children of divorce, first cousins Angel and Lara are polar opposites of each other. Angel delights her family with poems written in the snug solitude of her room. Will-o'-the-wisp Lara exasperates her kin.

Where Angel is contemplative, Lara is all action and impulse. From her youth she dreams of being a dancer because it allows her to justify and express her constant mood changes. Yet Lara lacks the discipline to persevere in dance class.

As in Jhabvala's other writing, there is an inexorable quality to "Poet and Dancer." Foreboding hangs over this pair like a dangling chandelier. You know from the start that there is going to be a big, noisy crash.

Some readers will recognize Jhabvala as the author of many novels about India or the screenwriter for the Merchant-Ivory film duo who produced such fare as "A Room with a View" and "Howard's End." In "Poet and Dancer," however, as in her 1983 novel "In Search of Love and Beauty," she concentrates on the lives of German refugees in New York. (Jhabvala is of German-Jewish heritage.)

While they are economically comfortable and professionally successful, the expatriates in her stories never achieve the luxuriousness nor the self-assurance of their European existence.

Angel and Lara are intimidated by life in New York City during the 1970s. The city's hubbub unsettles Angel, and she is happiest ensconced in a top-floor room of her mother's house, writing poetry. Throughout the novel, Jhabvala inserts cacophonous street noises as a kind of sound track reflecting the discord in Angel's spirit.

Angel's hankering for approval leads her to ethical paralysis. She agrees to abet Lara's adultery with Angel's father, Peter. Obviously no homebody, Lara is nonetheless vulnerable and readily wounded by the world she so impetuously engages. Angel moves into an apartment with Lara to disguise the adultery.

In the dim, gothic confines of the apartment, the cousins provoke the worst in each other. To maintain equanimity, Angel becomes progressively more protective of an increasingly abusive and reckless Lara. When Lara storms through the apartment, Angel picks up the mess. When Lara is caught shoplifting, Angel makes out a check.

Despite the intensity of her relationship with Lara, Angel has one friend in whom she confides. Rohit, an Indian emigre about Angel's age, is as acutely sensitive and bound to his family as is Angel. Moreover, Rohit has his own dark family secret.

This subplot permits Jhabvala to speculate on the extent to which families from such different cultures disregard their children's misdeeds in the hope that they will somehow rehabilitate themselves as they grow older.

The crash is not long in coming. Lara becomes more violent. When she announces that she no longer wants to live, Angel is caught up in her dank rejection of life. Their deaths - presumably a murder-suicide - decorously take place off-stage.

"Poet and Dancer" is told 20 years later from the perspective of a student of Lara's famous father. That distance accounts for some of the fiction's chilly detachment. But an equal portion of the distance from these characters owes to the distinctive aloofness of Jhabvala's writing.

Detachment is not a new fictional strategy for Jhabvala, but it served her better when she was observing the foibles of comical Westerners seeking spiritual fulfillment in India than it does in this exploration of psychic distress. While her writing is masterly and economical, the effect is dislocating, like hearing a shriek through a wall.

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