This 1981 novel by Molly Keane starts with the ending, in which narrator Aroon St Charles serves her elderly and ailing mother a dish of rabbit, even though she always gets sick when she eats rabbit. Upon smelling the rabbit, Aroon’s mother picks up her fork, vomits, and dies. Their servant, Rose, turns on Aroon, and years of resentment rise to the surface:
“Madam’s better off the way she is this red raw minute. She’s tired from you—tired to death. Death is right. We’re all killed from you and it’s a pity it’s not yourself lying there and your toes cocked for the grave and not a word more about you, God damn you!”
Aroon, however, keeps her cool and goes to call the doctor:
While I waited for the exchange (always criminally slow) to answer, I had time to consider how the punctual observance of the usual importances is the only way to behave at such times as these. And I do know how to behave—believe me, because I know. I have always known. All my life so far I have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives. I have liked for the people dearest to me, and I am at a loss to know why their lives have been at times so perplexingly unhappy. I have given them so much, I have given them everything, all I know how to give—Papa, Hubert, Richard, Mummie.
The rest of the book is Aroon’s looking back on her live and how she has given so much to a family that never seemed to appreciate her.
It becomes evident rather quickly that even though Aroon remembers a lot about her childhood and early adulthood, she doesn’t understand much of it, largely because her well-to-do family is obsessed with observing all “the usual importances” and never letting on when the reality is not what it ought to be. The suicide of a nanny, Aroon’s father’s many affairs, and the love affair between Aroon’s brother and his college friend, Richard, are never spoken of explicitly, although everyone seems to know about them and understand the implications of them. Everyone, that is, except Aroon. The family’s obsession with good behaviour keeps Aroon in the dark, living a fantasy of her own making.
Aroon is, by nature, an exuberant person. She dances in her room and gamely goes on hunts, even though she’s not a particularly good horsewoman. Her large size, both in height and bulk, seem like a visible manifestation of her big personality. But the fashion of the day is to be tiny, so she binds up her breasts, just as she binds up her liveliness and attempts to live within the rules.
This description makes Aroon sound like an admirable rebel, an iconoclast living in the wrong time. But she isn’t. She’s more pathetic than that, largely because she’s not clever enough to see the tragedy of her situation. Instead, she dreams of being the person she’s supposed to be and remains as obsessed with the rules as anyone. Even when breaking the rules could bring comfort, as a little forbidden whiskey comforts her father in his old age, Aroon will have none of it. The doctor says no whiskey, so there will be no whiskey, even if its only ill effect is to hasten an already imminent death. Besides, focusing on such trivial infractions allows Aroon to close her eyes to the love triangle between the servant Rose, Aroon’s father, and Aroon’s mother. That’s too big to even look at. Better to worry over minor infractions, to keep up appearances.
The novel ends more than 30 years earlier than its beginning. What happened in the years between? It’s hard to say exactly. But these characters have placed themselves in such a pressure cooker that resentments can only build and build and only be released through an explosion.Keane never tells exactly what led up to Aroon’s fateful decision in the first chapter of the book. We have to intuit and read between the lines. That’s perhaps all to the good, because I don’t think this is the sort of book that benefits from having things spelled out. It’s all about getting under appearances and seeing truths that are never spoken of.
This is the sort of book I find that I admire more than I like. I appreciated the way Keane developed her characters and let Aroon be both pitiable and impossible to like very much. But the characters’ lives are difficult to grab hold of and care about. Writing about it has increased my admiration, and it’s possible that it will grow in my esteem as I think about it more. Sometimes the really complex books need a little more time to gel.