A New England Affair
This is the third novel in Steven Carroll’s T. S. Eliot collection, inspired by the poet’s famous Four Quartets series. Here, he interrogates the perspective of Eliot’s secret platonic mistress, the somewhat doomed Emily Hale, who we meet as a lonely eccentric self-described spinster in her late 70s, reflecting on the love that never was. The novel moves between the present-day Hale in 1965, having just learnt of Eliot’s death, to the beginnings of their celibate affair in 1913, and meanders off momentarily into a benign subplot involving two younger characters named Grace and Ted that does very little to enlighten or enhance an otherwise compelling narrative.
There is a healthy ribbon of rage woven throughout this book – rage at a wasted life, and at Hale’s existence being shelved for eternity as a sexless muse, inspiring myriad pages of Eliot’s hand-wringing O-what-could-have-been verse, but little in the way of genuine romantic commitment. Carroll obviously admires the iconic poet enough to devote four novels to him, though I can’t say A New England Affair paints Eliot in a particularly kind light. Overwhelmingly he presents as a selfish narcissist who kept a poor, loving, trusting woman from his past warming the bench until he felt mentally restored enough to take off and marry his much younger secretary (with whom he is alleged to have enjoyed “the happiest seven years of his life”).
The drowsy, boats-against-the-current rhythm of Carroll’s prose is an acquired taste and though he seems to favour phrase repetition as a deliberate style. Hence, “And so her daring was rewarded, and she gradually entered the life of her Tom once again: entered the years of his fame, but silently and invisibly so. Known only to a small circle of friends”, is followed a mere three paragraphs later by, “And so she entered the years of his fame ... But she was kept a secret. There, but not there. Known only to a few of Tom’s friends. The inner circle.” This irritating method of making the exact same point with sentences in a different order, like jumbled fridge magnets, occurs repeatedly through the novel and comes across less as a cunningly poetic device than a waste of a reader’s time.
Nevertheless Carroll has carved out a stark and simple portrait of yearning, stripping away any dizzy glamour of the role of an artist’s muse to present a far sadder and more pragmatic study. Hale deserved better; she deserved this novel at the very least. KR
HarperCollins, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2017 as "Steven Carroll, A New England Affair".
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