Tuesday, July 12, 2016

PHYLLIS PAUL, Twice Lost (1960)

A few years ago, a friend introduced me to Peter Weir's 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock, a sort of artsy thriller, set in 1900, with all sorts of ominous symbolism and suggestiveness, about a group of Australian schoolgirls on a school trip to Hanging Rock, a geologic formation (apparently properly called a mamelon) in Victoria. The movie divides viewers, because the disappearance of three of the girls and one mistress on (or into?) the rock, followed by the reappearance of one of the girls, traumatized and apparently unable to recall (or unwilling to reveal) anything, remains unresolved at the end of the film. The movie was based on a 1967 novel of the same name by Australian novelist Joan Lindsay, who had apparently drafted a final chapter explaining the disappearances, which was removed prior to publication. (It was finally published in 1987 as The Secret of Hanging Rock, though a synopsis on Wikipedia, which takes the story firmly into the realm of the supernatural or mythology and thus dissipates the eerie unexplainability of the rest of the story, seems less satisfying to me than no solution at all).

I loved the movie, for all of its vague suggestions and implications, its portrayals of young women (possibly) breaking free of Victorian sexual repression and of two young men who become obsessed with the disappearances, not to mention a brilliant performance by Rachel Roberts as the repressive headmistress of the school who seems to come to her own day of reckoning with the rock. (As an aside, I've only just learned that Roberts was married for a time to Rex Harrison, for those interested in movie trivia.)

This more or less irrelevant trip down my personal cinematic memory lane is just some background for saying that my recent reading of Phyllis Paul's hypnotic Twice Lost, about the disappearance of a 7-year-old girl from an English village, and its repercussions in subsequent years, brought the film back to mind. It also brought to mind Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, undoubtedly a closer literary relative (some of Paul's other works have garnered comparisons to James as well), in that the strategy of both writers is to render practically every detail of the events described uncertain.

Deborah Kerr in the best screen adaptation (in my opinion)
of The Turn of the Screw, 1961's The Innocents

James's classic tale, for anyone who hasn't read it (and by all means do, if you haven't), is about a governess with her two charges in a remote country estate, who is either battling two ghosts determined to possess or destroy the children or, perhaps, is hallucinating and endangering the children herself. It's a brilliant ghost story, but an entirely uncertain one, depending how one reads it. The reader is not only restricted, in the main narrative, to what the governess herself reports of the events in her first-person narration—which could be inaccurate if she is or was having bouts of madness—but her report is itself framed by a character, Douglas, who claims to have known the governess and to be faithfully repeating her tale. Not to mention the fact that James's novella is itself narrated in the first person by an unnamed character listening to Douglas's narration. At every layer of which lurk potential misunderstandings or concealments.

In Twice Lost, it's not untrustworthy narrators creating the uncertainty, but rather endlessly conflicting bits of evidence, lies, and fragmentary knowledge, as well as conflicting interpretations of characters' behaviors. In brief (if not simply): A 7-year-old girl—possibly mistreated and neglected, but also possibly manipulative and dishonest—disappears without a trace following a tennis party, having been escorted home by 17-year-old Christine Gray, who thereafter becomes obsessed with the disappearance and with her decision to leave the girl outside her house rather than seeing she got inside. Several other characters are also in various ways haunted and disturbed by the girl's disappearance—and even more so by her possible reappearance eleven years later. There's the girl's indifferent stepmother, who was too busy having a grand time after the tennis party to see her stepdaughter home; her possibly abusive father, one of whose valuable bibelots the girl may have stolen and then lost, making her afraid to return home; Christine's pious mother who places ominous Biblical quotations around their house; an aging bestselling author, who was negotiating to buy the large abandoned house where the girl may have met her fate (and whose current tome happens to be about the beneficial aspects of cruelty to society as a whole); the author's son, obsessed with his father's success and with driving him to write more and better; and the son's wife.

Paul twists and turns the situations and character motivations and plot developments so intricately that one always feels, from the beginning of the novel to its final page, that one is just on the verge of finding out what "really" happened, only to have the latest clues also contradicted or shown to rest on shaky foundations of doubt, of possible dishonesty, hallucination, impersonation, ego, or vengeance. By the end, I was nearly holding my breath hoping that Paul could somehow devise an ending that would simultaneously put a satisfying spin on it all (or, as James would have said, one more turn of the screw) and yet allow the whole delicate house of cards to stand. Reading the final chapter, I thought for a moment that Paul had caved to the pressure of revealing all, of making everything clear and thus scattering the carefully-balanced cards, but indeed, even what at first appears to be a definite explanation for it all is undercut and cast in doubt.

Undoubtedly, your own feelings about this novel will depend in large part on how you feel about stories that create uncertainty rather than dispelling it. If you enjoy "indeterminate" tales, though, you'll likely be stunned by Paul's tour de force performance here. Just looking back over the novel before writing this post, I came across multiple additional details that I had forgotten, which cause even more ripples of uncertainty to spread throughout the whole tale. It almost makes me, with my obsessive nature, want to create a list—or, better still, a spreadsheet—trying to document all of the details provided that contradict or render unlikely or impossible other parts of the story. But I think I will refrain…

Who would have thought that a novel in which practically nothing about the central plot is revealed with any degree of definiteness could be so satisfying? But for me this one was, and I can't wait to sample another of Paul's books. In fact, a copy of her acclaimed earlier novel A Cage for the Nightingale, reprinted a while back by Sundial Press (which seems, by the way, to be returning to life after a year or two of inactivity—their long-delayed edition of F. M. Mayor's one volume of stories, The Room Opposite, now shows a release date of July 30, so here's hoping that's true!), is already winging its way across the Atlantic to me.


  1. This sounds really smashing, Scott! I do love The Picnic at Hanging Rock. I think that when it comes to stories that set out to unsettle/disturb/scare/whatever, the unexplained is far more effective than the explained.

    1. I agree, Kacper. Uncertainty is somehow just eerier than when we know exactly what is happening. It requires a particularly skillful author to use it effectively, though, and I think Phyllis Paul manages it well.

  2. I have never seen The Innocents, because when I was in college, I took a James class one term, and read Turn of the Screw and was so frightened..................I was still living at home and stayed up very late into the night reading to finish (and haven't we all done that!) and then was too frightened to go from one end of the house to my room at the other, because i had to pass large expanses of windows, and who knew what might be out there.................I finally walked into a piece of furniture, injured my leg, crashed a lot, and my parents called (to put it nicely) WHAT the HELL are you doing out there, and when I told them - were pretty much disgusted. Picnice at Hanging RAoack - another book, another movie of which I have seen clips, and read snippets ABOUT - and am too scared off to look into. However, Scott, I am ashamed of you for not knowing Rachel Roberts had been married to Rex Harrison! If it was not YOUR BIRTHDAY (!!!) today - I'd call you out on it. Instead - I may take a peek at picnic - and many happy returns!

    1. Thanks for remembering my birthday, Tom! Maybe it's for the best that you haven't watched The Innocents, based on your past experiences! I should probably have mentioned The Others, with Nicole Kidman, as well, which reminds me of Turn of the Screw, but I don't want you to be hiding under your bed...

    2. Have seen The Others! Scary - and it was in a doctor's waiting room (!) so I was trapped. Now, on a lighte note, have you ever seen Rachel Roberts in "Foul Play?" some years later?

    3. Oh, yes, I was forgetting that that was Rachel Roberts too. Quite a different kind of role for her!


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