Saturday, 27 December 2008

Thomas Tryon's 1974 Lady is a type of murder mystery and coming-of-age story mingled within a morality tale about intolerance, which ends after WWII. Starting with the 8-year-old Woody's meeting with Adelaide Harleigh on a partially frozen lake during the Depression, we see through young eyes a perfect world change into a garden filled with dangers.

There are many serpents, but the most terrible by far is greed. Old Man Harleigh wants an heir by his feckless son Edward, and Old Mrs Strasser wants a comfortable life by her lovely daughter Adelaide. Only the old woman wins but, in the end, neither do, for Lady will puncture the fragile respectability of the Connecticut town's old guard by doing the unthinkable: she will fall in love.

As Germany waxes robust in Europe, Woody discovers how thin is the veneer that Lady has built up around herself over the years. Her affair with the man who now works as her housekeeper is more than scandalous. He is black and, although Woody loves Lady, he will betray her by proxy, even though it wasn't Woody who blew the whistle.

That distinction belongs to Mrs Sprague who, wheedling information from a young handicapped girl, unearths a secret a 1940s New England town cannot stomach. Yet, despite it all, and despite Woody's innocence and subsequent feelings of anger and betrayal, Lady doesn't buckle.

Her early life with Edward was more difficult than this. Forced by her mother to marry the young man who, in turn, was forced into marriage by his father, Lady suffers abuse and insult for years, along with two miscarriages. Finally, recovered with the help of Jesse, a Caribbean medical student working as an orderly in the sanatorium she went to after losing her second baby - and her power of speech - she gets rid of Edward by infection - the war brought a deadly influenze to the world.

Lady has a long story, and a sad one. She seems to overcompensate through kindnesses bestowed on Woody and his brothers and sisters. Their own father died and their mother struggles to keep food on the table. Thanksgiving and Christmas are celebrated with Lady. Woody grows up, enlists in the Navy, and goes off to fight the Japanese.

After the war, he returns and, with the help of Miss Berry - now in her nineties - discovers all the details of Lady's story.

Tryon, born in 1929 and initially a movie actor, weaves a strikingly good tale using both mystery, romance (the young boy and the unreachable, ethereal, true-friend Lady), and morality to excellent effect. He uses events in the town to create drama and suspese. He makes a credible plot with substantial characters who are true to form, if not always to life.

The wonderful storm scene, coming at a critical point in the novel - Woody's admission that it was not him who told the town Lady's secret - adds suspense and drama.

Especially in the early parts, the novel is written in the same sort of form as a childrens story, or series of story books. The same characters reliably appear, act out parts in a way that is consistent with their characters, and retire to leave the centre of the stage to Woody and Lady.

The form is reassuring. It is also suitable for the nature of the book, the majority of which takes place during Woody's childhood. There is plenty of real art here and I wonder why this extremely talented writer does not have a higher profile. This may have something to do with the fact that Tryon left acting to write.

It's hard to imagine how an actor could become a successful novelist (he died in 1991). But, then again, it's hard to credit the amount of praised allowed Pynchon, also a New Englander, though still alive.

2 comments:

David Kessler said...

Excellent review of one of my favourite books. I read Lady in my late teens and it moved me deeply, although I felt at the time that there was a lot that I didn't understand. Whilst I was conversant with modern American politics and used to hang out with Americans (I was living in Israel at the time), I was still at the end of the day, a young British reader and not really conversant with the ethos and culture of 1930s America.

I am desperately trying to get hold of a copy to read it again (I lost my old copy), although I suspect it will leave me with that same breathless, melancholy feeling that I experienced the first time.

Matt da Silva said...

David, if you send me an address (info@matthewdasilva.com) I can mail the book to you (if I can find it!). You can keep it as long as you want and send it back if you don't need it any more. Happy to help.