Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 21, 2017

A World of Other People, by Steven Carroll

Egged on by Naomi and Travellin’ Penguin after I read The Lost Life, I decided to continue onto Book 2 of Steven Carroll’s Eliot Quartet instead of reading something else.  And I’m glad I did, it’s a wonderful book.

TS Eliot is both a major and a minor character in A World of Other People.  His appearances are brief and he is aloof and remote – but his poem ‘Little Gidding’ (from Four Quartets) is more significant than he knows.  It is a decade since the events of The Lost Life and now he is a firewatcher on the roof of Faber and Faber, where he is joined for the nightly vigil by Iris, a young woman with a boring job in the army but who also does her duty by night during the Blitz.

Duty is a key theme in the novel.  Iris has been gently manipulated into becoming engaged to a young man called Frank.  It’s a sign of the times: he’s a nice young man, but she’s not in love with him.  She just didn’t know how to say no when he was about to report for duty and produced the ring.  He wants someone to wait for him, to be his girl and to sustain him through danger.  She knows that, she knows he might get killed, and she knows the situation is because of the war.

It’s the war.  It’s the war doing that.  It’s one of those phrases going round.  And she doesn’t like it. For she is trained in language and this phrase is sloppy.  There’s something wheeled out and mechanical to it.  A substitute for thinking.  She swears she’ll never use it again.  The war may reduce her to using beetroot juice for lipstick when the occasion arises, but she is determined it will not reduce her to cliché. (p.19)

But before Iris knows it she is trapped in the cliché of the eternal triangle.  In a park in Bloomsbury, she sees a young pilot sitting still like a statue, and she goes to see if he is alright.  Jim is suffering from what we now call PTSD and survivor guilt, after his bomber crashed with the loss of all his crew.  And though she’s initially wary of getting involved, and he thinks he is doomed never to rejoin the world of other people, they fall in love.

Carroll is much too good a writer to reduce this to a slushy wartime romance.  The novel is narrated from the point of view of Iris, whose thoughts we know in detail, and of Jim, whose mental state is depicted in fragments which alternate between hope and despair.  Iris forgets about Frank’s ring in her drawer at home, and lives for the moment.  But then there is news that Frank is missing, and she becomes conscious of her place in a reproving society, a society of ‘good’ girls who wait for their missing men, and the ‘bad’ ones who don’t.

And then TS Eliot does a public reading of his poem ‘Little Gidding’ – which references the bomber that Jim was flying.  It’s not quoted in the novel, but this is the passage, the ‘dove’ being the dove painted on the side of Jim’s doomed bomber as it flew low over London past the firewatchers, and the lines ‘the only hope, or else despair’ alluding to either the end of Berlin, or the end of London, a prospect that seemed very likely in 1942 when Eliot wrote this poem:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

(‘Little Gidding’, Four Quartets by T S Eliot, in Collected Poems 1909-1962, Faber & Faber, 1963, p.221)

The allusion to the dove breaks through Jim’s suppressed memories, and he relives the horror of the final moments in the plane.

A World of Other People is a heart-breaking book, reminding us how it is always the young who bear the brunt of wars.  And it’s also passionately human.  Here is Jim,  silently confronting Eliot’s dispassionate demeanour (the narration becoming more vivid as it slides between third and first person):

Jim stares directly back at him.  And in that moment they are equals.  They are one and the same, for they each, Jim immediately recognises, inhabit a world of other people.  For you and me the world is other.

[…]

That was my plane.  That was my kite.  We died that night, but you saw only an idea.  A useful idea.  A way of saying things you hadn’t known how to say until we burst from the clouds and showed you.  We weren’t real, were we?  None of it is real, is it?  Ash, old men, houses with the life burned out of them.  None of it.  And will the applause, the applause you nod in recognition of, will the applause sting one day?  Will it sting when you know, and I know, that when you should have been moved to care, you were taking notes instead?  (p.209)

It’s an old dilemma, one that we feel whenever journalists bring us stories of disasters, and we wonder how anyone could stand there taking notes and shooting pictures of human suffering instead of trying to help.  Iris, who finally learns the truth about what Jim has been through from Eliot’s poem, because she was there on the roof with him, thinks about it too:

And drifting, floating back along the wide street, vaguely aware of the sandbags and the soldiers on guard at the occasional public building, it’s the power of words that she’s dwelling on: to bring pleasure, to bring pain, to bring comfort, or to bring the terror of hard truth.  (p.254)

Steven Carroll’s new novel is called A New England Affair.  The blurb tells me that it’s set in 1965 when TS Eliot is dead, and Emily Hale from The Lost Life, the muse who never was his wife or his lover, hears the news.  I’ll read that soon too.

BTW I know I’ve moaned about the cover before, but honestly, the person who designed this (and the ones who approved it) have no idea.  It’s derived from a morning scene where Iris has left her lover in bed and stands in front of the open window wrapped in  blanket (because it’s London in September and it’s cold).  And what do we have?  Iris déshabillé and no sign of the blackout curtains that were mandated during the Blitz.   I am trying not to be too literal about this and to allow for some artistic licence, but I can’t escape the conclusion that the designer has no idea.  No idea at all.

Author: Steven Carroll
Title: A World of Other People
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), 2013
ISBN: 9780732291204
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $24.99

Available from Fishpond: A World of Other People


Responses

  1. The bare backs of glamorous women sell books. Never mind about the realism of blackout or blanket. The whole point of a cover is not to illustrate, but to sell.

    • So they say, Carmel, but this kind of cover is more likely to put me off. If the book hadn’t been by Steven Carroll I wouldn’t have looked at it.

      • Quite so. But you are not the wider target audience.

        • True. *sigh*

        • I wonder who the target audience is? Aren’t educated women who take books seriously the most likely to buy this one?

          • Well, yes, it’s literary fiction, so its readership, male and female, would tend to be better educated, I guess. (Though I don’t think the converse is true: I’m not implying that people who read other kinds of fiction are less well-educated, because I know people better educated than me who like to read all kinds of genres).
            Whatever about that, I don’t think writing about an educated woman subverting her life to a man’s necessarily would put off women readers – or readers of any gender who care about the autonomy of women. For a start, I think we need to be careful about only reading books that accord with our own world view… otherwise it’s like reading in an echo chamber. But also, this book looks carefully at why Emily did what she did, which shines a light on why people (of either gender) still put their lives into the service of an other, who might or might not be doing great things. It made me think for example, of Hazel Hawke, an intelligent, wise woman who put her ambitions to one side to enable Bob Hawke to achieve his ambitions. (And we all know what happened there). There’s another book, Gotland, by Fiona Capp, which tackles the same issue but in a different way, see https://anzlitlovers.com/2014/05/22/gotland-by-fiona-capp/
            Would we have the genius of The Wasteland if TS Eliot had married in the ordinary way, had a brood of children and thus had to have a stable job? Who knows?

  2. I can’t believe the book designer had ever read a synopsis of this book. How could he/she come up with something so rose tinted when the book is clearly not romanticised.

  3. I didn’t know this writer so thanks for the info – sounds good. Agree about the cover

    • Simon, with your knowledge of literature, you would love this ‘quartet.’ (He hasn’t written the fourth one yet). There is, for instance, right at the end an allusion to someone who plans to write a history of the English working class, which hasn’t been done before. Now, I knew of this book, (The Making of the English Working Class) because it was always being referenced when I was doing sociology at teacher’s college, though I only ever read excerpts of it. But my guess is that many people would have glanced over this allusion, just as I am quite sure that other allusions have passed me by. I would love you to read this book… can you get it in the UK?

      • Lost Life I can only find online as an audiobook but World OOPeople is available- will keep looking

        • Oh no, not an audio book, it wouldn’t work at all. Have you tried Abe Books?

  4. A lot of cover designs are like that – it can be irritating, can’t it?

    So happy to hear this one was good, too. Will be waiting on your reaction to book #3! :)

    • *chuckle* This is where I should have a little gif of Naomi’s foot, impatiently tapping while I finish reading the book!

      • Ha!

  5. A thoughtful and helpful review, thanks Lisa.

    • Thanks, Joanna, and welcome to chatting about books here at ANZ LitLovers!


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