The editor Robert Peett has written an essay about The Absent Woman, my novel recently published by Holland House Books in England. It illustrates why I consider myself fortunate, and why the right editor and publisher for a writer is often out there waiting, even though it may take a long time to find him or her. Here is his essay.
The Meaning of Absence
The Absent Woman, by Marlene Lee, was the first book we published under the Holland House imprint. It was a natural choice, and, in retrospect, the perfect one, a short, profound novel written in clear and elegant prose; written simply, with delicate shading and here and there a rich, arresting phrase that lives in the memory. ‘Simple’ seems to cry out for the cliché ‘deceptively simple’, but in fact the lines are laid on like thin glazes, building up depth and subtle effects without ever succumbing to trickery.
The basic story is also simple: Virginia Johnstone takes a three-month sabbatical from her job as a court reporter (in which capacity she only ever writes other people’s words about other people’s dramas) to stay in an unremarkable apartment in the unremarkable coastal town of Hilliard, in order find out how far she can go with her piano playing: both technically and in terms of musical understanding and aesthetic fulfilment. This is no Cinderella story, nor is it Rocky with a keyboard, nor even The Moon and Sixpence. She has no illusions about being a great concert pianist, and such an idea would be irrelevant. Nor is this simply about ‘art’, and one central character dismisses the modern obesession with being ‘artistic’ and asserts the importance of craft above all; Virginia is in some sense at the nexus of art and craft and above all this is about finding what, if anything, is inside her.
The story is a kind of rebirth, as Virginia has to find her way around a strange place, meeting new people and learning like a child; even her piano teacher seems at times like a mother figure (with the teacher’s husband the warm yet unknowable father) who is worshipped, whose praise at first means everything and from whom she must break free.
‘The Absent Woman’ is the title she gives the woman whose apartment Virginia has taken over, a woman who also had dealings, of a very different kind, with the piano teacher, and about whom Virginia gradually learns more during her time in Hilliard. Yet the novel is absences generally – one is tempted to say it is full of absence – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, and about trying to understand and fill those absences. Various concepts related to absence and presence – loss and discovery, deprivation and attainment, exile and home – thread through the story until there is a brief moment of resolution; or, to be precise, an exalted kind of resolution when art and craft, spiritual and physical, all meet, though there are both highs and lows throughout; the book has neither a happy ending nor an unhappy ending, but the beginning of a new day in her life.
A central theme too is that of choice and, as Keija Parsinnen remarked, there are echoes of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, albeit updated. This aspect did provoke some unexpected (to me at least) reactions from some readers and some people who attended Marlene’s readings. For they characterised Virginia as ‘abandoning her children’ and ‘being selfish’. The impression at times was that she had taken new-borns to the Amazonian jungle and dumped them. In fact, prior to the beginning of the novel Virginia and her husband have divorced, and he has custody of their two boys, aged ten and twelve – largely, it would seem, for financial reasons and because he, as a college professor, is more able to give them time. Virginia sees them regularly, and they stay with her in Hilliard, and the pain of separation, and her fears about her possible failure as a mother pervade the entire novel. Again there is absence – her absence from their lives and theirs from her life. What she knows is that for her to have stayed with their father would have been wrong for all of them, because there was an absence of love, a vacuum at the heart of the family. As for the selfishness – an unpaid sabbatical for three months is hardly the height of self-indulgence. Nevertheless, there is some truth in that accusation, in that she knows she has to do this (do something) entirely for herself. Yet even then she is concerned always about the impact on her children. It is hard not to think that these criticisms would not have been made had the protagonist been male.
The book came out in April, on Marlene Lee’s seventy-fourth birthday. It has been well received by authors such as Keija Parsinnen and Ella Leffland, who wrote a brief and insightful piece about Marlene, and has sold well; even those online reviews bothered by the narrator’s apparent offences against the maternal imperatives have delighted in the quality of the writing. Much of the success in selling goes to Marlene herself, giving charismatic readings from Columbia to New York. The work itself is full of pleasures and insights, and layers are continually coming to light, rich with absences and possibilities: a constant renewal of life.
The themes in The Absent Woman emerge in Marlene’s other work, the searching, the awareness of some lack, the importance of change and growth. Rebecca’s Road was released in October 2013, and Limestone Wall is scheduled for October 2014.