We've been having an interesting conversation about Josephine Hart's novel Damage here recently,and coming up next, what I hope will be a grand hour with the Virago Book Club on Twitter at 2.30 pm today, when all thoughts will have to be condensed into the tweet limit of 140 characters. Meanwhile I have also been reading Sin, and what a great addition these books make to the Virago Modern Classics list.
Sin like Damage, is narrated in the first person though this time through a woman's voice, that of Ruth. A short name, that by her own admission bursts out and in sharp contrast to that of her adopted sister Elizabeth, all together a much gentler, more soothing sound. Ruth's jealousy and hatred of Elizabeth can be traced back to childhood. Elizabeth, meek,compliant, conciliatory in the face of conflict and seemingly subservient to Ruth in all she says and does...'seemingly' is the important word here, expect moments of quiet revelation towards the end.
Ruth meanwhile may be the vilest most hateful woman you are ever likely to trip over in fiction. Cool, calculating, dominant, bullish and malevolant, antagonistic and if evil is to be personified, Ruth's portrayal of herself is it. No shirking on Josephine Hart's part here, she really does go to the edge and look down at the drop with her fiction.
'I believe now that I was exposed too early to goodness and that I never recovered.
Trapped in the fierce grasp of Elizabeth's kindness, aware constantly of the truthfulness of her gaze, I suffocated on the high thinness of the air around her. The corrosive power of her generosity killed, as they rose in me, my own small instincts towards goodness.'
Think of the definition of a sociopath (there's a good resume here) and Ruth seems to fit the bill, and that feels like unusual territory for any writer, let alone a woman...to portray another woman in such extremis of personality disorder.
Widowed young it is Elizabeth's second husband Sir Charles Harding who eventually proves to be Ruth's nemesis as the balance of power shifts in the affair that Ruth purposefully steers herself towards. The carefully balanced scales of power find themselves weighted first this way and then that by packages of anger, or conscience, or even hints of remorse. A huge double family tragedy throws the spotlight on every relationship and the fall-out will be...well it will be... I'll say no more.
I am learning that one of the many gifts of Josephine Hart's writing is what she does to the reader.
In a similar way minus the sex, didn't George Eliot do likewise??
Present a character in a certain light...lull the reader into making harsh judgements...and then turn the tables on the reader's own prejudices..
And as Sin progressed, and I loathed Ruth more on every page, I could predict no way that Josephine Hart could possibly pull this round for me, nothing she could write in, no personal tragedy great enough that might redeem Ruth the Rotten in my eyes. All I was hoping for was a hang-drawing and quartering scene that took Ruth to four seperate corners of the world.
Nothing but nothing that Ruth could or might experience in her life would ever make me feel one single ounce of sympathy for her. No way.
Except it suddenly dawns on me that it is Ruth who has been telling me about herself, almost like a confessional....tRuth in other words but Ruthless too...it's all in the name. Deepest feelings and emotions concealed from those around her but her soul bared for me the reader.
So what right do any of us have to judge others at such a personal level??
When the devastation happens I think I was too far gone along the road of hatred to find my way back, virtually impossible to find that ounce of sympathy...much more likely to be heard muttering 'you deserved that' ... and then berating myself for thinking in that way, and contemplating the whole notion of forgiveness and at what point is that merited for one's own salvation.
And then, as if I'm not already done in and feeling wretched, Ruth has the audacity to turn the tables on me her really nice reader in her final summing up...
'We are here to add to the sum of human goodness. To prove the thing exists. And however futile each individual act of courage or generosity, self-sacrifice or grace - it still proves the thing exists. Each act adds to the fund. It needs replenishment. Not only because evil flourishes, and is most indefensibly defended, But because goodness is no longer a respectable aim in life, The hound of hell, envy, has driven it from the house.'
Yes, well Ruth if only you'd listened to what I was trying to tell you...
I suspect Sin is an object lesson in exactly that, sin and all its consequences, and a very powerful one it is too.
I had initially thought that Sin didn't pack quite the punch that Damage had??
Now that I've written this I take it all back.