Sunday, 30 December 2012

Blaming (Elizabeth Taylor)

--The blurb--
"While on holiday in Istanbul, tragedy strikes, and suddenly the comfortably middle-aged, middle-class Amy is left stranded and a widow. Martha, a young American novelist, kindly helps her, but upon their return to England, Amy is ungratefully reluctant to maintain their friendship—on home soil she realizes that in normal circumstances, Martha isn't the sort of person she would be friends with. But guilt is a hard taskmaster, and Martha has a way of getting under one's skin..."

--The review--
Death has been a common theme in writing virtually since humans learnt to tell stories or put pen to paper. The process of grieving itself, however, is far less often explored. It is for this journey into love, loss and the process of absolving oneself of responsibility for actions that seem to factor in, at the time, to the death of others, that this lesser-known Elizabeth Taylor is one that should equally be a household name.

A contemporary of Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, and Jean Rhys, Taylor produced 12 novels between 1945 and 1976 but kept a relatively low profile and controversy-free life. Having started out as a librarian and tutor, she turned exclusively to writing following her marriage in 1936. Being determined to keep her private life private (to the point of destroying her own collection of letters), we cannot know how far exactly Blaming was derived from her own feelings. However, the authenticity of emotion involved means that it possibly does not come recommended for the recently bereft: it offers an insight into the extent of bewilderment and devastation that comes with the loss of a companion of so many years, and for this many readers will be reminded of relatives or even of themselves, coming out of the experience of reading Blaming feeling stronger or filled with greater admiration and empathy.

This experience as described by Taylor feels in no way unrealistic. There are no extraordinary events that we as readers feel could not happen to us, and in spite of protagonist Amy's passage through the classic stages of grief (including denial, anger and finally acceptance), Taylor's portrayal of these emotions does not feel hackneyed. Her pared-back style and carefully-chosen words mean that we are moved by the minimalist simplicity and rawness of the loss that has occurred, rather than being overwhelmed by layers and layers of complex description.

Taylor does layer in other ways, though: the 'blaming' of the title focuses not only on how far Amy can blame herself for the death of her husband (no matter how rational or irrational this may be) but also on the extent to which Amy could have changed the fate of acquaintance Martha (for whom the word "friend" does not seem quite right, for reasons that become clear during reading, even though friendship is what Martha tries to force on the grieving Amy). As well as grieving being explored relatively little in literature, it appears that this aspect of grief specifically is looked into very little, in spite of its validity.

The only criticism arguably lies in the notion that Taylor voices adults (men and women) far better than children: the grandchildren that feature in the story do not speak or act in a way that befits children, and it is clear that this is not one of the author's strengths. However, this happily does not detract too much from what we ultimately gain from Blaming.

That Taylor has been so consistently underrated is a shame: Blaming is elegant, concise, thought-provoking and heart-rending without falling into the traps of cliché and sentimentality. A timeless classic that paves the way for healing, regardless of the nature of our loss.

other works by Elizabeth Taylor
At Mrs Lippincote's (1945)
Palladian (1946)
A View of the Harbour (1947)
A Wreath of Roses (1949)
A Game of Hide and Seek (1951)
The Sleeping Beauty (1953)
The Real Life of Angel Deverell (1957)
In A Summer Season (1961)
The Soul of Kindness (1964)
The Wedding Group (1968)
Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont (1971)

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