I thought I would like this a lot more than I did. I usually love an unreliable narrator and reading between the lines to find the real story, but in this case Aroon is unreliable in her naivety rather than having any agenda or trickery.
The St Charles are the last throws of a dying set of Anglo-Irish landed gentry in Ireland in the early 20th century. Aroon, 57 at the start of the novel, is the last remaining child, on the first page we see her (probably) kill her elderly mother with rabbit mouse and then she tells us her history from neglected child to bitter spinster.
Brought up sheltered on their crumbling estate with distant parents and only a governess to learn anything of the world Aroon is too inexperienced and naïve to interpret any of the “good behaviour” going on around her. Her neglectful and cold mother would rather be at her hobbies, only paying attention to her more attractive child Hubert. Her father is often away and has innumerable affairs outside and inside the house with staff. Her brother Hubert is her only friend and even he cruelly uses her as a cover for his love affair with his friend Richard, not that she ever picks up on this herself.
While is some fun to be found reading between the lines of Aroon’s ignorance in her own story, but over time it felt increasingly cruel to me. The humiliations, both those she is able to recognise and those that sail over her head, start to pile up. At the same type her own snobbish attitude (refusing rare offers of friendship because she’s “Aroon St Charles” for god sake) – and often it felt wilful self-delusion – put limits on my sympathy for her. In the end I found I wasn’t really rooting for anybody, and once she does finally get a win right at the end everything rang hollow as all feeling had leached out of the St Charles household, leaving only petty grievances behind. Which, I suppose was the point, and perhaps a genius bit of writing, but not particularly satisfying for me as a reader who prefers some emotional engagement!
It is incredibly well written, and the characters are sharply drawn enough to be believable as real people. There is enough in this text that it has inspired me to write far more than I typically do in a review! I understand why this got a Booker nomination in 1981, and why its considered a modern classic.
I just didn’t like it was much as I thought I might!