On a recent trip to Persephone Books in Bloomsbury, an American woman squashed herself between a table and a bookcase to examine out-of-reach titles. After perusing several identical pearl-gray books, she accidentally bought a copy of Isobel English’s Every Eye instead of Elizabeth Berridge’s Tell It to a Stranger.
But it turns out Isobel English is a stunning writer, so this American had no regrets. I read Every Eye while jolting around on the tube, resting on the steps of an unknown memorial, and slurping a Frappuccino.
English, a writer hitherto unknown to me, won the Katherine Mansfield Prize for her collection of short stories, Life After All. She was a friend of Stevie Smith, Olivia Manning, and Muriel Spark.
That said, her style is spare and mercilessly observant, and this is a small classic.
In the first sentence of this pitch-perfect novel, the narrator, Hatty, learns on a trip with her husband that her aunt Cynthia has died. She has not seen Cynthia in six years.
This news has affected me in a way that I did not expect. One minute I was all set with my resentments close-knit and compressed, and the next it was as if a great wave had suddenly crashed shorewards undercutting and breaking into the very foundations of my life.
This is a marvelous description of self-scrutiny after a death. As a child, Hatty loved Cynthia, but their relationship changed over the years.
Born with a lazy eye, Hatty is aware that this flaw has both shaped and intensified her vision. Though she had corrective surgery, she still prefers a broad-brimmed hat to tilt over the eye. In the course of the novel, she realizes that the figurative hat may have occluded her vision of Cynthia.
In Every Eye, Hattie alternates her musings on Cynthia’s subtle influence on her coming-of-age with an account of Hattie’s honeymoon trip with her younger husband to Ibiza, the island Cynthia had loved.
Lack of confidence has dogged Hatty, a pianist-turned-music teacher. The first time she met Cynthia, shortly before she married Uncle Otway, Hatty got rattled over a piece she was playing as Uncle Otway turned the pages. Not believing in her talent, Uncle Otway sent her to secretarial school. Eventually, she found work as a music teacher.
How did her relationship change with Cynthia? During Hatty’s affair with a middle-aged anthropologist, Jasper, a friend of Uncle Otway, Cynthia repeatedly tried to warn her it would not last. Of course Cynthia was right. But there is a missing piece to the puzzle.
The travels of Hattie and Stephen are breathtakingly described. The boring train rides, the acquaintance with strange travelers, the drinking of coffee and wine in cafes, and the trip to a fantastic shrine on a mountain. On the island of Ibiza, they discover a small detail that links them to Cynthia. Hattie finally understands Cynthia’s meddling.
A gorgeous book! Perhaps the best Persephone I’ve read. (Except for Rachel Ferguson’s Alas, Poor Lady.)