10 August 2010

Agatha Christie's Absent In the Spring

Agatha Christie we all know as the queen of mystery novels. However, the more unknown fact about her is that she wrote six novels on love and relationships under the pseudonym - Mary Westmacott. By that time, her reputation as a crime fiction writer was growing and both, the publishers and perhaps even Agatha didn't want to tamper with her set 'persona'. And hence, she took on a different name under which she published these books.

Absent In The Spring tells the story of a smug surburban housewife, Joan Scudamore, who is returning to London after visiting her married daughter in Baghdad. The setting appears Edwardian. A missed train, followed by torrential rains, delays her journey by a few days, forcing her to spend the time at a rest house in the middle of a desert. With no company at hand and having exhausted her stock of books, all she can do is let her mind wander. Decorous and straight-laced, Joan has come to pride herself on being a great wife and mother. She is convinced that she made a success of her life. Her smug attitude also makes her narrow-minded and discompassionate about many things. She tends to look down upon anyone who does not fit into her idea of how one ought to be leading their life. She pities them, and uses their 'failed' and 'sad' existence to feed her own self-esteem.

'I thank thee, Lord, that I am not as this woman.' .....
She had prayed that night at the railway rest house wrapped in that spurious mantle of superiority.

However, as she spends more time by herself, the rose-tinted glasses slowly start to wear thin and she wonders whether she has stiffled the dreams of her near and dear ones, in her persuit to keep up the right appearances. Many doubts start to cloud her mind. Did she pressurise her husband to join their family law firm, when his heart was really into farming? Were her daughters happy with her, or did they hate her interfearing ways? Why is it that everyone warmed up to her husband, but not so much her? Did her husband, who she always thought to be devoted to her, actually fall in love with one of their family friends?

Joan, having led an cushy life, and a fairly active social life, cannot handle the sudden feeling of being left alone. She gets restless and all kinds of thoughts enter her head. By the end of her stay at the rest house, she is convinced that she has been extremely unfair to her husband and fervently hopes to make amends. The anti-climax reveals how nature cannot be build or broken in a day.

It's a slim book and a very quick read. The story is engaging, but not particularly layered or original. Joan - decorous and dull - comes close to the character of the strait-jacketed May in Edith Wharton's Age Of Innocence. Similarly, the relationship shared between Joan's husband, Rodney and their common friend Leslie Sherston vaguely reminded me of the Melenie-Rhett relationship in Gone With The Wind.
Also, the author wastes no time in conveying to the reader what exactly she thinks of her protagonist. It's all laid out bare too soon so there isn't much left to discover about Joan. Also, one feels a certain lack of subtlty in the narrative, with the overuse of irony.

But it's still a story that connects and rings true.