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March 8, 2011

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

That it took a bit of time for me to really get into Elizabeth Jenkins’ novel The Tortoise and Hare might be chalked up to my post-vacation stupor, or my struggle to believe in a manly man who is called Evelyn, but regardless, I overcame it, and surely this is a book entirely worthy of its gorgeous cover. Though on second thought, I do wonder if the trouble wasn’t all mine– this is a strange book that takes time to find its story, digresses away from the main point of view in jarring ways, and is rife with unclear pronouns, all of which, when compounded with jet-lag, hindered me a bit. But I got over it, I did, about a third of the way in, and then I was sucked into the story which took me exactly where I knew that it would go, but managed to surprise and horrify me all the same. As though I didn’t want to find out what would happen next, I couldn’t stop reading either, one thing after another in a display of terrifying inevitability.

What strikes me most about the story is how its main players don’t conform to type. Beautiful, elegant Imogen isn’t troubled when her husband Evelyn (!) strikes up a close friendship with their neighbour, Blanche Silcox. Blanche and Evelyn have much in common, but dumpy Blanche in her hideous hats poses no threat to Imogen, which is not to say that all is well in Imogen’s marriage, of course. Her relationship is founded on her being the object of her husband’s affections (which she is unable to properly return in a physical fashion) and has come to seem groundless now that her husband’s affections have waned, and there is the question of their horrible son, Gavin, who has about as much respect for his mother as his father does (which isn’t any). But surely this is the way that marriage goes, though she does allow herself to hope for resurrection of happiness now past.

So the two have grown apart, and there is the question of how much they were ever together, and as the novel progresses, Blanche begins to creep further and further into the relationship (and altogether deliberately, Imogen notes, though Evelyn doesn’t see this) until she finally comes between them. Through being everything that Imogen isn’t, Blanche somehow managed to make herself the unlikely but perfect companion for Evelyn– sensible, adoring, smart, rugged, and capable.

The true power of the novel, however, is that Imogen isn’t simply the opposite of these things. She is an avid reader (and there is some wonderful bookishness here), she takes an interest in her husband’s affairs, she is absolutely capable in her own way, but her confidence and countenance are flatly undermined by Evelyn’s disdain for her intelligence and sensibilities. Silcox’s opposite, however, is shown in Zenobia, a gorgeous, ostentatious, idiotic woman who, Imogen one day suddenly realizes, is the type of woman she herself becoming by continuing (and failing) to be the kind of woman she imagines men like Evelyn want to be in love with– Imogen’s moment of recognition is the novel’s finest moment.

The subtlety here isn’t Pymian, the kind where a character brews a pot of tea and manages to articulate the entire British class system, but rather the subtlety is in the plot, which unfolds with such unruffled swiftness that it’s barely noticeable, and absolutely unstoppable. Agonizing, and perfect, and I would have preferred to see Blanche Silcox hit by a bus in the end, or impaled on a fence rail (because the woman is pure evil, no bones about it), I have no doubt there will be justice somewhere beyond Jenkins’ final page, and I am convinced that it’s really Imogen who comes out of it all in triumph.

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