Dear Thief/Samantha Harvey: Reflections on a brilliant novel

Monday, December 8, 2014

I'm not sure how many books have been added to my library courtesy of the great critic James Wood—which is only to say that I read his essays, and I believe him. But this weekend, thanks to this Wood review in The New Yorker—this welcome defense of the odd in literature—I bought Samantha Harvey's Dear Thief.

And swooned.

Those wanting a plot summary will have to do (here) with this single sentence: A woman, middle-aged, is writing a letter to the friend that she loved and hated and loves still, and still hates.

What matters, mostly, is the way that letter is written, the compression and elegance of time that it portrays, the unreliability of testimony and the sick power of delusion (self delusion, the delusion of others), and the sentences, one after another, so brilliant.

The voice.

The anti-instructions on writing, like this:
I have wondered about this kind of thing for the last hour, sitting here turning the piece of Roman jet in my hand and trying distractedly to think of ways of describing it. This is what writing does to you, it seems, it turns objects that used to be just things in your life into things that must be described, and at the same time makes them feel increasingly indescribable.
The statements of paradoxical fact (perfectly bound up with the novel, perfectly true within our own lives):
I wonder if not being able to see ourselves is one of the great paradoxes of being alive—knowing oneself intimately and also not at all. You turn to look at your own profile in the mirror and it is gone. It means we can harbour all kinds of illusions about ourselves that others can see through as clear as day. What I mean is that if you had been able to see yourself objectively that afternoon you might have realised that the game was lost, but instead I think you fancied yourself in some little role in which you were the heroic returner, the one much waited for, the one who would be forgiven by some obscure law of justice that grants immunity to the tragic.
The articulation of life:
We encroach on one another, be it painfully or pleasurably, we encroach and run into each other, and this is what we know fondly or otherwise as life. It is not life to think that to love somebody is never to be where they are and never to intrude upon them.
Obviously I need to say no more.

Just buy it.


Katrina said...

Beth, I felt the same way upon reading the Woods review -- so grateful for this kind of considered, impassioned, generously intelligent criticism. And now, you. So, yes, I'm buying it. I'm buying two. Thank you, friend!

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