October 2003

Jen Crispin

fiction

The Hunters by Claire Messud

Ah, the strange predicament of the novella writer. They're seemingly too short to publish singly, yet how to group them into collections? Thematically? Chronologically? Randomly? Sometimes these groupings work, and sometimes they just don't. Claire Messud's The Hunters is one of those cases where it just doesn't.

The Hunters is comprised of two novellas, "A Simple Tale," and the title story. "A Simple Tale" is the story of Maria Poniatowski, a Ukrainian woman who moved to Canada after WWII, and became a housecleaner. Maria is widowed, partially estranged from her only son and his family, and seeing her pool of clientele shrink as the women she works for, mostly contacts made in the first few years after the war, gradually succumb to old age. It is the story of a woman in exile, who lives her entire adult life in a country that does not share her values nor her native tongue. Maria's character is sympathetic, and her story draws the reader in.

After the simple delight of "A Simple Tale," "The Hunters" was a big disappointment. "A Simple Tale" I read hungrily, but after wading about ten pages in to "The Hunters," I put the book down and could not bring myself to pick it up again for over a month. When I finally came back to it, I found the story to get slightly more engaging, but it still paled in comparison to the first novella.

"The Hunters" was off-putting from the start, as the narrator (whose gender is not revealed) spends pages obsessing over the change in the millennium. Here I suppose the fault could be in myself, the reader, for I could not separate my enjoyment of the book from my utter boredom with the theme of changing millennia. The hype over the new millennium was so overplayed that I was bored with it before the date ever changed, now two (or three, depending on how you count) years later, I find the topic still bores me. I hoped that once we were past this bump, we could settle down and I could find some other means of identifying with the narrator, but this hope was never realized.

It started, I suppose, with the mystery of the narrator's gender (which I did actually not realize until half-way through the novella, early on I had read the feminine into some pronoun or other and had assumed the narrator was a woman from that point forward). It was not half so cleverly done as Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body and worse, there seemed to be no point to it.

The narrator is an academic on sabbatical who has rented a flat in a run-down area of London. During the day s/he goes to the libraries to research attitudes on death through time, and during the day s/he returns to the flat, to sit in the dark and spy on the neighbors across the way, or develop obsessive fantastical theories about his/her downstairs neighbors, a woman and her mother, the woman being the only person who regularly intrudes into the narrator's anonymous existence. The narrator never gets involved in anything. Not in research, it seems, for we never hear of it. Not in the lives of the neighbors, as s/he avoids contact with them as much as possible, and tries to cut short what contact does occur. The narrator merely remains a passive observer throughout the story, so it seems difficult for the reader to get involved as well.

I am sure that "The Hunters" would not have been half as disappointing had it not occurred in the shadow of "A Simple Tale." As it is, however, I am very sorry that the two novellas were not published separately. I am sorry that after enjoying "A Simple Tale," I had to trudge through "The Hunters" before I could write a review. I am sorry that if I recommend The Hunters to anyone, they will have to pick up both stories together. And mostly I am sorry that it was not one of Messud's novels, When the World Was Steady, or The Last Life that I happened upon after "A Simple Tale." If one could judge reliably by Messud's online fans, either would have converted me to permanent adoration of her writing, and I could have easily overlooked the shortcomings of "The Hunters."

The Hunters by Claire Messud
Harvest Books
ISBN: 0156007312
208 Pages