Thursday, September 15, 2011

Its discomfitures become its pleasures... (Books - Good Behaviour by Molly Keane)

I received Molly Keane's Good Behavior as a prize for my participation in the First Annual Anita Brookner Day (thank you, Thomas). The Virago small-sized hard back was a pleasurable format both to hold and to read. It reminded me of the hard backed editions that were available when I was a kid, but enough of showing my age, now on to the contents.

Molly Keane has created in Aroon St. Charles a heroine of striking contrasts. She is a 'big' girl yet she cowers. She is of an aristocratic class and yet poor. She has an enormous and loyal heart, capable of great love, yet offers it only where it cannot be appreciated. Oh, does Aroon want to love and to be loved. It is the force that drives her. In this wickedly perceptive and humorous tale, Aroon grows up and claims her power. Keane creates character and atmosphere with sensuous detail.
Rose smelt the air, considering what she smelt; a miasma of unspoken criticism and disparagement fogged the distance between us. I knew she ached to censure my cooking, but through the years I have subdued her. Those wide shoulders and swinging hips were once parts of a winged quality she had - a quality reduced and corrected now, I am glad to say.
Keane is an economical writer both by being precise in her diction and by not explaining away every last detail of her story. I suppose some could say she is being oblique, but Keane is not unclear, she maintains Aroon's naivete in making the choice of assuming a first-person narrative voice. This is a sexual innocence, not a lack of sophistication in understanding the minds of others.
'Out for a walk.' She laughed deeply. She was as full of happiness and as eager to share it, as she had been desolate and removed all the afternoon. 'Suppose we have a Marie biscuit and a drop of hot milk.' She bustled towards the spirit stove and her tidy milk jug with the bead-weighted muslin cover over its top. Again, as on the evening by the sea, I knew that a space widened between us. I had felt closer to Mrs Brock, she had been nearer to me when I thought she needed my comfort.
Aroon can be deeply perceptive, however, the progress of her relationships start with a hunger for intimacy, but as others' needs get fulfilled elsewhere, Aroon fills herself instead with food and drink and the space widens, as she observes, between herself and others. Indeed, the primary action of this book is the valiant and unsuccessful attempts of its characters' to conceal their ungainly desires beneath a facade of 'good behavior.' Early on, I found Keane's writing a trifle too neat. Each chapter had a stand alone quality, ending with a short-story-like button. As a consequence, the narrative sacrificed continuity and I found the each characters' through line hard to hang on to. That neatness dropped away as the story accumulated momentum and Aroon blossomed as a character, becoming more desperate and more ruthless. Don't be misled by the bunies on the book's cover. Its discomfitures become its pleasures, and I can recommend Good Behavior highly.

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