Shades of Rear Window: People in the Room, by Norah Lange, reviewed

4 August 2018

9:00 AM

4 August 2018

9:00 AM

A girl at a window, hidden behind curtains, watches three women in a dimly lit drawing room in the house across the road as they sit silently smoking, hands and faces pale against their dark clothes. She invents identities for the trio: they are criminals or abandoned spinsters. Sinister or pathetic. Curiosity grows into obsession: she imagines them as painted saintly icons, golden against a dark wall, ‘flies crawling across their faces… the first threads of a spider’s web spun from their eyes’.

People in the Room is set in the early 20th century in the affluent Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Belgrano, where the author lived as a child. The idea came to her when she first saw the triple portrait of the Brontë sisters that originally included the artist, their brother Branwell, who then painted himself out, leaving a blurred shape on the canvas. A fitting inspiration for a narrative where shadowy characters reveal only fragments of their lives, seen always through the eyes of the 17-year-old spy.

She becomes convinced that meeting the women is her ‘appointed destiny’, and in a daring manipulative ploy she intercepts a telegram delivery, rings the doorbell and becomes part of their dark, dreamlike world, where unexplained crucial events took place long ago. The atmosphere is intimate, heavy with tantalising silence and secrets; there are allusions to unread letters, a ruffled ball gown, talk of suicide, slit wrists and needles. Death is a leitmotif: they seem to be in mourning for their lives. Perversely, she decides to abandon them for a few days, to test their reaction to her absence, but when she returns, everything has changed.

Hallucinatory and unsettling, the prose vibrates like a high-tension wire. How can a book where nothing happens be so eerily compulsive? You read it not for the plot (there isn’t one) but for the brilliance of the language, and the shifting perspectives that transform what at first seems banal into something mesmerising and tragic.

All Argentinian writers live in the shadow of Borges. Norah Lange, of Norwegian parentage, was related to him by cousinship; he encouraged and admired the work of his younger contemporary, but although she was much involved in the modernist movement, the prevailing macho ethos relegated her to the role of muse, more famous for her beauty than her writing. People in the Room was written in 1950.This is the first English edition of a fine-tuned translation by Charlotte Whittle.

It’s an interior spy story, a picture of suffocating isolation and voyeurism, Hitchcock without a murder. It’s appropriate that silence should dominate a chronicle of a time when women were deprived of choice or expectation and had no voice.

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