Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Hothouse by the East River by Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark Reading WeekThis is the first book by Muriel Spark I have read, and I did so to join in with Muriel Spark Reading Week hosted by Simon at Stuck In A Book and Harriet Devine. The first thing I have to say about it is that it was strange. It was like a puzzle, I wasn't sure what was real and what wasn't or which characters were telling the truth and which weren't.

Elsa and Paul are a couple in late middle-age living in an apartment which overlooks the East River in New York. At first it appears that Elsa is mentally ill and that Paul is caring for her. But as the story progressed I wondered if it was in fact Paul who was ill. Elsa treats Paul quite cruelly, he is insecure and she plays on this, feeding him lies and making him doubt himself. I wondered why he didn't leave her, but they seemed locked together. Their relationship is intense and others get drawn into their orbit and into the  strangeness, including both their analysts, one of whom ends up working for them as their butler!

They have two grown up children, Pierre and Katrina, both of whom are financially dependent on them, but don't really like them. This is Paul and Pierre;

In the summer of 1944, he is telling his son, life was more vivid than it is now. Everything was more distinct. The hours of the day lasted longer. One lived excitedly and dangerously. There was a war on.
Pierre looks ahead at the painting on the wall opposite and wonders if the annual allowance that his mothers gives him on the condition that he keeps on good terms with his father is worth it.

Paul and Elsa met during the war when they both worked in England for a government department which dealt with propaganda and psychological warfare. It is this period of their lives that they keep returning to. Elsa meets a shoe salesman who she says is a German named Helmut Kiel, who they worked with in the war. Paul becomes paranoid and believes that Kiel intends him harm. Then other people from the war start turning up.

I really don't know how to describe this book. I haven't even mentioned the strangest thing of all, which is that Elsa's shadow always faces a different way to everyone else's! I think that the puzzle gets resolved in the end, but even the resolution leaves questions. The copy I borrowed from the library is 168 pages and I think this is just long enough - I couldn't have stood strangeness much longer. I may be making it sound as though I didn't enjoy it, which isn't the case. I did enjoy it, I'm just not quite sure why.


  1. The confusion of the first-time Spark reader - I recognise it! She is so odd, that it takes a while to adjust to her style. I haven't read this one, and hadn't particularly wanted to, but you do make it sound intriguing... I love that detail about the shadow. Thanks for participating - especially with a lesser-known Spark novel.

  2. This one does sound a little strange. And Simon is right, her style takes some adjustment, but so far, I have enjoyed it. Very different, for sure. But "Loitering with Intent" was very good and funny. I loved the main character's thoughts about being a writer. Thanks so much for reviewing this one. It gave me the opportunity to learn about another one of Spark's books. I learned so much by participating in this Reading Week!

  3. This is the most abtruse Spark novel I've read but I, too enjoyed it none the less. My review is here -