08 March 2012

A House and Its Head (Ivy Compton-Burnett)

I came perilously close to giving up on Ivy Compton-Burnett's vicious family drama A House and Its Head, published in 1935 and set fifty years earlier. It's probably 90% dialogue, with sparse unspoken segues, and the characters talk over each other and the topic at hand in such a stilted, forced-chipper register that it's sometimes difficult to follow who's in the room or where the action is taking place. I pushed on, however, and once the simmering subtext moves closer to the surface (though it never boils over), I better understood what she was doing, and then I was fascinated.

Also? It helps to imagine the whole thing acted out by the cast of Downton Abbey. There's even a Sibyl! Of course, she's a sociopath. But they kind of all are.

At the helm of this whole sick crew is Duncan Edgeworth, cold patriarch, inflicter of constant verbal cruelties as abusive as a punch to the face and possibly even more wounding. He lives with his two daughters, witty Nance and surface-sweet Sibyl; his wastrel nephew and presumptive heir, Grant; and meek wife Ellen, whose death several chapters in sets off a chain of horrifying events, participated in and covered up by the family and a village network of hangers-on and gossips.

Once crazy shit starts happening, the novel accelerates. What Compton-Burnett pulls off, though, necessitates the sometime-tedium of the first half. Because whether they're discussing being late for breakfast or accusations of murder, no one's demeanor changes. These people are so skilled at mannered dissembling that they've become capable of anything. And as I became more adept at reading between the lines, I grew more chilled by what I found there. In the end, it's practically a horror novel in Victorian fancy-dress--but one that, like the ghost in the Edith Wharton story, only reveals itself afterward.

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