If ever there was an impulse read, this would be it. I was perusing blogs one Saturday at work about a month ago and came across ‘The 10 Best Neglected Literary Classics’ list in the Guardian. I adore lists like this. I think they are a great source for finding exciting new reads. I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to find any of the titles in my library system so I grabbed my Kindle and started checking the availability of each title on Amazon. The Blank Wall was available, inexpensive and is one of the small number of ebooks published by Persephone Books. Sold!
The Blank Wall is a suspense novel set during World War II. Lucia Holley lives with her two teens and her father in a lakeside house. Her husband, Tom, is somewhere in the Pacific and her frequent letters from him are one of the only bright spots in her life. Her daughter, Bee, is in art school and has been dating an unscrupulous man called Ted Darby. When Lucia tries to stop the relationship she inadvertently immerses herself into a dark, dangerous and completely unfamiliar world she doesn’t know quite how to navigate.
The mystery part of this novel is definitely thrilling and well-done, but the more interesting aspect of the novel for me was the questions it raises about homemaking and motherhood. When the novel opens Lucia’s life has already altered with her husband away at war. However, she is still the isolated homemaker she has always been, only thinking about planning meals, how to keep her father entertained and her children’s future. When she is forced to come into contact with the outside world through her conflict with Bee’s boyfriend, she realizes that men still find her attractive, that she has the strength to navigate life outside of her home and she discovers the sad fact that her children have a limited view of her capabilities and don’t respect her.
Lucia’s narrow existence has stunted her character – she’s naive, childish and has an unrealistic view of how to handle problems. Her son David treats her like a little girl, chastising her about taking the boat out on the lake by herself. Bee is disgusted with Lucia and doesn’t have any regard for her especially after she interferes in her love life. The only one who looks up to Lucia is her father who is even more childish than she is.
I don’t think Holding is knocking being a wife and mother, but she is questioning if it somehow stunted the character of the young women who married and then were sucked into family life so completely. Lucia has certainly been sheltered by her husband and it makes me wonder how many women were challenged beyond anything they had ever known when their husbands left for war.
Another intriguing aspect of The Blank Wall is the relationship between Lucia and her maid, Sibyl. Sibyl is more streetwise than Lucia and looks after her more than Lucia realizes. Sibyl knows everything about Lucia, but Lucia knows nothing about Sibyl. It’s a very strange relationship and it fascinated me that these two women have an unacknowledged bond that sustains them both through their troubles.
This is a spectacular suspense novel and would have been wonderful if it was just that. The fact that it is also a thought-provoking social study is a bonus that I wasn’t expecting. I can’t recall ever having been haunted by a mystery novel before, but this book has stayed with me and has led me to wonder about the lives of all the women who were suddenly thrust outside of their comfort zones when their husbands went off to war.
I would highly recommend this novel. It is a revealing insight into life on the American home front during World War II, how the war changed the way women had to interact with society and how their roles changed within their families while their husbands were away. This is an unexpected, but perfect, book for Persephone to have published and I’m glad it’s available in ebook format – hopefully, it will give more people access to this incredible novel.