Alongside the reissues of modern classics from writers such as Natalia Ginzburg and Madeleine Bourdouxhe, the publishing arm of Daunt Books has been promoting an ‘Originals’ list featuring bold and inventive contemporary writing in English and in translation. Having loved Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho and The Pachinko Parlour from this list, I was keen to try Amina Cain’s 2020 novella Indelicacy, described by the publisher as ‘a ghost story without a ghost, a fable without a moral and an exploration of the barriers faced by women in both life and literature’. Happily, it did not disappoint. This is a beautiful, enigmatic book – cool and clear on the surface but full of hidden depths, a combination that gives the story a subtle, meditative quality in its exploration of the protagonist’s inner world.
The novella is narrated by Vitória, a relatively young woman who works as a cleaner in a museum of art. Although Vitória has little money or creature comforts, she finds enjoyment in the simple pleasures of life such as reading books, buying a new pair of brightly coloured stockings or writing about the paintings surrounding her at work.
Every morning and night I walked through that city, to and from the museum, fall turning into winter. Each doorway, even mine, its own theatre of something, with its own suggestion or promise. (p. 14)
The desire to write is something of a passion for Vitória, driving her to make notes on the artworks in the museum, some of which form part of the novella’s text.
In this painting, Mary is lying down but she’s awake to something. She’s looking up, her eyes open just enough to see what’s in front of her, or perhaps what she’s seeing is inside her own mind. Her white robe is slipping from her shoulders, her hands clasped, her arms resting on her pregnant belly. A red blanket. A dark room. It must be cold outside. Inside too. (p. 17)
However, while Vitória longs to write, furthering her connections to art and the natural world, her friend Antoinette (another cleaner at the gallery) yearns for a different kind of escape – a life with a wealthy lover and the beautiful possessions this will confer.
One day, Vitória meets a man at the gallery, a visitor who comes to view the work of Caravaggio and Goya. In a matter of months, they are married, opening up a whole new life for Vitória – one of wealth, privilege and beautiful objects, just like the world of Antoinette’s dreams. Nevertheless, this new existence comes with its own challenges and constraints. While Vitória has an abundance of time on her hands, she finds it difficult to achieve the freedom to write. As far as her husband is concerned, Vitória should find another hobby or pursuit. There is no need for her work or prove herself; the household’s maid, Solange, is employed to clean the house, leaving Vitória free to entertain guests and manage the home. Consequently, Vitória writes in secret, mostly when her husband (whom she does not love) is out, and sometimes at the Botanical Gardens, where she finds solace in the retreat.
Also of concern for Vitória is the impact these changes have on her friendships with other women. For instance, when Vitória marries, she stops working at the gallery without a word to Antoinette, severing their relationship abruptly. In truth, Vitória feels somewhat guilty over her situation compared to Antoinette’s, especially given their respective desires and dreams. Guilt also plays a significant part in Vitória’s relationship with Solange, the rather resentful housemaid who shuns all attempts at closeness or friendship.
While these developments offer Vitória some new experiences – a degree of intimacy with her husband, the freedom of movement in ballet classes, a new friendship with classmate, Dana – she remains largely unfulfilled. Her husband is clearly the gatekeeper of this existence, someone Vitória must ask or seek permission from, even if her requests are rarely denied. As Vitória begins to nudge at the boundaries of this world – testing her ability to take control, to be indelicate or self-centred – she wonders whether this will be enough. How will she gain the freedom to write, to truly satisfy her creative desires while still having the resources to live – especially when her husband starts dropping hints about a baby?
It was true, I was mean sometimes. But I didn’t have it in me to be kind to someone who saw me only in relation to property and propriety. To be domestic first and then to be a shallow vessel out and about in the world. Didn’t he understand that was not who I was? I wondered why he had chosen me. And why had I chosen him? Had it been for survival, for experience? Both of those things, I guess. (p. 102)
While Indelicacy can be viewed as the story of a woman’s desire for the freedom to create, the novella also explores several related themes, including social class, gender roles and expectations, female friendship and fulfilment. Interestingly, the novella is set in an unspecified time and place, which gives the story a timeless quality, possibly outside the conventional landscape of time. Certain clues point to a Victorian setting – references to carriages, a harpsichord and full skirts, for instance – while others, such as popcorn and a red sweater dress, suggest a later period, possibly the mid-20th century. Naturally, this adds to the slightly slippery feel of the environment we are inhabiting here, making it all the more intriguing to read.
Thematically, Indelicacy is predominantly concerned with women’s experiences. However, while many interior, character-driven novels delve deep into the protagonist’s inner feelings, Cain seems equally interested in Vitória’s relationship to her surroundings – for instance, the connections she forges with the artworks in the museum and the wonders of the natural world.
Now that I have so much time to myself, I wonder at my times of happiness, why I’ve been allowed them, even now when I am lonely. Why I can walk and how even walking, at the right hour, in this temperature or that one, the lights just coming on, or the sky lightening, I am able to love it. How much I am a person. (p. 77)
This preoccupation with consciousness reminded me a little of the work of other writers such as Clarice Lispector, Madeleine Bourdouxhe and possibly Virginia Woolf, whose essay A Room of One’s Own may well be a key touchstone.
So, in summary, this is a subtle, beautifully written novella of a woman’s desire for the freedom to write – an enigmatic exploration of the protagonist’s relationship with art, creativity and her inner and outer worlds. The type of story that gets under the reader’s skin…
(My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)
Thanks Jacqui, nice review. I also really enjoyed this book, I read it when it made the 2021 Rathbone’s Prize shortlist.
In my copy there’s an acknowledgment & it related to the four character’s names, Vitória from Clarice Lispector’s ‘The Apple in the Dark’, Solange from Jean Ginet’s ‘The Maids’, Antionette from Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, and Dana from ‘Kindred’ by Octavia Butler. A woman’s story, a writer writing about writing, and one that’s been criminally overlooked.
Oh, thanks for the info about the characters’ names, Tony. I’d missed that bit in the acknowledgments, so I’m really glad you’ve pointed it out! Wide Sargasso Sea is familiar to me from my reading of Rhys, but the others are something of a gap. (Oddly enough though, I was thinking of Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart when I made the comparison in my review!)
Good to hear that you enjoyed Indelicacy too. Maybe it will resurface again when Cain’s new book, A Horse at Night, is released? It’s a meditation on women writers and their works, so very much in tune with the themes being explored here.
Naturally, of course, indisputably, you tempt me again – a story about a woman wanting to be a writer and struggling with domesticity? Just my thing!
It’s right up your street! I’d be fascinated to hear what you think of this one, especially given themes Cain explores. Plus, it’s very short – you’d be able to read it in 2 or 3 hours, max.
This is the second review of this I’ve seen that has made me really want to read it. Especially as I read Delicacy by Katy Wix this year, and I thought they’d go well together! I used to get Daunt review books but haven’t for a while, so I should just buy this one when Project 24 is over…
Oh, how fascinating. That’s a sign if ever there was one! Now I need to look up the Katy Wix you’ve mentioned as it’s a new one on me…
I’ve spotted this on Twitter and been intrigued by that cover. It seems to suit the idea of the protagonist’s relationship with her surroundings which also sounds intriguing.
It’s an eye-catching cover, isn’t it? Like a painting in the gallery where Vitoria works…
This does sound good Jacqui, I must go and have a look at the Daunt list as well, thanks for that!
Very welcome, Jane. Daunt’s list is so strong, full of really interesting fiction and non-fiction both old and new. You could probably choose something blind and be confident of landing on a winner.
Thanks Jacqui. This sounds intriguing. Will see if I can find a copy.
Oh, cool. I’m glad it appeals, Guy!
Oh, lovely post Jacqui, and what an interesting sounding book. A nuanced, slightly slippery narrative is always appealing, and the fact that the protagonist is so drawn to art is another plus. That desire to create and that relationship with the artistic world is often stifled under daily existence. And the ambiguity about the time and setting, too – most intriguing!
Yes, it’s a really intriguing one. Quite difficult to pin down, but full of interesting elements and musings on a woman’s life. It’s like stepping into a strange, slightly out-of-time world for a few hours…and the reflections on art/creativity are beautifully evoked.
A strange little book. I enjoyed it very much. Interesting to have some background to character’s names.
Oh, great to hear you liked it too! Did you write about it, Gert? I must head over to yours and take a look…
Yes I did. I’m also waiting to get hold of her new book of essays A Horse at Night.
Great. I’ll head over to yours in a bit. Her new one sounds excellent, doesn’t it? I’m very keen to read that myself…
What an interesting way to convey the slipperiness of time! Such an appealing story too with Vitória’s connections to art and nature and her struggles to explore the boundaries now surrounding her. Very understandable why this got under your skin.
Yes, absolutely. It feels like the kind of book that resurface every now and again, popping into my mind when I’m least expecting it. There’s something ethereal and otherworldly about it…it’s so hard to explain!
It’s always the books that really burrow into us that are so blooming difficult to write about and get across what makes them so special…
Yes, that’s part of it, But there’s something about the mood and atmosphere of this one that makes it hard to pin down. Maybe it’s to do with the hints about different time periods or the meditative nature of Vitória’s reflections…There’s something strangely otherworldy and ethereal about it that’s hard to get across in a review. (In a a good way, I might add!)
Ah, that would make it especially challenging, but you carried it off marvelously!
Sounds really lovely, Jacqui.
Thanks, Jennifer. I’m glad you enjoyed my review. :)
That does sound an interesting and multi-layered book, and how fascinating that you’re not told where and when it’s set!
Yes, the various hints and nods to different eras are very effective, disorientating the reader in the subtlest of ways. It’s a fascinating book and short enough to re-read in a matter of hours, so I may well revisit it later this year.
This sounds excellent Jacqui, I think I’d enjoy it. It’s impressive to cover so much in a novella – some huge themes there, but it sounds like the story does them justice.
I think it would fit very nicely into your novella-a-day reading project in May, if you’re thinking of doing that again next year? Failing that, it’s a good one if you’re short of time or wrapped up in other things. Even though I’m quite a slow reader, it only took me three hours – plus, it’s very immersive for such a short and delicate book!
This sounds like the kind of story I would really like, I always enjoy books that feature art.
Those connections to the artworks reminds me of that beautiful book The Madonna’s of Leningrad by Debra Dean. One layer of that novel is framed around the guide in the Hermitage during the Siege of Leningrad, who takes her starving compatriots around the gallery from which all the paintings have been removed for safety from the German bombardment, and she stands with them before the empty spaces and describes the paintings that use to be there. Honestly, I can’t remember much else about the novel but that the old woman uses the idea of the Hermitage itself as a ‘memory palace’.
Thanks, Lisa. I haven’t come across that novel before, but it sounds interesting and moving. Like you, I tend to enjoy stories that feature artworks. Philippe Beaussant’s novel Rendezvous in Venice is a great example. a beautiful novel about love, art and the Italian city itself. It touches on our tendency to build stories around the images depicted in artworks, imagining the figures’ lives through the glimpses we can see.
I loved that book! I read it in French, so I probably missed some aspects of it, but still, I loved the secret life of Uncle Charles and that he was created as such an erudite character!
Yes, a wonderful character. And how lovely that you were able to read this in French – what a treat!
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Lovely review, another novel I haven’t come across. I do enjoy reading about a woman who wants to write. It sounds like a delicately written novel. I should look closer at the Daunt list (or maybe not ).
Yes, delicately written is a great description for this one. There’s a lightness of touch in the writing which really comes through. As for the Daunt list, it’s packed full of tempting stuff. One could pick virtually anything blind and be guaranteed of a top-quality read!
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