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.)