BOOK REVIEW / Quartet of the lost women: 'Eyes' - Maggie Hemingway: Sinclair-Stevenson, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
MAGGIE HEMINGWAY, who died in May, aged 47, was an unusual writer whose work was always covering new ground. Her three novels, The Bridge (1986), Stop House Blues (1988) and The Postman's House (1990), had very different settings but shared a dark intensity and gave the impression of a powerful creative imagination.

Her new book, published posthumously, also shows her originality and her gift for plunging the reader directly into an atmosphere of lurking menace. Eyes opens in 'La Pianta, 1528' with the preparations for an arranged marriage (inspired by Browning's 'My Last Duchess'). Soon we are embroiled in the finer details of a public display that cannot quite conceal anger and fear. The theme is taken up in three other stories. In 'Pont St Honore, 1871', reed-cutters on the marshes spy on the local sadist whose plain, lame wife has been obtained from a newspaper advertisement. In 'Kensington, 1928', the genteel occupants of a residential hotel witness the ill-matched, ill-fated marriage between a lady with some means and a charming bounder. In 'Sladdacoombe, 1971', a picturesque village, full of well-intentioned souls, is the prosaic setting for passion, jealousy and murder.

Hemingway sets out her four stories then interweaves them with great delicacy. They start as apparently finished tales, then gather pace, proceeding in shorter and shorter bursts to the final section where, in a page and a half of extraordinary, lyrical writing, they merge and the four deaths become one. As the stories unfold - sometimes with a slight meander, pause or change of setting - the focus tightens so that the reader, too, seems to be pushed to the inevitable, becoming one with the onlookers (the 'eyes') who observe but do not intervene. As well as the eyes, other images recur: a smuggled letter, a figure looking out at rain or to the sea, a body held stiff and awkward, lips wet with eagerness. The backgrounds to misery may be different - brocade and servants, shotguns and home-made snares, cocktails and five-pound notes, salmon paste sandwiches and tea-rooms - but the victims' fate is the same.

Eyes is technically impressive and also very moving: Hemingway was a warm and sensual writer as well as a dispassionate recorder. Our sympathy for the four lost women is called up and we are horrified by these accounts of human cruelty, as we watch the child-bride with her 'eyes so dark they made her skin look white as swan's feathers', and Miss Camille 'so nice all the time, so pleasant', and the marshes of Pont St Honore and the gentle slopes of Sladdacoombe destroyed by evil, their riches extinguished in death.