Maggie Hemingway shows us how imperceptibly the initial act of seeing what is before us becomes selective focus on a particular object or person and how that can slide into deliberate and prolonged watching which implicates the observers in the action unfolding before their eyes.
The tales whizz us back and forth across three centuries and as many countries. The watchers may be individual neighbours and shopkeepers. Their gaze may bring a class dimension, like the lowly scribes of a duke in 16th-century Italy or the Upstairs, Downstairs perspective of maids scrutinising lodgers in a decaying Kensington guest house of the Twenties.
Watching eyes may even seem to reside in inanimate objects, like the 'accusation of the single cup and plate and knife' that Lou attributes to her victim's possessions in a Cornish cottage.
All the eyes bear witness to John Berger's theory that the look reduces its subject to object. Here each of the key characters under observation becomes prey to one watcher whose gaze is actively malevolent. What the eyes see is the cruelty of disappointed people when they fasten on someone more vulnerable than themselves. Neat spinster Lou, stuck in her 1970s office, envies her sickly cousin's seaside home and friends - so she kills her off with kindness and poisoned food. As she still does not feel she belongs, the farmer's wife who befriends her must also go, so Lou can try stepping into her sensible married shoes.
Another cuckoo in the nest is charming entrepreneurial type Gregory Brookes, who inveigles his way into a coterie of ageing lady lodgers. He marries one and lives on her money until he decided her life would be more pleasant for him without her in it. The servants watch in disapproving silence.
As Hemingway cuts back and forwards, intersecting the stories at crisis points, the sense of inescapable malice and claustrophobia grows equally in marble halls, windswept marshes, upper-class drawing rooms and village halls. The massive historical perspective of centuries is supported by the smaller cycle of the seasons and of domestic rituals, adding to the feeling of repetition and inevitability. But all this skilful crafting seems to evolve rather than to have been superimposed.
She is good on timely tangible details, like the cook threading lard on to a roast as she gossips, or the scheming Tomaso dusting his master's sealed correspondence with sand. Her eye has a cinematic quality as she lingers over the petty rivalries of fading beauties whose solitary smalls drip on to newspaper as they nibble Marie biscuits with their afternoon tea.
Like a camera she zooms in for a close-up of the distorted face of the mute French reeder Leon. He can only perform a grotesque mime of the cruel tableau he spied through Jean-Luc's window, a misfit husband taking sadistic pleasure in tormenting his lame wife. Leon, who is both watcher and watched, stands midway between the characters who are powerless to act and us, who observe all their plights at one remove. As the shift is made from impartial observation with a hint of complicity to outright voyeurism, the eyes are also ours. We are drawn in as witnesses, almost as silent accomplices.
Hemingway has a way of making us care what happens to this disparate collection of characters within only a few pages of setting our eyes on them and then of making us feel partly responsible for what unfolds as their inevitably tragic fate.
The whole thing is accomplished in less than 200 pages and yet you come away feeling that you have glimpsed merely a few chosen scenes from lives that existed before your gaze fell on them. By the time a satisfying rash of goosepimples heralds the final tragic outcome of each tale we are left wondering what we might have done in a similar situation.
In the final scene, which incorporates four separate but related denouements, the violent action jostles the imaginary camera out of focus. But by then you have realised that in this riveting book what you see is only part of what you get.