Virago £14.99

Review: The Woman Upstairs, By Claire Messud

For all its measured, exacting pace, Claire Messud's latest novel is a beautifully sustained howl of rage against life's disappointments

In Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, Nora Eldridge, 42 when the book opens, is being unceremoniously walloped by life's inevitable and brutally rapid passing.

She's reached that moment when tough realisations are coming home to roost: suddenly she's catching terrifying glimpses of life's limits with increasing frequency. It's looking like she'll never be a famous artist and will never completely achieve her dreams, a reality she's been trying to come to terms with for the past five years: "[T]he age of thirty-seven … is a time of reckoning, the time at which you have to acknowledge once and for all that your life has a shape and a horizon, and that you'll probably never be president, or a millionaire, and that if you're a childless woman, you will quite possibly remain that way." Taking measure of her carefully built, prudently lived life as a grade-school teacher and a good, reliable friend, daughter and neighbour – an existence driven, in no small part, by her stay-at-home mother's frustrations – Nora finds it disturbingly wanting: "It's a far cry from the tony gatherings in the galleries of New York's Meatpacking District," she notes, "for which you once believed yourself destined …".

To add fuel to the angst-ridden fire, she also notices that she's become invisible to others, irrelevant even – though this realisation does seem to spark a flash of potential future action on her part: "I thought it wasn't true, or not true of me, but I've learned I am no different at all. The question now is how to work it, how to use that invisibility, to make it burn." As her mother told her: "Life's funny. You have to find a way to keep going, to keep laughing, even after you realize that none of your dreams will come true."

What crystalises over the taut, tension-lined narrative is a story that holds a deep betrayal at its heart and one that's shaped Nora since her tipping-point-age of 37. It's a story she's determined to own in an empowering and possibly final bid to make her mark: "… if I can just explain, all will be elucidated; and maybe that elucidation alone will prove my greatness, however small. To tell what I know, and how it feels, if I can."

In a tone that ranges from neutral to menacing but never veers from its measured, exacting pace, Nora, an all-too-human and unsettlingly realistic jumble of complexities, confronts her own mediocrity, as well as trying desperately to reject it. She's uncomfortable in her own skin, though she appears otherwise to others. She's chafing against the hand that life dealt her as well as grappling with the looming apprehension that her failures are her own, that she simply didn't channel her talent, her dreams, her ambitions into full fruition. In (nearly) equal measures, she evokes impatience at her tendency towards self-pity, while also generating waves of empathy for her fragility. In Nora, Messud has produced a clear-eyed, unsentimental and compelling portrait of an ordinary person quietly revealing their faults, uncertainties and insecurities, a woman with a big fat question mark in her life, who is ripe for an answer.

When a new boy, eight-year-old Reza Shahid, joins Nora's classroom, she's enamoured by what she perceives to be his physical, emotional and intellectual perfection. When she then meets Reza's glamorously international parents, Skandar, a successful academic, and Sirena, an artist with stellar connections, she falls for each of them in turn, and, deep in the flush of her family-wide crush, exposes even more of her limitations and blind spots. "Watch out," you want to warn her as she immerses herself in the Shahids' quasi-seductive glow. "Be careful!" Sirena, in particular, projects an easy pretentiousness, an alarming level of self-absorption and a casual lack of awareness of others' situations and lives. "For whom," she says airily in my favourite Sirena quote, "is Paris home, really, except the concierges gossiping in their corners?"

Messud is a breathtaking writer – exemplified in the way she brings even the most peripheral characters to life in one swift, all-encompassing stroke – and the pacing of her prose mirrors the discipline that holds Nora together. Wary, vigilant and watchful, without, however, often seeing what's right under her nose, Nora excels at keeping a tight lid on her emotions and reactions, only projecting what she describes as her mother's "tight brightness" at the most telling of moments. This lady's got one terrifically resilient wall of defence. What, you wonder, could possibly topple it?

The Woman Upstairs is, ultimately, a beautiful – and beautifully sustained – howl of fresh, fierce, furious rage. Here's hoping, for Nora Eldridge's sake, that it's a galvanising one as well.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?