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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
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.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style