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The Woman Upstairs, By Claire Messud

A heroine who draws on thwarted female icons needs, ironically, to find her own voice

Is Nora an unfulfilled woman or a deluded one? By her own admission, she has always been a boringly reliable person who has never betrayed a friend or abandoned her parents or ever hurt anyone except herself. Yet in Claire Messud's novel she is also a tamed "madwoman in the attic" who becomes infatuated with the family of Reza, an eight-year-old pupil in her class, his sensitive face and charm akin to the ethereal boy whose beauty beckons to the writer in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and destroys him.

Reza draws her into the lives of his glamorous parents, a Lebanese academic and the appropriately named Sirena, an Italian installation artist. Nora finds inspiration in sharing a studio with her and begins working on a series of miniature rooms of iconic women artists on the edge – Emily Dickinson visited by "the angelic muse, her beloved death", Virginia Woolf at Rodmell writing her suicide note. But she becomes distracted from her own work by Sirena's Alice in Wonderland installation.

Nora, like Alice, is first fascinated and then entangled in this fantasy world made from real people and the detritus of their lives. Despite increasing evidence of their indifference, she falls in love with both Sirena and her husband, refusing to see how she is being used as a babysitter and assistant, until the final betrayal.

Though the book begins with a sort of feminist rant about women's invisibility and their "quiet desperation", Nora's problems are more about her longing for the unattainable; her idealisation of the life of the artist. Her romanticism blinds her to the corruption in Sirena's art, the seductiveness in her husband's intellectual posturing, and even a certain knowing quality in their child's charm. It is only when Sirena betrays her that she allows herself to rage. We wonder what she sees in this self-seeking artist whose art seems at best voyeuristic, at worst shallow and gimmicky. The irony is that Nora's creations, though eccentric and unfashionable, seem much more unique than Sirena's. The novel raises interesting questions about the nature of real art and the role of self-promotion.

Messud's writing is often assured and fluent. She's best on description, details which reveal Nora's sensibility: Sirena's few freckles "like a small spray of sand", the studio in a scary warehouse with "windows in their ancient sockets", the disturbing photo of the nude pre-pubescent girl which Sirena includes in her exhibition. Yet there's a sloppiness in the novel; the way it drops into the narrative names of streets and towns which will be meaningless to anyone who does not know Massachusetts area.

This imprecision is also true of the characterisation. Nora seems more a construct, a collection of female stereotypes, than a rounded character. She's a spinster schoolteacher, dutiful daughter and handmaiden to an artist. There's a nod to Ibsen's A Doll's House in both her name and the little confining rooms of her art, and references to tragic women from Virginia Woolf to Jean Rhys are scattered around. The problem and the promise of this novel lie with Nora, whose yearning for a heightened life could be pushed beyond her obsession with Sirena and her enchanting family. She needs to be less a composite of women and more herself.

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