The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud: Staring down the barrel

June 17, 2013 | No Comments

Below is an excerpt from my review of Claire Messud’s wonderful new release, The Woman Upstairs, which appears in the most recent issue of the Dublin Review of Books and can be read in its entirety here.

“Nevertheless, Messud is smart enough to serve up her allusions aslant. Nora is not Ibsen’s Nora, nor is she Jean Brodie, Marya Zelli, Judith Hearne or Mildred Lathbury. Even though it may feel at times as if little has changed for women since the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we have inched forward a little. Nora is financially independent. She has no husband nor partner to kowtow to, no children to trip over on her way to her studio (and she had opportunities for it to be otherwise), she votes, drives and lives in a democracy (more or less). Although she imagines herself to be stuck in a doll’s house, it is a house she has built (at least partially) by herself; fate may still be a jailer for many women but in Nora’s case she has cemented the bricks, miniaturised her own life. “I’d like to blame the world for what I’ve failed to do,” she concedes, “but the failure – the failure that sometimes washes over me as anger … is all mine, in the end.”

Therefore to label (and celebrate) The Woman Upstairs as a feminist rebel yell alone is too restrictive and threatens to limit its audience. This book is not a rant; it’s a tragedy, the tragedy of a woman coming to terms with her own myopia and realising she is repeating her mother’s psychological imprisonment. Being unable to make the person in our head match the person we are in the world ‑ being stuck upstairs ‑ is not a feminist condition but a human one. Most of us, regardless of our gender, enter our middle years in a state of shocked realisation that our dreams will not come true ‑ fated to spend the rest of our lives tormented because it had “seemed worse to try and fail, than not to try”. We are, eventually, forced to stare down the barrel of our mediocrity. Then we must decide whether to get angry or keep gardening, do neither or both.”