Sunday, April 20, 2008

"Harriet Said" by Beryl Bainbridge

Sometimes I pick up a book in order to fill a gap in my reading habits. Recently I have been buying and reading random books by female authors, because I've realized that a disproportionately large number of the books in my collection were written by men.

During one of these "expand my horizon" sprees I bought "Harriet Said" by Beryl Bainbridge, knowing nothing about the author or the book. I'm happy to say that the book was brilliant and that I'll DEFINITELY have to read more of her work.

While reading all of John Barth's books last year I finally understood the benefit of a "show, don't tell" approach...but I've been wondering exactly HOW skilled authors manage to "show" without "telling." Bainbridge's approach in "Harriet Said" is to give us an unreliable narrator -- a painfully awkward 13-year-old girl -- and subtly reveal the disconnect between her perception and her reality. Since we supposedly understand the world a little better than she does, we can draw our own conclusions about the story based on what she tells us. Sweet.

This girl is the perfect depiction of a type of confused, malleable teenager searching for identity, ready to be influenced by anybody strong enough to guide her. In this case her unfortunate guide is Harriet, a brilliant, manipulative, attractive, popular, and borderline sociopathic peer.

During a summer vacation in postwar England, Harriet proposes a secret project: to "humble" an unhappily married man who they call "The Tsar." We see everything that occurs -- including Harriet's ambiguous and multi-layered schemes -- through the eyes of the narrator as the three of them engage in increasingly dangerous games.

The brilliance of the book comes from the spot-on characterizations of all the characters, particularly as modified by the perception of the narrator herself. This girl's world is a terrible, changeable place, and though she herself doesn't understand the motivations of herself or others, WE do, and from this comes the sense of cloying menace that gradually builds and then -- at the climax -- crashes down. Particularly awful is the inability of the narrator to see the terrible events coming; she is far more concerned about other people's opinions about her than she is about the terrible things she's doing.

This book made me feel goosebumpy and sick, as it spells out all too clearly the reasons why certain types of people end up doing bad things. If you like a careful character study laid thickly over a thriller plotline, you should definitely find a copy of "Harriet Said."

But don't read it if you have a suspiciously-indrawn teenage daughter, or you might begin to wonder what sort of dark thoughts she's harbouring.

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