Books in Print

independent Australian bookselling since 1988

7 Jan 2008

The Lost Life


Thus Catherine, through Daniel’s prank, is thrust into a quandary. She is guilty by association but cannot bring herself to own up and explain what has happened to Miss Hale. At the same time she is drawn ever closer to Miss Hale who treats the young woman more and more as her only confidant, especially after Eliot’s departure.

The novel is a superbly written one. Peppered with references to Eliot’s poetry, especially in the opening chapters, it is also most assuredly Carroll’s. He writes about his subject matter in a delicate yet confident tone. Weaving threads together, both narrative and thematic, he constructs, or re-constructs, rather, the world that was England in the early to mid 1930’s, all the while never losing sight of the very personal journey into adulthood that his protagonist, Catherine, is on. 

The novel is one of symmetry, for the most part; a balancing act. There are essentially four major characters: Catherine, Daniel, Emily Hale and T.S. Eliot. The women compliment each other well in terms of how fully Carroll develops their characters. Conversely the men are left deliberately vague with only a fraction of the insight and development invested in their counterparts. Thus, Carroll balances Catherine with Miss Hale, Catherine with Jonathan, Miss Hale with Eliot and, in that curiously vague and indirect way, Eliot with Jonathan. Vivienne, Eliot’s estranged wife, hovers with spectral influence in the background throughout. Her presence is balanced by Catherine’s mother, whose function is to act as a figurehead against whom Catherine is compelled to rebel in the assertion of her adulthood. 

Catherine’s youthful qualities and private thoughts, desires and fears are set beautifully against the stoical, resigned and at times defeated nature of Miss Hale who sees in Catherine the woman she was when she first met her ‘Tom’ (Eliot) all those years ago in Boston. She sees a young Eliot in Daniel (soon to leave for Paris) and fears for Catherine’s future should she pine for him for too long after he leaves. 

Carroll's careful insight into the minds of his characters is offset by his instinct for a good story. He knows just when to delve into the interiority of Catherine and when to pull back and give way to the more historical aspects of the narrative. More balancing! The 'real-life' characters of Miss Hale and Eliot blend easily with the fictional cast of the book. 

No giving away the ending here. Suffice to say the book is a must-read, regardless of whether or not you are familiar with Carroll’s work. Each word, each sentence has been carefully considered and yet the novel flows with that summer afternoon prose; effortless, languid, itchy, putting the reader both at ease and on edge. Great stuff.