No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, August 17, 2006

#79: The Sculptress -- Minette Walters

I bought this novel from TSP when it first came out in 1993: I'd read an excerpt somewhere and liked the sound of it. Since then it had sat on the shelf waiting to be read. (The author's position near the end of the alphabet may have had something to do with this: the book was always low down at the far right of the bookshelves.) Finally read it: wonder if I'd have been more impressed thirteen years ago.

Olive Martin is nicknamed the Sculptress in prison because of her habit of making little wax models of women. She is tall, fat and ugly. Six years before the story opens, she was jailed for murdering her mother and sister and chopping their bodies up with a blunt axe. It wasn't at all like cutting up chickens. I was tired by two o'clock and I had only managed to take off the heads and the legs and three of the arms.

Roz Leigh is a freelance writer commissioned to write a book about Olive's crime. At first she's terrified of the woman, but gradually grows to be fond of her. Olive isn't entirely sane and stable: but Roz has a horrible secret in her past, too, that's revealed in teasing snippets.

The plot is wonderfully convoluted -- Roz investigates tirelessly, with many false starts, before she uncovers the truth and elicits a confession rather different from the one that Olive gave to the police. There's a fairly large cast and plenty of Means and Motives. Also, sadly, plenty of stereotypes: the Elderly Bigot, the Welfare Mum, the Happy Slapper, the Sophisticated Editor, the Rough-Diamond Ex-Copper.

What irritated me most was the wavering of narrative perspective. The story's told from Roz's point of view (though she's very good at not thinking about uncomfortable, personal things.) But occasionally the illusion of Roz-as-narrator is thrown:

Roz crossed her legs and relaxed into the chair. She was unaware of it but her eyes betrayed her. They brimmed with all the warmth and humour that, a year ago, had been the outward expression of her personality. Bitterness, it seemed, could only corrode so far. (p. 46)

And she's not even with someone who knew her a year ago and could spot that change.

As a murder mystery, it's a good read: as a novel, its style leaves something to be desired. I might try another Minette Walters -- I know she has a good reputation and this was her first novel -- but maybe not yet.

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