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The Madwoman in the Attic

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page BW03

PINKERTON'S SISTER

By Peter Rushforth. MacAdam/Cage. 729 pp. $26

Elvis Costello once remarked, more or less, that you get 19 years to make your first album and 12 months to make your second. The same holds true for publishing, where successful first-time novelists are expected to crank out sophomore efforts within a year. (If Book No. 2 tanks, you generally can take the rest of your life writing No. 3.) Pinkerton's Sister, the second novel by the English writer Peter Rushforth, arrives a cool 25 years after his acclaimed debut, Kindergarten. That first book was a slender volume -- less than 200 pages -- a controlled, harrowing take on "Hansel and Gretel," filtered through an account of Holocaust survivors and late-20th-century terrorism.

At first glance, Pinkerton's Sister, which clocks in at 729 pages, 235,000 words and 2.4 pounds, seems to have little in common with its trim older sibling. But like Kindergarten -- whose protagonist is an illustrator of children's books, and which is filled with references to children's literature and fairy tales -- the new work is a book filled with other books.

Rushforth's novel, the first of a projected quartet, has a clever conceit -- the Pinkerton of the title is Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, called Ben, who grows up to be "Madame Butterfly's" callow young Lt. B.F. Pinkerton. Ben is recalled as a child for most of Rushforth's novel, which takes place in 1903, during the course of a single day in the life of Pinkerton's 34-year-old sister Alice, who is contemplating a return visit to the Webster Nervine Asylum in Poughkeepsie, upriver from the childhood home in New York City in which she still lives.

Alice is "the madwoman in the attic" -- though she wryly notes, "It should rightly have been called the nursery . . . but she had started to call it the schoolroom when she was a girl, after reading . . . about lonely governesses and grand houses . . . . it was the image that remained: the picture of a young woman going out into the world to make her way alone, sitting in a chair made for someone the size of a child, surrounded by the possessions of others, writing letters home." Like Jane Eyre's, Alice's "home was memory and imagination, her search for someone to love, and these she carried about within her." But Alice has never set out into the world to make her way alone. Her life has been circumscribed by her house and the surrounding (fictional) neighborhood of Longfellow Park. Mostly, however, Alice's life has been defined by reading, and books are what shape the baggy, often brilliant but overlong and overwritten Pinkerton's Sister -- I counted 17 literary references in the first eight pages alone, ranging from Jane Eyre to The Princess and the Goblin.

Alice is one of three daughters named for the sisters in Longfellow's "The Children's Hour," but her own childhood was anything but idyllic. She is the victim of abuses that may or may not have been precisely sexual in nature but were certainly fetishistic, and the unhappy witness to her father's sexual exploitation of the household's servant, Annie, whom she adores. Not surprisingly, Alice is haunted by notions of revenge, obsessive, brooding, impelled by violent impulses that she (mostly) doesn't act upon. Enamored of things both Grimm and grim, she is a bibliophile in the same way that the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" is an oenophile. She imagines violent acts involving cutlery, hammers nails into her dolls' heads until they splinter, and pictures herself as "the guest denied access to all homes, a woman beyond the pale of decent society, and everyone shrank from her defiling presence."

Fortunately, she is not completely denied access to the outside world. One of the book's best set pieces involves Alice's experience as a model for a statue illustrating "The Children's Hour," wherein she is slowly, eerily encased in plaster -- a masterful evocation of the entombment of an intelligent woman's mind and body. There are also hilarious accounts of the loopily philistine culture-vulture manquée Mrs. Albert Comstock, and the awful alienist Dr. Wolcott Ascharm Webster, who subjects Alice to every form of medical torment at his disposal, from hydrotherapy to hypnotism to crude treatments involving the interpretation of clouds and dreams.

Yet even these are digressions in a maddeningly digressive narrative.

The fictional consciousness that streams through Pinkerton's Sister is compelling but often tedious and not very likable -- less the madwoman in the attic than the smarty-pants in the classroom. Amiability, of course, is not the best measure of a memorable fictional character: More than anyone else, the young Alice is reminiscent of another prickly, precocious know-it-all girl -- Louie, the protagonist of Christina Stead's masterpiece The Man Who Loved Children.

Still, the narrative heart of Pinkerton's Sister is what befalls Alice and Annie at the hands of Alice's father and the frightening figure known only as "Papa's 'friend.' " This story, with its sinister echoes of the gothic tales that Alice loves, and a nightmarish, beautifully written denouement set during a blizzard, should have been freed from some of the wads of paper that surround it. Pinkerton's Sister is a very fine novel, at once sprawling and intimate, and blessed with long gorgeous passages worthy of Henry James; but one senses always the greater book imprisoned inside it, like poor mad Alice trapped within her plaster shroud. •

Elizabeth Hand's most recent novel is "Mortal Love."


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