CAROLINE BLACKWOOD's new book, Corrigan, is a slippery, tantalizing fiction -- a novel of manners with a thriller's cheating heart. Blackwood at her best, as in the 1981 The Fate of Mary Rose, is an elegant manipulator of domestic unease and village perversities, a writer who deliberately limits the emotional range of her fictions because she's fascinated by the way the everyday landscape of middle-class life -- home, marriage, parenthood -- can narrow our perspective on the world. Her characters are immobilized in their tight personal domains, and their lives seem to consist of tidying up after upsetting intrusions: in The Stepdaughter (1976), an abandoned wife in an expensive Manhattan apartment writes letters to herself to explain her hatred for her husband and his daughter; the young mother in Mary Rose turns her cottage into a fortress after a village girl is found murdered. These people are so intensely focused on themselves that petty dreads are magnified into full-scale horrors. The story of Corrigan, in which a lonely woman breaks free of the memory of her dead husband and her daughter escapes the oppressive grip of her living one, suggests an attempt at a more expansive novel, but Blackwood can't seem to transcend her own ferociously concentrated style: instead of enlarging her view of the world, she plays with the angles.
The surface of Corrigan is placid: a simple story with a small cast, cozy settings (middle-class London and a sleepy Wiltshire village), and an even-tempered, apparently conventional third-person narration. What gives the book its drive is a persistent menacing undertone whose source is hard to identify -- a vague terror that seems out of proportion to the specific qualities of the plot and the characters. Mrs. Blunt, the widow, is obsessed with her memories of her marriage, but her single-mindedness is rueful and pathetic, not creepy; her daughter Nadine hates her life as a prosperous suburban housewife and mother and finds Mrs. Blunt infuriating, but we never sense a potential for violence in her rage -- she's just petty and irritable. And Corrigan -- the handsome, volatile Irishman in a wheelchair who turns up at the widow's door soliciting funds for a London hospital and gradually takes over more and more of her life -- is mysterious, all right, but his behavior isn't actually very threatening. He spouts poetry, has the odd fit of righteous anger, introduces Mrs. Blunt to the joys of wine, expresses a (perfectly reasonable) distaste for Nadine, turns dark and morose whenever the widow visits her husband's grave, and reaps considerable benefit from Mrs. Blunt's enthusiasm for his crusade on behalf of the disabled. Just on the basis of what he says and does, we have every reason to suspect that Corrigan is a charming con man, but no more. The aura of suspicion Blackwood confers on him is what suggests the direr possibilities, and it's pure literary sleight of hand. Corrigan is a fragile country anecdote with thriller technique laid on -- William Trevor material, done with mirrors.
WE EXPECT a psychological suspense novel by Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell to play with us a little bit. These novelists share Blackwood's fascination with obsessive behavior and narrow perspectives -- views of the world which are wholly determined by hatred (the killer's story) or fear (the victim's) -- and the art of the genre lies in rigorous elaborations of these skewed, alternate-universe logics. In thrillers, the world is claustrophobic and the people in it are opaque or dimly seen: it's how things would look if we only saw them through a rifle sight, or in anxious glances over our shoulders. The play of perceptions within such tight frames can be intricately entertaining -- or it can make the characters merely static and tiresome. The genre-inspired trickery of Corrigan takes the form of a radical shift in perspective halfway through the book -- from Mrs. Blunt's restricted point of view to Nadine's, which is even more limited and self-absorbed -- but Blackwood's technique doesn't make the story more complex: it just seems a violation of the simple dynamic of the narrative, the progress of the widow's liberation from paralyzing grief. As soon as Mrs. Blunt starts to enjoy herself, we're suddenly shut out of her thoughts, a move so perverse we'd swear that Blackwood preferred her characters static -- irritating, perhaps, but manageable.
This coy subversion at the heart of Corrigan is more alienating than the feints and concealments of conventional thrillers: this novel promises more, and leaves us feeling betrayed. With the character of Mrs. Blunt, Blackwood seems to be reaching beyond the claustrophobic visions of her previous novels, and then pulls back, retreats to the safety of her familiar repertoire: the rotten marriage, the failure of sympathy between generations, the day-to-day meanness of middle-class life. Corrigan may prove to be a transitional work in Caroline Blackwood's career, the first step from thrillers like Mary Rose to traditional humanist novels. For now, she's neither here nor there, stuck in the suburbs and looking peevishly in either direction.