I review a lot of New York Review Books Classics books on this site because I read a lot of them. They’re my favorite publisher; there’s this uncanny correspondence between their editorial policies and my personal taste. Even books I wouldn’t otherwise have picked up are often winners. Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour is one of those, inasmuch as it’s drawing room cringe comedy. I get vicariously embarrassed reading about embarrassment, and in places I had to put the book down for a while. I liked it anyway.
The narrator is Aroon St. Charles, who by the end of the first chapter will be the last surviving member of an aristocratic Irish family in reduced circumstances. The novel opens as Aroon serves her bedridden mother a rabbit mousse. Her mother hates rabbit even more than she hates Aroon and keels over dead from, I guess, just the mousse’s powerful bunny emanations. Aroon tells Rose, the housekeeper, to call the doctor and save the mousse for lunch. “I have lived for the people dearest to me,” Aroon tells us, “and I am at a loss to know why their lives have been at times so perplexingly unhappy.” The rest of the novel jumps back to Aroon’s childhood and young adulthood in a country house called Temple Alice, as she unsuccessfully struggles to understand how she ended up sour, and unlikable, and alone.
You’ll have gathered Aroon isn’t the most sympathetic narrator. As the novel goes on you hate her less. By the end you have compassion for her. Aroon is at a loss to understand herself, but everything she’s oblivious to is clear enough to the reader. Her problem is “good behaviour.”
For Aroon’s upper-class family—her father, mother, and brother Hubert—good behavior isn’t about what you do, only what you say. Or don’t say. Good behavior is an aesthetic. Good behavior is refusing to express strong emotions, never talking about certain subjects. When someone dies, grief is kept under wraps. Mentioning money or sex is in the worst of taste. Problems and difficult subjects are hinted at, never addressed directly. If you’ve got a beef with someone you can bully them endlessly but overt anger is for the proles.
Aroon’s mother only had kids because big houses need heirs. She pawns them off on any old nursemaid, drunk or sober, and isn’t concerned when little Aroon thinks Hubert is dying. Keeping calm is Good Behavior. Aroon’s intermittently caring father sleeps around but as long as no one mentions it, her mother restricting herself to waspish comments, everything’s fine. Talking about money is unseemly—these tradesmen keep sending bills! Rude!—so the family can’t handle its finances. One of the few people who unreservedly cared for Aroon was her governess Mrs. Brock, but Mrs. Brock was emotional and prone to inadvisable crushes and drowned herself after a rejection, so as Aroon grows she’s persuaded to remember Mrs. Brock with scorn.
Aroon grows up among strategic silences. There are pieces of her life she just doesn’t get because no one’s ever actually come out and talked about them—even as she drops blatant clues, to which Aroon is entirely oblivious, on the reader. Aroon thinks alcohol has no effect on her because she doesn’t know how to tell when she’s drunk. She knows where babies come from but it’s unclear whether she fully understands the connection between love and sex. As an adult, she walks in on her father’s sickbed and doesn’t understand what Rose’s hand is doing under the covers. She doesn’t realize her father has lovers. She thinks Hubert’s friend Richard is her lover because he sat next to her on her bed once. She thinks Richard hangs around to be near her, and hasn’t noticed Richard and Hubert are gay. It’s not clear whether she ever even understands homosexuality is a thing. In that first chapter, at the age of 57, she still lists Richard among her loved ones as though any day he might return from Africa to announce their engagement.
The misunderstandings spread through the entire cast. Aroon’s father suspects Hubert is gay, but Aroon accidentally convinces him otherwise when she implies Richard is her lover; she thinks the reason he’s seemed worried is that he thought she might be pregnant. Discussing these things isn’t Good Behavior, so they try to talk about them without actually talking about them, if you get my drift. They don’t ask each other the right questions. The whole conversation is at cross-purposes.
Aroon is a classic unreliable narrator—not the kind who lies to the reader, but the kind who doesn’t understand the truth she’s telling. Which I’m a sucker for. First, I love fiction with puzzle elements. In a way Good Behaviour is kin to detective novels. We’re searching for clues to what Aroon doesn’t understand, and what she doesn’t realize others don’t understand.
More importantly, the extra space between the author and the narrator and the reader is space for ideas to resonate, for interesting thematic maneuvers. But I wonder sometimes whether this kind of narration is becoming opaque to most readers—less interpretively legible. These days when people react to books on the internet there’s been a trend towards literal readings. The space between author and narrator collapses to zero. Readers assume the narrator’s voice is the author’s, a direct expression of their inner self. In the absence of explicit disapproval, readers may assume the author approves of anything their characters do or say; in recent years a few writers even let themselves be badgered into deleting dialog that failed to display… well, good behavior.
But even a third person narrator isn’t the author. (See, for example, my comments on Lafferty’s “Continued on Next Rock” in this recent post.) The narrator who understands things one way while the author lays clues that the reader should understand them differently is a routine literary technique. It’s another way to avoid just literally infodumping a story’s themes onto the reader, which is, after all, the point of a novel; it’s the difference between adult fiction and Aesop’s fables. Fiction that caters to a literal audience flattens itself out to a single level; you get novels whose themes, philosophy, and point of view are surface aesthetics—all about how the text looks at first glance, with nothing in particular going on underneath—or with things going on underneath the author never intended.
The opposite of an unreliable narrator is an omniscient narrator; they know everything about the story and the inner life of its characters (while still not necessarily understanding everything about, like, everything). When the narrator isn’t omniscient, there’s still a sense in which the reader is omniscient, at least to a limited degree: unlike an unreliable narrator, we know there are lines to read between. Or we ought to, if we don’t want to wind up reading books the way Aroon reads her life.