Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Review: The Quiet Woman, by Christopher Priest

Review: The Quiet Woman, by Christopher Priest

by Rich Horton

The late Christopher Priest (1943-2024) was one of the greatest SF writers of his generation. He made an early splash with novels like Inverted World and A Dream of Wessex (aka The Perfect Lover), followed by The Prestige, which was made into a succesful movie by Christopher Nolan, and then by any number of stories and novels in his Dream Archipelago sequence. I wrote an obituary of him for Black Gate here

I am scheduled to be on a panel at Readercon next month concerning Priest. In preparation for that, I'm reading or rereading a number of his novels. So don't be surprised when you see a number of reviews of his work on this blog in the coming weeks. I'm starting with one of his lesser known novels, The Quiet Woman. This was published in 1990 in the UK, but didn't get a US edition until 2005, and that from the small press Cosmos (an imprint of Wildside Press.) 

Alice Stockton is a writer, recently divorced and as a result living in a village in Wiltshire, instead of in London. She has just submitted her latest book for publication, but, shockingly, it has been impounded by the Home Office, and she can't get any information about why. And then the one friend she has made in her new village, an elderly woman named Eleanor Hamilton, is brutally murdered. 

So far this seems like a fairly typical dark British thriller/murder mystery. But then Alice learns that Eleanor had a son -- a son she had never mentioned to Alice. Meanwhile Alice decides that her next book will be about Eleanor (her specialty is books about the lives of women.) Eleanor was also a writer, though she was cagy about her publishing history to Alice -- and it takes some time for Alice to learn the name she used as a writer (of children's books, indeed, books that Alice had read at the appropriate age.)

We get chapters from the son's point of view as well. His name is Gordon Sinclair, and we learn that his father and his older brother died in a terrible accident when Gordon was very young, after which, in his words, his mother went mad. Gordon has a difficult childhood, and copes in part by creating an imaginary world of his own. In the present day, he has a job in public relations of some sort, in which he rather sinisterly manipulates the news -- manipulates reality, one might say -- for his clients' advantage -- and his clients may include the government. Or perhaps some of this is his imagination?

The story gets slowly weirder. Eleanor Hamilton's political activities come into focus -- she was an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. And apparently there has been a meltdown at a French nuclear reactor close enough to England that fallout reached Alice's village. England's political situation seems darker than it was in our timeline, with much more active government censorship, as evidenced by the treatment of Alice's seemingly harmless book. Eleanor's stories about her past are faintly ominous. Gordon Sinclair seems a creepier figure. Alice worries about her physical condition -- has the fallout affected her? And what about the alien ships that land in the nearby farms, leaving crop circles? Not to mention the sordid sexual assignations between Alice and Gordon in the past -- though neither seems to recognize the other in the present day narrative.

It coheres in the end, with a scary and tricksy and slightly ambiguous resolution. It is in this sense a very Priestian book. I don't think it stands with his very best work, like The Prestige, or A Dream of Wessex, or his several more recent Dream Archipelago books such as The Islanders. But it's a solid work, spooky at times, if at other times I did feel that Priest may have overegged his pudding. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the reminder that I need to review some Priest this year in memory of his fantastic literary contribution. He's a favorite of mine. And like so many favorites, it's been far too long since I've read his work.