So what do you do when you are reading two books neither of which you can put down? I can’t exactly read them both at the same time. I’m stuck going back and forth between them. But that’s not at all a bad way to spend a weekend.
The first one is Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, which I’m already over half way through. The plot starts off at a fast pace, and I’m dying to know how it all turns out, but, as is usual for me, it’s not just the plot that captures my attention — I want to know more about the characters. The book fulfills that desire too; the second section retells the events of the first, but from another character’s viewpoint, so while the plot itself isn’t the interest here, the different interpretations each character has of what’s going on is. I love the way this technique allows you to see how little the facts of a situation matter — what matters is your interpretation, the sense you make of those facts. It’s a little disturbing at the same time, though, because it makes you realize how little solid ground of certainty any of us have to stand on.
The other book is Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, a book about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, the legends that surround both of them, and the way biographies have created those legends. Litlove recently wrote a beautiful review of this book, which was one of the reasons I picked it up, and the other is that I’ve had my eye on Malcolm’s books for years, since they seemed to be the sort of nonfiction I like best — the uncategorizeable sort. I have now determined that I need to read every book she has written; Malcolm is someone I will like no matter what she writes about.
The book has lots of information on Plath and Hughes, but mainly it’s about the afterlife of Plath and the sort of life-in-death experiences Hughes has had after her suicide. It tells the stories behind the memoirs and biographies that have appeared, and the wars that advocates of Plath and those of Hughes have waged with each other over how to interpret their relationship. It tells about Malcolm’s own experiences researching her subjects, and it also advances an argument about biography itself.
Both of these books, I’m realizing now, have much to say about the uncertainty of knowing anything. The characters in Fingersmith think they understand and can control what is happening, but they discover, painfully, that they can’t. The people in Malcolm’s book believe they understand exactly what sort of people Plath and Hughes were, and yet there are others out there who are equally certain the opposite is true. There’s really nothing a person can do but flounder through all the uncertainty and hope not to get it too terribly wrong.