Thursday, September 27, 2012
PHYLLIS PAUL - A CAGE FOR THE NIGHTINGALE
The bleak, precise, sombre novels of Phyllis Paul have been sought-after in recent years, ever since Glen Cavaliero discovered her work, recognised its strange qualities, and began to write about it. They remain quite hard to find, so it's welcome that The Sundial Press of Dorset have just reprinted her 'A Cage for the Nightingale' (1957), with an introduction by Glen Cavaliero, who points out that this is the first reissue of her work since her death nearly forty years ago. Her novels, he notes, "plumb spiritual depths as harrowing and violent as those of Jacobean tragedy": while Elizabeth Jane Howard, quoted on the dustjacket, reaches even further back, evoking "An almost medieval sense of good and ill". What distinguishes her books is the contrast between the meticulous, correct, shrewdly-observed prose and the stark tragedies and villainies she describes so remorselessly. 'We Are Spoiled' was the title of another of her books, and this sense of humanity as doomed to an existence of sly little evils and weak acquiesence in viciousness permeates all her writing. 'A Cage for the Nightingale' has at its heart a young woman's hesitant quest for the truth about a mysterious death some years before, and the ambiguous roles and attitudes of those around her in the country house where she is a paid companion. The story is well-contrived, with the reader often left in doubt about any explanation. But what pervades the book most of all is a sense of so many shadows, not just in the house and its grounds, but in the conscience of each character - and of greater shadows in a half-lit world beyond.