Saturday, July 11, 2009

Review: Instances of the Number Three by Salley Vickers

I read and enjoyed Vickers' Miss Garnet's Angel years ago as a book club selection and thought that I should try revisiting her novels. Opening after the accidental death of Peter Hansome, this is the story of the two women who loved him: his wife and his mistress. When Bridget, his wife, finds evidence of Peter's long suspected duplicity, she contacts Frances and the two begin a wary relationship, tied because of their feelings towards Peter. As the women develop a friendship of sorts, they are watched over by the speechless but generally benevolent ghost of Peter himself. An Iranian boy claiming to be Peter's protege appears and moves in with Bridget and then with Francis and then again with Bridget becoming the third in the newly reconfigured combination. And this doesn't begin to unravel even half of the plot. Although my accounting is terribly disjointed, the narrative hangs together beautifully as more truths are slowly unveiled about each character and each of their former places in Peter's compartmentalized world.

Vickers' characters, and indeed the book itself, are restrained, carefully guarded, and proper. Her impressively fluid writing lulls the reader so that the major plot twists come not as shocking surprises but organic growths out of the story itself. She plumbs the depths of relationships with these characters and plays with the characters in variations of threes of which Bridget, Francis, and Peter are only the most obvious set. The back cover copy of the book suggests that this is "a modern drawing room comedy" and while there were flashes that drew a chuckle, this is not comedy in the guffawing sense. It has a subtle, well-thought out, sly sort of humor interwoven into precisely drawn situations. None of the characters are particularly forthcoming to each other, nor even to the careful reader, who must mine the text for deeper revelations. I enjoyed the book but the slow pacing and restraint might put off some readers.

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