STEVEN CARROLL A World of Other People. Reviewed by Tony Bremner
The novelist reveals himself a poet in this story of love in wartime London that channels TS Eliot.
Steven Carroll is a fine writer, with a Proustian ability to explore the minutiae of the instant. He loves to tell us that ‘while this is happening here, over there that is happening’. A huge stillness is the result, the stillness of a summer afternoon, and this atmosphere of simultaneity is enhanced by the present-tense narrative. His characters are active in a dreamscape, a half-forgotten memory, an eternal now. We have met this mood before in Carroll’s earlier novel, The Lost Life.
A World of Other People is set in London during the Second World War. Our young Australian protagonist Jim is the sole survivor of the crash of his aircraft, which he has almost managed to bring safely home after a bombing raid in Germany. He is haunted by horrors of the crash, and his injuries have brought his flying days to an end. The other protagonist, Iris, a writer-in-embryo, spends her nights fire-watching as an ARP warden on the roof of a building which happens to house the publishers Faber and Faber, and it is here that she meets ‘Mr Eliot’. TS Eliot, one of Faber’s editors, already famous as a poet, is a fellow fire-watcher.
Eliot seems to Iris (and to us) a taciturn, somewhat enigmatic figure, but for that very reason appears to possess wide understanding and wisdom. We don’t hear much from him, but Iris manages to find meaning and symbolism for her life through images in his poetry, and Mr Eliot seems to sense a fellow-visionary in Iris. The poet’s magical imagery and the mysterious, evocative language of Four Quartets almost drench the novel – rose gardens, fire, descent and ascent, time present, time past, the passage we did not take. Narrative parallels abound. Is Carroll a poet himself? He ought to be.
Nothing much happens plot-wise but it is the telling that is important. Iris and Jim meet in a park (he is weeping and she tries to offer help) and eventually become lovers. Jim goes to a poetry reading by Eliot in Eliot’s London church (St Stephen’s, Gloucester Road) where the poet reads ‘Little Gidding’, a poem that seems to speak to Jim’s soul. The scene gives us vivid glimpses into the poet’s mannerisms and voice as he diffidently performs and the poetry evokes in Jim memories of his crash, which, unknown to her, Iris had coincidentally witnessed as the aircraft plunged into Regent’s Park. Misunderstanding and despair haunt their affair, and ‘Little Gidding’ becomes tragically important in the end.
Jim emerges as a most believable character, Iris less so, somewhat insubstantial. What does the book’s title refer to? A Camus/Sartre existentialism? Are our characters all alone in a world of ‘real’ people outside? Is true communication between people impossible?
Some of Carroll’s imagery feels a bit contrived: where the image of Rita Hayworth would usually be there is a white dove painted ‘for some paradoxical reason’ on the fuselage of Jim’s plane. But the dove descending in flames surely implies the Holy Ghost at Pentecost (another Eliot reference – he was a devout Christian), a frightful, despairing version of Christianity as the Battle of Britain rages in the skies?
There are a few unfortunate anachronistic solecisms; ‘call’ and ‘phone’ would be ‘ring’ in the 1940s, a ‘phone booth’ would be a ‘[tele]phone box’ and ‘winding up’ under a tree should be ‘ending up’. But my goodness this is a good book, and Carroll knows his TS Eliot well – in fact, Eliot is a major character in The Lost Life, too, which I also heartily recommend.
Steven Carroll A World of Other People HarperCollins 2013 PB 288pp $24.99
Tony Bremner was born in Sydney and now lives in London, where he is a composer and arranger.
You can buy this book from Abbey’s here.
If you would like to see if it is available through Newtown Library, click here.