By Steven CarrollFiction HarperCollins
A New England Affair
1965. The great poet, T.S. Eliot, is dead. Hearing the news, the 72-year-old Emily Hale points her Ford Roadster towards the port of Gloucester, where a fishing boat will take her out to sea – near the low, treacherous rocks called the Dry Salvages, just off Cape Ann, Massachusetts.
Over the course of that day, clutching a satchel of letters, Emily Hale slips between past and present, reliving her life with Eliot – starting with that night in 1913 when her life turned, when the young Tom Eliot and Emily Hale fell deeply in love with each other.
But Tom moved to London to fulfil his destiny as the famous poet, and Emily went on to become his muse – the silent figure behind some of the greatest poetry of the 20th century – his friend and his confidante. But never did she become his lover or his wife.
From Steven Carroll, one of our most brilliant, award-winning authors, A New England Affair is the third novel in his acclaimed Eliot Quartet, a deeply moving, intense and poignant novel of a love that never finds the right moment, and so becomes the ghost of what could have been, of what never quite was, and never quite will be.
Steven Carroll seems to somehow break the reader’s heart and put it back together in this moving and gently powerful novel. Exploring the themes of the lives not lived, the loves not consummated, the leaps not risked, Carroll paints a rich and poignant portrait of Emily Hale. Your life can change course in a moment as Emily learns when she locks eyes with a young man named Tom Eliot. The brilliance of Carroll’s Eliot novels lies in him not focusing purely on the poet but instead revealing the life and times of the man and those who surrounded him. The private history of a public figure is mined and the narrative is richer for it.
Running two timelines parallel, Carroll seamlessly weaves the story of young Emily’s friendship with Tom, an ambitious young man bound for London, and 74-year-old Emily Hale hearing the news of T.S. Eliot’s death. Their relationship is the centrepiece of this novel and Carroll wistfully evokes the expectations, broken promises, waiting, hoping, dreaming, imagining and planning Hale and Eliot inflict on each other over the course of their friendship.
Carroll’s quiet, measured style is imbued with breathtaking observations of seemingly small moments. His writing here invites contemplation and reflection on what we lose in life and what we have, who we think we are and who we aspire to be. This novel is so much more than the sum of its parts and it’s impossible not to feel you have borne witness to something incredibly beautiful and true.
The rock rears up from the water like the remains of a giant whale. Surging around it in a continuous roar as they dash and withdraw, the waves make a sound all their own. Local sailors call it the rote: a moan, a roar, a primeval groan; it is the very voice of the rock itself, heard for miles around. In calm waters, sea birds nestle here, the granite whale enduring a white mantle of bird droppings, while seaweed, brown and green, clings to its edges. The smaller, surrounding rocks bare their teeth in the moonlight. They are a sailor’s last seamark before setting out, and the first coming back in. The Dry Salvages. Les Trois Sauvages. Savages.
Hunching in darkness, they wait. That sound, their only give-away. When the cloud parts, the moon shines down on the whale hump and jagged teeth. Another cloud and they disappear into the haze of night. Waves come and go, light and dark do battle. On the shore, holiday houses, boats and chowder bars glow in the night; the thump of a dance band floats out over the water. The rocks are indifferent to it all.
Ships have shattered on these rocks. Crews, crates, bits of boats, rigging and torn sails floating out to sea or washing upon the beach. Ships’ bells have sunk to the depths; their clocks, stopped at the moment of their sinking. But the rocks remain. Before you, and after you. Unmoved and unmoving, for all manner of fated things will come to them. Indifferent to time — the neat divisions of past, present and future are meaningless. They are a watery world unto themselves.
And as much as fishermen and sailors might use them to chart a course, the rocks don’t care. People use; rocks abide. People come and go, leaving almost no trace; only the rocks remain, before you and after you, a primeval hump in the moonlight surrounded by jagged teeth, exhaling a continuous roar, a deep groan heard for miles around proclaiming I am. Now visible, now hidden, they are the beginning of a journey or the end of one.
A Flaw in the Crystal
Unobserved by the gathering in the parlour, the long, lingering high note, swelling as it hovers, finds the weakness in a crystal glass. A tiny hole appears, a stigmata through which the red wine, drop by drop, falls onto the white tablecloth in an ever expanding stain.
But no one sees it. Everybody is too captivated by the young woman and her voice. So too is the young woman herself. The gathering in the parlour is perfectly still. She has them. Notes have never poured from her so effortlessly, and even as she sings her song, she is curiously detached, as if watching from out there in the audience. She brings that long, lingering note back down to earth, a high-flying bird returning to its keeper, and begins the second verse, slowly building once again to the chorus. And all the time, she has them. She knows it. All eyes are on her. Especially one pair, the darkest eyes she has ever looked into. ‘The wave dreams on the beach,’ she sings, ‘my delight is alone,’ aware, more keenly as the song progresses, that the young man, her friend’s cousin, is watching — the corners of his lips (and she notes the primness of his mouth) turned ever so slightly upwards in the hint of a smile.
A Gioconda smile, she thinks, momentarily distracted from her song of waves dreaming on the beach and lone delight.
Deep into the song again, she tells herself, don’t look, don’t look at him. But of course, she looks. It is both exciting and disquieting. Disquieting because all her life she’s been told the value of measured living, of restraint. So it is both thrilling and troubling. Like indulging in some delight she knows is forbidden. All of which nearly distracts her from her song and all those dreaming waves that have suddenly become associated with that Gioconda smile. He, in front of her in the parlour, but for all the world a lone figure on the beach, listening to the siren song of the sea.
And it is as she is once again building to the chorus, the effortless notes thrilling, and made more thrilling by the close intimacy of the parlour, that she sees some of the audience turn to the table behind them. When they turn back to her their lips are moving, they are murmuring to each other, but she can’t hear what they are saying.
Behind them, out of sight, the red wine, drop by drop, falls onto the white tablecloth in an ever-expanding stain. The stigmata, created by the combination of one long, high note and a weakness in the crystal from which the wine falls, drop by drop.
The last of her soaring notes comes to earth. Everything is silent and still. Then the applause breaks the spell, and those who turned from the singer to the table behind them turn once again to the object of their astonishment, informing those around them, pointing at the glass, until a small crowd gathers.
But before Emily can discover the cause of the distraction, her friend, Eleanor, whose house she is performing in, moves to the front of the parlour, claps her hands, and announces that a small reading will now take place. And that is when the young man steps forward and stands beside her.
‘Miss Emily Hale,’ Eleanor is announcing to the audience, ‘and Mr Tom Eliot will now perform “An Afternoon with Mr Woodhouse”, short scenes from Miss Austen’s Emma.’ With that she leaves them to it and Emily watches with amusement as her friend’s cousin, Tom Eliot, immediately assumes the manner of Mr Woodhouse, and after briefly setting the scene and the characters coming to dine with Mr Woodhouse and his family, and after remarking on the weather and how they shouldn’t be out in the cold for it is bad, very bad for one’s health, that he is sure it will snow tonight and they’ll all be marooned here, he begins extolling the virtues of thin gruel.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist