The Magazine

Death and the Maiden

A 'Wuthering Heights' set in Cool Britannia.

Jul 16, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 41 • By DIANE SCHARPER
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by Erica Wagner

W.W. Norton, 224 pp., $23.95

Janet Ward learns that her mother, who died three weeks ago, left her a beach house on a remote British coast. Sounds good until you find out that Janet's mother died 30-some years ago when Janet was three. Is there some mistake?

The answer is just one part of the mystery informing Erica Wagner's first novel. This postmodern love story with a dark twist looks at the effects of maternal abandonment on Janet and on Tom, who coincidentally lives in the very beach house that Janet inherits--although, as she will later learn, Tom's presence is no coincidence.

The literary editor of the London Times, Wagner, an American who resides in England, has used the theme of abandonment in her earlier writings. Gravity (1997), a collection of short stories, examined the effects of loving and losing on ultrasensitive and introspective protagonists. Ariel's Gift (2000) studied the destructive relationship between the poetry power couple Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, who was so devastated by Hughes's abandonment that she committed suicide--leaving behind young children.

Seizure suggests the influence of both works, as its two protagonists are lonely, looking for love, ultrasensitive, and introspective to a fault. They've both also suffered the loss of their mother. Janet, especially fragile, is given to seizures which are unexplained but which also seem to be connected to the loss of her mother in infancy. Tom, who was also abandoned by his mother, seems better able to cope than Janet, probably because he was about 14 when his mother disappeared.

Janet can remember nothing of her mother and knows only what her father has told her: that her mother left the house and was run over by a drunk driver. After she died, her bereft husband raised Janet, their only child who, like her mother, was a dark-haired beauty. A doting father, he reminisced about his wife, telling Janet supposedly true stories about how they met, how they spent the early days of their marriage, and how much they loved their daughter.

Although Janet never saw official papers concerning the circumstances of her mother's death, and didn't ask her father for specific information, she always assumed her father's version of the past was true. When Janet learns of her inheritance and of her mother's recent demise, her father has been dead for several years. So she must find out the truth for herself, which is why she decides to take time off from her job as a city planner and drive to the property that she inherited. If nothing else, she thinks this journey to the shore might relax her and help with the seizures, but it has just the opposite effect.

Called the Shieling, a Scottish noun meaning shepherd's hut, the property is replete with sea, sand, and seals, but no shepherds or sheep. The plumbing is primitive, and the amenities are few. Yet the place has a significant draw in the person of Tom, the handsome, fair-haired man who lives there and considers the house to be his own.

Having lived at the beach house--first with his mother and then by himself for about 15 years--Tom has a meager existence. He supports himself by doing odd jobs and working as a mechanic. Having little contact with the outside world, he fishes, hunts, and reminisces about the good times he had with his mother, with whom he had a semi-erotic relationship. Most of those times were spent listening to stories his mother told him. Some of the narratives were true; others were fairy tales.

A few stories, though, seem to be a mix of truth and invention. Tom remembers his mother telling him about his father, who in demon-lover fashion grew hooves after he beguiled her into following him aboard his ship--an action that required leaving behind a husband and infant. Later, mother and son are also abandoned, although the father returns to visit, with Tom remembering his fears during one such visit. Ultimately, Tom's mother also disappears, and it's assumed that she's gone off with her lover. Now, all that he has left of his mother is this house and a photograph showing her to be a dark-haired beauty. (Tom resembles his father.)

Suffused with poetic language, Seizure seems like an overwritten prose poem. Nearly every word does double duty; even its title is a pun playing off Janet's seizures, of her taking hold of the house already held by Tom, of the house and the characters possessed by spirits, and of Tom and Janet held in thrall by each other. But the poetry and the characters' tendency towards self-examination add to the sense of mystery pervading the narrative. So does the Russian stack-doll structure, which is composed of several stories within stories. Wagner juxtaposes one story with the other, making the characters and their reminiscences fuse.

The labyrinthine plot advances through interior monologues in which reality and illusion meet, meld, and create a multilayered novel with numerous allusions to fairy tales and ballads. There's the demon lover, the false knight, the hunter and his seal wife, Tom, the piper's son, as well as Briar Rose. These allusions come together to form the larger story of the novel, giving it an archetypal quality but making it slow to read and sometimes hard to understand.

The echoes of Emily Brontë, Jorge Luis Borges, and John Fowles add yet another layer to the narrative. Wagner's protagonists (à la Brontë) are Wuthering Heights spin-offs--with Tom as Heathcliff and Janet as Catherine Earnshaw. The ill-fated pair go around in concentric circles not on the moors but on the sand (and in bed) as they try to sort out the past, for themselves and for the reader, but wind up reliving it (à la Borges).

Wagner distorts that past (à la Fowles) by presenting it piecemeal and by switching the narrative point of view, back and forth from present to past and from Janet to Tom. With their fragile mental states further distorting their view of the past, Tom and Janet don't seem to realize what's happening to them.

When they finally do, it's too late.

Diane Scharper's latest book, Reading Lips, will be published later this year by Apprentice House.