Not every book ends with the last chapter
When a fiction comes to a gruelling conclusion, the author sometimes puts in an afterword to soothe the reader. Characters come back from death, lovers are reunited, mysteries are explained. But be prepared for the worst to be followed by even worse.
In Susan Hill’s I’m the King of the Castle, a young widow comes to live as a housekeeper with her son, Charles. The master of the house is a widower, also with a young son. That boy declares hostilities and bullies Charles, verbally, physically, emotionally, and relentlessly. Worst of all, Charles stoically struggles against these horrors alone. His unloving mother is intent on landing a husband, and the poor child can ultimately find only one way out of his torment. Even then no one acknowledges what happened to him. The desolate reader howls in protest. In Hill’s afterword, she concedes some adults felt the ending was far-fetched, but young readers “seem to know better” and recognised the particular cruelties children face. In short, she seems to say, don’t come whining to me.
Another afterword to a novel, though not by the author himself, pulled the rug out from under my feet. Sinclair Ross’s 1941 novel As For Me and My House is considered a Canadian classic. The narrator, Mrs Bentley, is incarcerated in a life determined entirely by her husband’s profession, and unrelieved by any expression of love from that husband.
The couple have just moved to a small prairie town. It is the late 1930s, a particularly miserable era. Philip is an artist and his wife is a pianist, but he preaches for a living and they struggle to keep up a genteel front. Their emotional poverty is so dire that the reader often has to remind herself to breathe. Mrs Bentley dreads to invite a guest, play the piano, ask her husband to fix the heater, or even express her affection. Though they have both given up their artistic dreams, she feels she is responsible for the waste of his talents.
While tiptoeing around her husband’s temperamental sulks and running interference whenever he offends the parishioners, Mrs Bentley battles her own depression and saves her scarce dollars for the day they can flee and buy a book store. Ross depicts a marriage that is a dual loneliness, stunted by rules about who can earn and who must make do, who acts and who reacts.
That’s what I felt, anyway. In his afterword, the critic Robert Kroetsch suggested it was Mrs Bentley who brooded and pushed her husband around. My sympathies were all on her side and his seemed to be on the husband’s.
Staggered, I re-read the entire book and the afterword. This time both Ross and Kroetsch seemed more balanced. Philip sounded warmer and the Mrs more hopeful. Now I’m still more uncertain about my reading. Should I go at it a third time and see whether author, critic and reader can come to an agreement? Clearly, even the afterword is not the last word.