Put a madwoman in an attic, and all kinds of literary possibilities—some already well explored—ensue: a second novel by the author of (Kindergarten, 1980).
Alice Pinkerton isn’t exactly insane, and she doesn’t exactly live under the eaves. Indeed, writes Rushforth, “It annoyed her that they thought she was mad, but it annoyed her even more that they were wrong about the attic.” “They” are Alice’s bourgeois family friends and assorted bugaboos, one in particular with the stately name of Mrs. Albert Comstock (“one of those Lazarus-pale, white-fleshed, grotesquely shaped creatures drawn up from deep below the surface of cold dark water where light never penetrated”), a woman who makes a fine, increasingly complex foil for the ever-aggrieved protagonist. Ms. Pinkerton may live upstairs in a turn-of-the-last-century New York townhouse, but she really inhabits a world of books; throughout, she is constantly turning to or quoting from the likes of Charlotte Bronte, Herman Melville, or Charles Dickens, whose last novel, the incomplete Mystery of Edwin Drood, is on her mind for good reason. Contemporary novelists—excepting the wonderful Helen DeWitt (The Last Samurai) and Frederick Busch (The Night Inspector)—don’t often turn to the universe of crumbling pages and old-fashioned ideas. But Rushforth seems perfectly at home there, and readers of a literary bent will enjoy the stream of learned allusions and references flowing from Alice as she ponders the state of the unwashed, philistine society beyond her polished doors. Not much happens, though, in these 700-plus pages, and readers not sufficiently taken by Alice’s interior struggles and exterior tics may find its Victorian-parlor setting just a bit stuffy. Still, Rushforth is a careful writer who creates a fictional world very nicely indeed, and his Alice is a believable, sympathetic character who lives on her own terms even while counting the ghosts in the mirrors.
Complete with instructions on how to handle books in the event of plague, this is just the thing for fans of eccentric, backward-looking fiction.