The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

the blank wall

What lengths will an ordinary housewife go to in order to protect her family? Elisabeth Sanxay Holding brilliantly explores just this question in The Blank Wall, a gripping thriller that had me sitting up in bed until the wee small hours. Lucia Holley is a New York housewife, transplanted to the countryside for the duration of the war. Her much loved husband is away fighting, and she shares their lakeside home with her elderly British father and two teenaged children, Bee and David. As the novel opens, Lucia is worried about Bee; she has started going to Art School in the city, and has been fraternising with an undesirable older man, Ted Darby. Bee is deaf to Lucia’s protests, dismissing her as a clueless housewife with no understanding of the real world. However, Lucia is proved right when she predicts Ted will be nothing but trouble; when he turns up at their boathouse late one night, her father goes out to see him off the premises. In the morning, Lucia goes out to the lake to find Ted dead in her motorboat; when her father gave him a shove into the water, he didn’t realise that he’d pushed him directly onto an upended anchor. Lucia is horrified, but anxious to protect her father and daughter, she realises she must take action. She sets off in the boat to hide the body on a nearby sandbank, but little does she know what consequences her involvement will have…

Sanxay Holding is brilliant at ramping up the tension, and with every chapter the threats increase. Ted Darby’s associates turn up, with material to blackmail Lucia. The local Lieutenant finds some incriminating evidence that puts him on her scent. From being a perfectly ordinary suburban housewife, Lucia suddenly becomes plunged into a world of secrets and vice, fear and danger. Her focus throughout, however, is not how to save her own neck, but those of her family. She is motivated by protecting her adored father from the knowledge of his bloodied hands, and her beloved daughter from having to admit the indiscretions she has indulged in with such an undesirable man. There is nothing she won’t do to avoid them experiencing pain; nothing she won’t do to ensure their lives remain happy, safe and comfortable.

While the major plot of the novel surrounds Lucia’s attempts to cover up Ted’s death and her subsequent actions, there is also much in here about Lucia’s life as a wife and mother. Married when barely out of school, Lucia has never had to cope on her own. Her world has consisted solely of the domestic sphere; bringing up children, organising meals, changing beds, shopping for groceries. She is assisted in this by her loyal maid Sibyl, who covers up the fact that Lucia is actually not very good at any of these tasks. Lucia sees herself as absent minded and ineffectual, and as her children grow up, they begin to dismiss her as both infantile and a disappointment. David treats his mother like a child who needs looking after; Bee considers Lucia’s life to have been nothing but a waste. However, with her husband gone, her father grown feeble, and her daughter needing her protection, Lucia is forced to dig deep within herself to find the qualities she has always believed she lacked. Rather than crumbling under the strain, she thrives. With the help of the steely Sibyl, Lucia finds the courage and resourcefulness she has never had the opportunity to use before. These two women, normally hidden from view, come into their own as events progress, and demonstrate to the family that they are not the passive creatures they have always appeared to be.

I loved The Blank Wall‘s complexity in working on so many different levels. I found it a powerfully feminist novel that gives a brilliant insight into mid century American life, as well as being a fantastic work of suspense. Lucia is a character who surprises everyone throughout the novel, including herself. Her relationship with Sibyl in particular is very interesting; they trust in and rely on one another implicitly. Lucia’s love of Sibyl and disdain of the racism she experiences reminds us of the political context of the novel, as well as underlining that Lucia is not all she seems. Bee thinks Lucia has no awareness of real life, but she has plenty; she can smell Ted Darby’s rotten odour from a mile off, and instinctively knows that she can trust his associate Marty, who turns up soon afterwards to stir up trouble. Their relationship is also intriguing; Marty’s reaction to Lucia reminds us that she is still a young and very attractive woman, desired and desiring. Bee and David are disturbed by Marty because they reveal their mother to them in a whole new light, and force them to realise that they don’t really know her at all. For Lucia has never really had the chance to find out who she is, or what she is capable of. In a way, covering up a death gives Lucia a new life. But will she be free to live it? You’ll have to read this brilliant novel to find out!

27 comments

  1. Holding was the absolute queen of the mid-cuntury American domestic mystery. Not only are the plots ingeniously plotted, but the details of upper-middle-class life are meticulous. For a while she was out of print; I’m glad some of her work is now being republished.

    1. It’s such a shame that her books aren’t more widely available – I need to track them down! I agree with you entirely – it’s the details of upper middle class life that fascinated me as much as the mystery. A real balancing act that worked throughout.

  2. I loved this book too Rachel, but I love the film version called The Deep End with Tilda Swinton even more. Do try to see it!

  3. I love that cover! It looks like something little me would have bought at a book sale when I was little and then totally failed to understand a lot of it. Also, I miss book sales.

  4. I love that trashy cover, this is one of the Persephones I knew nothing about but it sounds ace. Also it fits perfectly for 1947 on my Century of Book challenge so I *have* to buy it now.😉

    1. Yes, I think it is one of those more under read Persephones, which is a shame, as it’s brilliant! Glad to hear it fits perfectly with your reading plans – go buy now!

  5. Why don’t I just have a standing order to buy all of the books you enjoy? Seriously though, I was quite excited to see that you were reading this, Rachel, as that Persephone catalogue of mine keeps being gleaned for future orders. Love books that keep a reader up at night!

    1. 🙂 Maybe you should! This is one of those Persephones that seems to get overlooked and it’s a real shame as it’s something enjoyably different. I know you’d love this!

  6. Oh, it sounds fabulous. I’ve never read anything by Holding, and I don’t know if I’ll find a copy of this book in Argentina, but I certainly will try. It seems to be entirely up my alley. Great review!

  7. Wow sounds like a great mistery! Thanks for pointint this out, I had never heard of it.

    Also, a quick note: a housewife solving a crime and someone named Bee (that sounds almost as “Bree”) that’s very Desperate Housewives!

  8. I totally hate this book. I didn’t feel any empathy for the mother. I found her inner dialogue banal. Really- she has a servant and sends her laundry out.. She seems to have no way to think five minutes ahead. Daughter keeps yelling at her and son is scornful of her. The male characters – interchangeable- the “good cop bad cop” of the blackmailers is laughable.. When I found out this was originally serialized in a woman’s magazine it came clear to me why it didn’t move and was full of descriptions of the “heroine’s” clothing and rants about rationing…forcing myself to read it to the end.. Am I the only one who feels like slapping this female moron?

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