A slender classic follows a couple from England to Ibiza on a belated honeymoon
Every Eye. By Isobel English. Introduction by Neville Braybrooke. David R. Godine/Black Sparrow, 192 pp., $23.
By Janice Harayda
This elegant novel might sound like the literary godmother of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Like that Man Booker Prize finalist, Every Eye is a slender book about an English couple on a honeymoon – in this case, belated – near the ocean. And like On Chesil Beach, it comes from a distinguished British author who writes about how early misunderstandings can reverberate for a lifetime.
Yet Every Eye is everything that On Chesil Beach is not – subtle, persuasive and rich in insight. Hatty, the narrator, is a piano teacher who was born with a “lazy eye” that affects her view of herself long after surgery has corrected the problem. She marries late, well into her 30s, and recalls her awkward early years on a honeymoon trip through France and Spain to Ibiza with her intelligent young husband. And her apparently successful marriage suggests that her strains have eased. But a final, startling discovery awaits her when the parallel narratives of the novel, which glide between past and present, converge brilliantly during a visit to an abandoned hermitage on Ibiza. The last pages of the book do what all great endings should do but few achieve: They open up the novel and make you want to go back to the beginning and read it again.
Every Eve has equally fine observations on place and character. Hatty finds a wry comfort in learning that an acquaintance with whom she has little in common will attend a family party. “At least we had the barren fields of our incompatibility between us, which made us better than strangers,” she reflects in a phrase that might have come from Elinor Dashwood. When she begins to date men at last, Hatty feels a slight thrill at “the almost human expression of the hard blocked toe-caps of their shoes” with their requisite perforations.
Critics have compared English to Muriel Spark and Anita Brookner – both of whom admired her work – but she is less austere than Spark and takes more risks than Brookner. English has a voice all her own, and it is more interesting than that of many better-known writers. At this writing On Chesil Beach ranks #184 on Amazon www.amazon.com, and Every Eye #864,564. If the bestseller lists were a meritocracy, those numbers would be revered.
Best line: Hatty’s husband, Stephen, says, “People sometimes go though their whole lives without reaching the moment when they are exactly the person they want to be.”
Worst line: One of the few off-key phrases is “she said managingly to me.”
Recommendation? An excellent choice for reading groups that enjoy mid- to late-20th-century British female authors but have run through many of the stalwarts, such as Spark, Brookner and Penelope Fitzgerald.
Published: Every Eye was first published in England in 1956. The Black Sparrow www.blacksparrowbooks.com edition is its American debut. The novel is the second by English (1920-1994), the pen name of June Braybrooke. who wrote two others, Four Voices and The Key That Rusts, and the short story collection, Life After All, winner of the PEN/Katherine Mansfield Prize.
Furthermore: English’s husband, Neville Braybooke, has written a wondeful introduction to Every Eve. It includes this arresting passage: “Never did I read a complete manuscript [by English] until it was ready to be professional typed. Then, after it was returned, June wrapped it in a silk scarf, as was her custom, and delivered it hy hand to her publishers — in this case the firm of André Deutsch. All four of her books were delivered in this manner and the scarves sent back in the stamped, addressed envelopes that she had enclosed.”
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.