Siri Hustvedt
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993
ISBN # 0-340-58123-9
220 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2005

This is the marvelously written story of Iris Vegan, a young graduate student studying at Columbia University in New York City in 1979-1981. The story is told in four sections, functioning as four separate stories with only loose connections among them, but in sum give they us a vivid picture of the harsh life of Iris in those years.

Iris is a bright student but troubled person. She suffers from severe migraine headaches which seem to precipitate some mental troubles. We follow from the beginnings of her mental difficulties up to a point where she seems in better shape, perhaps her life on the path toward a better world, but this isnít fully clear.

Along we way she narrates her own story. The first being work she did for a mysterious and frightening elderly man who wanted her to write detailed descriptions of small items which he had come into possession of and which had belonged to a young woman brutally murdered in the manís apartment building.

The second section takes us into an affair she has with one young man, and a close friendship with his best friend, which itself turns into a short affair.

The third section takes place in a mental institution where she lives for seemingly only ten days, but in which time she takes on a close relationship with two other patients in the beds on either side of her. The section gives the appearance and feeling of being a much longer time than ten days, but clues from the last section make it clear that her stay was only ten days.

Finally there is a long section in which she forms a very special relationship with a professor, doing a translation of a rather sadistic German short story. The two of them, student and professor are rather deeply touched and moved by this story, which leads them in a short but intense sexual liaison.

In all of this Iris is struggling for her sanity, and she virtually loses it at times when she adopts the character and personality of the young male protagonist of the short story she has translated. She dresses as a male and roams the streets of Manhattan in this persona.

This is a dark and disturbing novel, a challenge to our concepts of the relationship between reality and fiction, and a penetrating presentation of a deeply troubled mind. The book kept me riveted in attention, an uncomfortable nervous tension filling me in much of what I read. It isnít a ďniceĒ book in any way, but it is well-constructed, and magnificently written, a door to a troubled mind and reality. Iím not sure what it all means, and not sure that the author actually presents a message. Rather, I feel I was meant to simply FEEL the reality of Irisís hard existence.

Bob Corbett


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