Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Reading The Outward Room, by Millen Brand, reminded me of this painting by Hopper.
It is both a love story and the story of a young woman's recovery from mental illness after she has the good fortune to meet a thoroughly decent man. Harriet has spent years in an asylum following her brother's death. When she manages to escape, she jumps a train to New York where she is soon penniless, riding the subway at night with thousands of other homeless girls - and she can't even afford to buy a coffee in a neon-lit diner that sounds just like this one.
But when she meets John, his quiet goodness allows her spirit to mend.
The novel was a sensation when it was published in 1937 during the Great Depression, on the same day as William Maxwell's novel They Came Like Swallows.
I was fascinated by the descriptions of Depression-era New York, the El-trains and grimy rooming houses and sweatshops. But Harriet's slow, slow healing was a bit too slow for me and I couldn't help thinking that this would have been better as a long-ish short story. Maybe I just lack the patience for broken minds and broken syntax.
I'm glad that I read this but I far prefer William Maxwell. Interesting, though, that it was partly based on the experiences of Millen Brand's first wife who was deaf and came to New York when she was 17 to live in a windowless tenement in Greenwich village, supporting herself by working in sweatshops and washing dishes in restaurants.


Heather Bond said...

I just added this to my TBR list after happening upon it in a catalogue not 10 minutes ago. Then I stop in here to see what's up with you and there it is. I knew I liked you! Also, on yesterday's post, you may know about this site already but Spitalfields Life (www.spitalfieldslife.com) is a really great look at that part of the city. Hope you're keeping warm!

mary said...

Hi Heather, good to see you again! I'll be interested to see what you think of this because I don't know anyone else who's read it.
I do know Spitalfields Life ... it's wonderful, isn't it? Makes one's own efforts look very amateur!

Anonymous said...

I will be getting this from the library! The other book you linked to sounds excellent too. New York is a city you can very easily feel lonely in. I'd be very interested to read how Millen Brand explores that...much like Hopper does in his haunting paintings.

mary said...

Hi Rachel. I was in two minds about this one, it was interesting but not all-engrossing and I found myself nodding off occasionally - I'd go for William Maxwell if you'd never read him, I'm sure you'd really enjoy Time Will Darken It.
I'm enjoying your postings from New York - sounds like you've made lots of friends but I'm sure any big city gets overwhelming sometimes.