Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I may not have mentioned this before, but I’m a huge fan of the novella form. I usually read in the evenings and on a good day, I’ve got about an hour and a half – just enough time to read 100 to 150 pages, depending on the kind of writing. And when I can start a fictional world and finish it in one sitting, it’s like getting to experience the author’s complete vision all at once. No time to forget details in between readings, no interruptions. Just me and the story. It’s an incredibly satisfying way to read.

I wrote in my last post about the first novella (A Simple Tale) in Claire Messud’s The Hunters; the second novella, however, is where the collection takes its title. It’s a funny title, actually, and one that only makes sense about halfway through. The novella isn’t about hunting, but it makes use of the idea of hunter & prey. The novella is about an academic, recently suffering a romantic break-up, who lives in a strange out-of-the-way flat in London for a summer doing research and about a relationship (an odd relationship) that springs up with one of the neighbors.

Now, it took me several tries to write that last sentence without giving away the gender of the narrator. This is something Messud actually withholds from the reader – I want to say completely, but I’d have to re-read the whole book to be sure. I think it is never positively confirmed one way or another, although I have my strong suspicions. While I found the technique a little awkward, I enjoyed what she ultimately did with this ambiguity because the story appears to attempt two things: first, it becomes universal, and second, it dares the reader to ask whether it matters and whether the writer has confirmed the narrator’s gender through diction and voice.

The Hunters is an interesting little book because it’s a character study, and in many ways it feels like an experiment. The writing is a little bit impenetrable with lots of subordinate clauses and hemming and hawing and this makes it feel as though Messud got deep into character to write in this particular first person. I like that kind of textual richness, even if I don’t instinctively love this kind of prose. A quick example from the narrator’s second run-in with the neighbor:

But when I next saw her—in broad daylight, on the Kilburn High Road, emerging from one of those murky junk shops whose merchandise is plastic tat of innumerable types and uncategorizable vileness, each item more useless than the last—there could be no doubt that she was no figment. People clearly saw her—although I imagined that they, like me, could not bring themselves to look at her—and she had, clanking at her side, plastic bags full of purchases that were undoubtedly real—as real as the Kilburn High Road itself.

This professor is not a happy person and much of the disgust turned on Ridley Wandor can be seen as a reflection of the narrator’s sorrow. It is interesting to see how Messud manages the transformation of both characters, mostly the narrator of course. Because of the way that Messud has a perfect stranger make such a profound effect on the narrator, The Hunters is a deeply psychological story. A thought-provoking one-sitting read.

2 Responses to “Claire Messud – The Hunters”

  1. Lilian Nattel

    The experiment sounds like an interesting one. And that’s one of the pluses of the novella form. It’s long enough for a more profound investigation that a short story but short enough for an experiment without the drag of a full length novel.

    • Michelle

      Lilian – Yes, the fact that the experiment was contained in a novella and not a much longer work, helped a lot. It didn’t become overwhelming.

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