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Joseph McElroy: Actress in the House

McElroy’s favourite theme is how we, as humans, try to make sense out of seemingly random clues. This book certainly takes up that theme. The book starts off with Bill Daley, a New York lawyer, attending a play at a theatre with his girlfriend, Helen. (We later learn that his wife, Della, has died.) During the play, an actor called Barry hits an actress, real name Becca Lang, playing his sister, in the face, as she has just told his wife about his adultery. However, the hit is far stronger than might be expected, so much so that Becca staggers and there is blood on her face. Daley, Helen and other audience members all notice this and are shocked. (Interestingly enough, on the cover of my edition of the book, the first US hardback edition, there is a picture of this slap and the actress is clearly Rita Hayworth. I am sure that that is of no significance whatsoever.) McElroy continues with the play and the aftermath for a while but intersperses with other events. In particular, we learn that Daley is there because Becca Lang had phoned him previously, asking him to represent her, as she was being evicted from her apartment. He is reluctant to represent her as housing law is not his speciality and, indeed, says he can recommend another lawyer. However, she is determined to have him as her lawyer as he had been recommended by a mutual friend called Van Diamond. (Daley has never heard of Van Diamond but later learns that she is referring to Ruley Duymens, a somewhat mysterious banker who was planning on financing the dance group of Della (Daley’s wife) some years ago.) However, Daley does not immediately put her off and, indeed, goes to see her in the play. After the play, he will go backstage and meet Barry and then meet Becca, though he talks with her for a long time without telling her who he is.

All of this shows where McElroy is going with this novel. Daley is something of an observer but not a casual, disinterested observer. We see this with Becca, where he clearly does not want to represent her but is curious about the story and wants to learn more. We see this with another potential client, Lotta. She had purchased some (probably fake) pre-Columbian statues. There had been a minor earthquake, resulting in the statues falling off the shelf and breaking. Lotta phones Daley and asks him to represent her in the case. Who are we suing? he asks. She has no answer but phones him back at home at three in the morning, when Ruley Duymens is staying at his house, while his wife is out walking. She wants to sue Connecticut, as the epicentre of the earthquake was in that state. Daley is interested and curious, though obviously not prepared to sue a state for that reason. We also see it with his brother, Wolf. Wolf is an expert on material construction relating to dam building. He is asked to go to Australia to evaluate a new dam project and decides to take Daley along, though it is not clear why. Daley, though not involved in any way in the project, seems to know something about dam construction. Indeed, Wolf seems to suggest that, in some areas, he is as knowledgeable as he is, and he certainly has some views on the project.

The other theme is that everything is connected. At the play, Helen and Daley meet Leander. Daley offers to help Leander get a job – it turns out that Daley runs an employment agency from his lawyer’s office. Becca knows Duymens, who knows Della. She also seems to now something about the war atrocity in Vietnam that Daley was involved in. In short, people suddenly seem to be linked to people and events that you might not expect them to be linked to.

There is an undercurrent of violence running through the book. Of course, it starts with the slap but then we learn that Becca may have been abused by her father and, possibly, her brother, Bruce, when she was a child. We learn of an accident in which Wolf was hurt and could have been killed. Daley tells Bruce how he saw Duymens hit Della very hard when he was teaching her to dive. Daley did nothing about it. We also learn details of the war atrocity in Vietnam in which Daley was involved.

As always with McElroy, it is something of a strange book and it is not always clear where it is going, as McElroy jumps around both in place and time. While at times it is slow and you do wonder where it is going, it also has something of a mesmerising feel to it, with the people involved seeming to be real people but, yet, not quite real. As with his other books, it is worth reading but you may well be slightly puzzled by it after you have read it.

Publishing history

First published 2003 by Overlook