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Muriel Spark: The Hothouse by the East River

Another fun novel from Spark about the decline of Western civilisation and things not being what they seem to be. This one has bemused some readers, perhaps because they read it as a realist novel, which it clearly is not. The main characters may well have died many years before. No-one is even vaguely normal and the heroine (if that is the right word) has a shadow which falls the wrong way. Elsa and Paul Hazlett live in an overheated apartment overlooking the East River. They met during the war in England when they both worked with a group aimed at using German prisoners for a disinformation campaign. At the start of the book, Elsa, who has already been institutionalised and is being treated by Garven, an analyst, sees, in a shoe store, Helmut Kiel, who was one of the Germans. Kiel, however, turned out to be a double agent and was imprisoned, where he apparently died. So, did Elsa see Kiel? Was it Kiel? Did he die? Paul and their daughter, Katerina, check it out and seem to think it may well be Kiel but he is a bit young. Kiel, who is now Mueller, denies it, saying he was too young to be Kiel. Both Katerina and Elsa sleep with him to try and confirm whether he is Kiel but come to no conclusion. And that’s the easy bit.

Not only is there a problem with Elsa’s shadow, she might or might not be imagining other things. Who has the money – Paul or Elsa? Why does Garven become her butler when her maid suddenly throws a fit and decides everyone and everything is lousy? Why does she attend the production of Peter Pan put on by her son, Pierre, where all the cast is over sixty and at least one was in the disinformation bureau with her, and then throw rotten tomatoes at the cast? And, of course, are Paul and Elsa (and, by extension, their son and daughter) alive or were they killed when a V-2 hit their train? Spark tells a joyous story of mad eccentrics, disjointed reality and a world where nothing is what it seems but let’s have fun laughing at it anyway. But please don’t read it as a realist novel. It isn’t.

Publishing history

First published 1973 by Macmillan