I’ll start with a confession. I bought Disquiet because of the cover. I’m a sucker for beautiful covers, especially those that promise a gothic tale in a old mansion, or in this case, a chateau. But that wasn’t the only superficial reason I picked up this book. It was also short, a novella at 120 sparsely worded pages. I knew it was an afternoon’s book, and sometimes I just need a quick read to make me feel like I’ve completed something that day. And then there’s the title: Disquiet. It’s an old-fashioned word that seems to cling to an uncertainty that what is askew is really anything at all or at least not enough to really mention. Women in Henry James novels were disquieted. Today, we’re all just freaked out as fuck (which I think should be the actual meaning of #FOAF).
Disquiet turned out to be not at all the kind of book that usually appeals to me. It took me longer than an afternoon to read it after all. I found it difficult to penetrate. It definitely holds you not just at arm’s length but possibly several miles away. Olivia (mostly referred to as “the woman”) returns to her childhood home–a French country chateau–with her two children in tow, fleeing an abusive husband. The night they arrive, so does her brother Marcus and his wife Sophie with the body of their stillborn child so they can “get to know her” before the burial. There’s also the Olivia’s mother–austere, but kind of in a cool way and not in the freezer–and Ida, the housekeeper and defender of homestead.
There’s no, I mean zilch, access to the interior thoughts and emotions of the characters. My writing students would freak out that I like a story like this. I’m always telling them to dig deeper and make sure the reader understands why the characters are doing what they’re doing. Ms. Leigh does none of this. She just describes, and not even in a lot of detail. From that, like in a film or our real lives, we are left to interpret what’s going on.
There are so many questions that I have about this slim little book. It is frustrating in its denial of those answers. “If you can’t figure it out, I can’t help you,” it says. But I also found it satisfying in its trust in me, the reader, to fill in the blanks myself. I find it refreshing. The distance from the emotions and focus on the detailed actions of the characters pulled me in, like a puzzle. I wasn’t swept away, but I determined to put all the pieces together.