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Review: There Were No Windows, by Norah Hoult

Pages: 341
Original date of publication: 1944My edition: 2005 (Persephone)
Why I decided to read: heard about this through Persephone’s catalogue
How I acquired my copy: Persephone subscription, October 2010

“She was all alone now in the darkness, now that to please Mr Mills she had left her torch turned off. There were no windows. Everyone was shut in upon themselves.” (p. 245).

There Were No Windows is the story of Claire Temple, an eighty-plus woman who has lost her memory. At one point in her life she was a well-known author with numerous love affairs; but now she lives alone, with only her servants to care for her. Set in London at the height of WWII, this novel chronicles the downfall of a woman who attempted, in her life, to be an individual, when the reader discovers that in the end, all of that doesn’t matter—because we all end up in some form or another like Claire (scary thought).

It’s a brilliant book, albeit with a difficult subject. How does an author get into the mindset of an elderly woman who is losing her memory? Norah Hoult does it in a real, believable way. There’s a certain irony to Claire’s story, how at one time she was a celebrated author in her own right, making her own decisions about her life and living more freely than her Victorian contemporaries; but that in the end, shocked by her behavior, her family have given up on her and all she has left are a couple of servants who don’t care for her and talk about her nastily behind her back.

Watching Claire Temple’s descent is fascinating: she’s frustrating because she constantly repeats herself and makes up stories (probably because she doesn’t remember what really happened, so her mind fills in the gaps), and says mean things without thinking; but you really feel sorry for her—she even forgets that there’s a major war going on, literally right outside her windows. Her recollections of the past are therefore unreliable; is she lying about whether she was really married to Wallace Temple? (is Claire’s last name therefore really Temple?)

Norah Hoult based this novel closely on the life of Violet Hunt, who at the height of her career had salons at her home, which were attended by everyone from Rebecca West to DH Lawrence; it was rumored that as a young woman she was even proposed to by Oscar Wilde. It’s interesting to see the parallels between fact and fiction.


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