Reading this novel is like taking a long deep breath of air when your lungs are bursting. The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor is about beauty and is loosely based on the fairy story – a man rescuing a woman – but with real people who have faults, irritations, fantasies and vanities, whose prejudices and past lives inconveniently do not go away.
In the small seaside town of Seething, Vinny Tumulty visits an old friend, Isabella, whose husband has recently died. He wants to support her through difficult times, but Isabella fancies she is falling in love with him. Vinny, however, sees a stranger walking on the beach and, without seeing her clearly, knows she is beautiful. We learn later that Emily’s face has been reconstructed, plastic surgery necessary after a car accident caused by her drunken brother-in-law. Emily’s widowed sister Rose tells Vinny that, since her accident, Emily looks and behaves like a completely different person. To Rose, Emily’s face is untrue; to Vinny, it is beautiful. He becomes obsessed with her. ‘My plans for today are to hang about hoping for a glimpse of her, to have my heart eaten away by the thought of her; to feel my blood bounding maddeningly, ridiculously, like a young boy’s; to despair; to realise the weight of my misery and hunger with each step I take.’
Vinny is in his fifties but behaves as if this is his first love. In contrast, Isabella’s son twenty-something Laurence picks up a girl at the cinema. Not knowing how to make the first move and kiss her, he experimentally takes Betty’s hand. ‘Her skin was rough, her nails so short that he wondered if she bit them, and hoped she did. He did not want a young lady too tranquil, too defined.’ This scene is mirrored later when Emily is top-and-tailing gooseberries; she puts her hand into the basket as Vinny does too, and they touch. ‘He felt the involuntary tremor before the tension, the shocked leap of her blood which she could not control. ‘Even her arms are blushing,’ he thought.’
Is Laurence falling in love with reality, and Vinny with an image? Neither knows the woman he is courting, has hardly had a conversation with her. It is halfway through the novel before Emily says more than a single sentence at a time. Taylor shows the gradual, patient steps that Vinny takes towards Emily; brief words exchanged, moments of silence stretching ahead. It is a cautious middle-aged love where hope of finding love has long passed. There is a sensuality, a thin seedling struggling to grow despite the aridity of the earth.
As usual, Taylor is excellent on everyday detail of people and things. ‘The streets were almost empty. An obviously betrothed couple stood looking in at the lighted window of a furniture shop at a three-piece suite labelled ‘Uncut Moquette’.’ And I loved the scene where Isabella and her friend Evalie are checking the racing results and doing tapestry badly, with their faces covered with clay face packs; and Laurence enters the room, bemused. This is a slow, contemplative novel, beautifully written, which in places made me stop and smile.
BUY THE BOOK
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE SLEEPING BEAUTY by Elizabeth Taylor #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3ru via @SandraDanby