I like it here precisely because it is dull

The Needle's Eye

The Needle’s Eye
by Margaret Drabble

I liked this book, but it was only while discussing it at book club that I realised how much. And why. It’s certainly the kind of book that benefits from taking time to think about it afterward.

Before this was suggested for book club I had never read any Margaret Drabble and had no particular plans to read her. I think I had an idea that her books would be old-fashioned and middle-of-the-road. Well this novel is certainly in many ways of its time, but that doesn’t stop it from being a great read with fascinating psychological complexity and insight.

The story – as far as there is one – begins at a London dinner party where unhappily married Simon Camish meets Rose Vassiliou, notorious for a scandal Simon can’t quite remember. They strike up an uneasy friendship, based on her asking Simon for gradually increasing favours, many of them related to the fact her ex-husband is sueing her for custody of their three children.

“He looked dreadful tonight, did Simon…She wondered whether he knew how miserable he looked – how offensively bored…it was pointless, worrying about someone like him, he would never tell anyone anything; in a way she rather resented the obduracy of his silence. Why didn’t he forget about it one day and just complain? Everyone else did.”

For a novel where not much happens, custody battle notwithstanding, there are lots of interesting ideas about feminism, class, charity, parenting; but most of all this novel has wonderfully complex characters. Simon and Rose in particular are sometimes lovable, sometimes dull, often frustrating and frequently contradictory – very realistically. However, this isn’t entirely a realistic novel. There’s a lot of symbolism and patterns of structure, not least references to the needle’s eye of the title.

“Impossible, really, to make one’s mind up about any other human person, even one’s own children, whose whole life had unrolled before one’s eyes, whose every influence was known: they were so contradictory, so inconstant, so confusing a mass of shifting characteristics.”

For instance, Simon and Rose’s lives have followed opposite trajectories. Born to a struggling working class family, Simon is the scholarship kid made good – he’s now a lawyer married to a rich woman, Julie – and he wears his background with both pride and shame. He wants to fit in and yet he despises the people he socialises with. Until Rose. She was born to a rich country estate and hit the headlines when she gave up her inheritance to marry a man her parents disapproved of, her ex-husband Christopher. She has a strong distaste for unearned money and so she chooses to live in a shabby working class neighbourhood, counting pennies to make ends meet and taking great pleasure in getting to know her genuinely poor neighbours. Yet it’s all a game of sorts, because she could easily earn more money, or get it from Christopher or her parents, and she has a second lump of inheritance due to her. Her poverty isn’t real and her reasons for choosing that life are stretched quite far from their honourable origin.

“I like it here precisely because it is dull…Oh, I know, people think it’s not real, they think it’s nonsense for me to sit here like I do, they think I’m playing. They tell me that everyone else round here is miserable…But they don’t know because they’ve never tried it.”

Simon shares this slightly misguided belief in sticking to a principle. His legal speciality is trade unions and he steadfastly stands by the union every time, even when he can clearly see that the union is in the wrong. Like Rose, he cannot separate the theoretical black-and-white ideal from the shades of grey of real life. Similarly, he cannot see the world through anyone else’s eyes, and finds it hard to marry his assumption that everyone is as bored and depressed as he is with the evidence before him. Rose seems to be the first person who manages to at least begin to break through to him just how different people can be.

“He sat there…and wondered whose fault it was, that he should spend so much time like this, with people he really deeply disliked, talking about things that bored him rigid. It would have been better if he could have felt that the others were enjoying themselves, but from every soul there seemed to him to rise a cry of mute anguish and lonely fear.”

Inevitably Simon begins to fall in love with Rose, but this isn’t the story of a torrid affair. If anything, it is the story of a friendship that awakens two people to some, though certainly not all, of their faults.

First published 1972 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

See also: “10 reasons to love Margaret Drabble” on For Books’ Sake