motherhood, reading
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The Woman Upstairs

The Woman Upstairs

Nobody would know me from my own description of myself; which is why, when called upon (rarely, I grant) to provide an account, I tailor it, I adapt, I try to provide an outline that can, in some way, correlate to the outline that people understand me to have — that, I suppose, I actually have, at this point. But who I am in my head, very few people really get to see that. Almost none. It’s the most precious gift I can give, to bring her out of hiding. Maybe I’ve learned it’s a mistake to reveal her at all.
from ‘The Woman Upstairs’ by Claire Messud

It was an unusual luxury to read books so quickly when we were on holiday. To remember what it’s like to be truly gripped by a book & consume it in the way T does, turning page after page until there are none left to turn. I read in the car outside the boulangerie, on the windswept beach, by torch light in the chill darkness of evening. So often now books are companions for weeks. But on holiday, reading was again an intense pleasure, a single book carried with me everywhere for a few days, colouring the ‘real’ world with its distinctive atmosphere.

Nora, the school teacher narrator of The Woman Upstairs, had a voice so instantly compelling, so recognisable and gripping, that I could hardly put her down. She’s angry. Very angry. A ‘good girl’, a ‘nice girl’, who tells us on the opening page of the novel, ‘It was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say “such a good teacher/daughter/friend” instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.’ And from that opening rage, when Nora is 42, we circle back to her meeting with the charismatic Shahid family five years earlier — beautiful eight-year old Reza, and his parents Sirena, an artist, and Skandar, an academic — and the dizzying sense of possibility they opened up in Nora’s life.

It was a novel I rode like a fairground ride, quickly, with stomach-dropping slides of recognition and often with surprise at the turns we weren’t taking. And then, when I got off at the end, I was slightly disappointed to be back where I’d started, confused that it was over before I expected it to be, that the final twist had been signalled so far in advance. Some of the reviews I’ve read complain of lack of plot — but in a way, I wished that there had been even less plot. Plot seemed to me beside the point in something so relentlessly interior. But, nice girl that I am, it seems impolite not to point out that while I was on it, I enjoyed the ride. I really enjoyed the ride.

A central strand of the novel is the disparity between Nora’s interior life and the life she appears to be living from the outside. Messud says at the back of my Virago edition, ‘I wanted to write about the interior life. We all have one. It’s where we all, largely, live. External reality accounts for such a small part of our daily existence; so much of our time, we’re bound up in projection, or fantasy.’

I like thinking about that. Thinking about how to move away from Nora’s position — so afraid of failure that she would rather not try; conflating being an artist with being a famous artist, rather than the act of creating art. Thinking about moving to a position where outside shows the contours of inside, where, imperfect as all communication is, and hard as it is to really see or be seen by those around us, we still try. It reminded me of one of the things that has stayed with me the most from Daybook:

We claim autonomy for ourselves and forget that in so doing we can fall into the tyranny of defining other people as we would like them to be. By focusing on what we choose to acknowledge in them, we impose an insidious control on them.

I notice that I have to pay careful attention in order to listen to others with an openness that allow them to be as they are, or as they think themselves to be. The shutters of my mind habitually flip open and click shut, and these little snaps form into patterns I arrange for myself. The opposite of this inattention is love, is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.
from ‘Daybook’, by Anne Truitt

It is, I’ve had cause to observe in myself, incredibly hard to reach for the openness Truitt describes. Even, perhaps especially, with our children. But think what connection might be possible if we succeeded.


I love books in which the narrator is swallowed whole by another family and then, one day, suddenly spat out again. The Woman Upstairs  definitely fits in this category. It’s such a rich seam, I guess playing on that common childhood daydream of waking up & finding that you belong to a whole other family. Brideshead Revisited springs to mind, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs. I know there must be more. And these families, so desperately alluring, are never quite what they seem. But then, what family is?


  1. I loved reading this, Sarah. My feelings while reading the novel were much like yours — fascination and horror. I also had a lingering sense of, well, identification with some aspects of Nora’s life and disappointments (and self-delusion). A book which lingered, that’s for sure.
    Speaking of books about being swallowed by families, have your children (older one, at least) read Kit Pearson’s Awake and Dreaming? My daughter loved it at about age 10. Its shifts and seductions (and disappointments) were handled so beautifully.

    • Ah, yes, the self-delusion! I thought that was very well done. And thanks for the suggestion of Awake & Dreaming. I hadn’t heard of it before. It looks right up T’s street, not least because her name is only one letter away from the heroine’s.

  2. I very much enjoyed The Woman Upstairs and was actually a bit startled to find how much I like it and Nora. I just started The Sea (Banville) this morning and can already sense it will be one of those books about being swallowed by families (seduced by families?)…

    • I liked Nora too — which made me laugh when I read Claire Messud’s great reply to the journalist who complained that she wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora (‘Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?’). I’ve never read Banville, but know I should. And yes, seduced but also consumed — in the sense of those families who include you as though you were one of them.

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