With a title that at first seems vague but takes on relevance as the novel progresses, Dymott's dense novel begins with a wedding, the celebration a perfect opportunity for Alex to meet sexually aggressive Rachel, a budding student at Oxfordís prestigious Worcester College. Although this novel is not so much a murder mystery--because we know from the first page who is killed--what we soon learn is how Rachelís death changes Alexís perception of the world around him.
Dreaming of her every night almost to the exclusion of anything else, Alex recalls the night he found her body. He carefully reconstructs that evening from the perspective of the porter who initially calls for the ambulance and is puzzled that heís not seen anyone on his tiny television screen leaving the college. Alex senses
that he will remain like this for the whole of his life; he barely seems to handle the months that pass between the night of Richardís wedding and the night when Rachel dies.
From this point, the novel describes the aftermath of Rachelís death, though not in terms of emotional impact.
Guilt and remorse are hardly mentioned as Dymott leads us on to the behavior of
Rachelís colleagues: Cissy, Anthony, and their enigmatic tutor, Harry Gardner. Harryís sad and tawdry descriptions of the sequence of events culminating in Rachelís murder lead Alex to a series of letters tied to the poet Robert Browning.
The students had turned to their charismatic teacher for guidance, but they had also formed an introspective, elite, and sometimes spoiled group. As the title suggests, they had a secret, and one of them was threatening to betray his friends.
I came away from this book initially rather at a loss as to what to say about it. The story deserves both high praise and heavy criticism. It's beautiful and intricate in its exploration of the psychology of love, yet also oddly archaic and often times dissolute. Between Rachelís relationship
and numerous others at the college, it is indeed a tangled web of lies and deceit. As Alex looks back and thinks about the days he spent at Oxford after her death, he canít pretend that he was unaware of a vague sense of unease or confusion ďno more than a hazy sense of disquiet growing into something more troublesome.Ē
Alex pledges to go to Oxford to see what it is Harry has to show him and to ask him if there is anything he can tell about Rachel. But Harry is blinded by his desire and admiration for his studentsí youthfulness. Clearly some kind of schism occurred. The police throw their theories ďlike fishing nets,Ē inviting Alex to incriminate himself as Harry watches from the library window, telling of the events leading to Rachelís estrangement from her godmother, the unlikable, morally bankrupt Frieda; to Anthonyís disgrace and Cissyís return to America; and to Rachel abruptly ending her relationship with Alex after they spent the summer together.
Dymottís insights into the kind of effete degeneracy that wells up when one isolates maturing intellectuals with one another is chillingly realistic,
though the oppressive nature of her prose sometimes saps the novel of energy. Clinging to his memories of Rachel, troubled Alex stands halfway
to the position of blank-slate observer, vacillating between transparency and muddiness. His journey is to recognize a revulsion born of anger, shock, and even dismay as he attempts to discover the true nature of his wifeís sudden, terrible demise.