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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

People in the Room

Norah Lange

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To purchase People in the Room

Title: People in the Room
Author: Norah Lange
Genre: Novel
Written: 1950 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 167 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: People in the Room - US
Personas en la sala - US
People in the Room - UK
People in the Room - Canada
People in the Room - India
Personas en la sala - España
  • Spanish title: Personas en la sala
  • Translated by Charlotte Whittle
  • With an Introduction by César Aira

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Our Assessment:

A- : atmospheric; effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 21/9/2018 Anna Aslanyan
Irish Times . 4/8/2018 Sarah Gilmartin
Literary Review . 11/2018 Ellen Jones
The Spectator . 4/8/2018 Lee Langley
TLS . 10/8/2018 Ellie Robins

  From the Reviews:
  • "The book’s main theme is the narrator’s obsession with death: her own and her characters’. Unable to breathe more life into them, she starts losing them (.....) The narrator, impressionable and impulsive, sometimes overplays the romantic mystery of imagined events (...) or trivialises important subjects (.). When mere observation is no longer enough, the dose of magic realism has to be boosted, and the girl’s fantasies grow more feverish (.....) There are moments when this unceasing hallucinatory state resembles someone else’s dreams, compulsively recounted, but the sheer drive of imagery compels you to listen." - Anna Aslanyan, The Guardian

  • "(A) study of desire and death in domestic spaces, an unsettling read that is frustratingly unyielding at times as mystery begets more mystery. (...) There is so much ambiguity in Lange’s world that the only thing we can be fully sure of is the title, and sometimes I even wondered about that. (...) This is a novel that expertly explores female isolation by cutting readers off from the action. Think Mrs Dalloway meets The Turn of the Screw. People in the Room is a beach read for those who like to bring a Rubik’s Cube with them on holidays." - Sarah Gilmartin, Irish Times

  • "Lange’s prose is so full of ambiguity, grammatical elisions and perspectival pirouettes that finding the line between obliqueness and total opacity must have been no easy task. In Whittle’s English, Lange’s prose is both hallucinatory and cinematic (.....) Lange’s prose is so full of ambiguity, grammatical elisions and perspectival pirouettes that finding the line between obliqueness and total opacity must have been no easy task. In Whittle’s English, Lange’s prose is both hallucinatory and cinematic." - Ellen Jones, Literary Review

  • "The atmosphere is intimate, heavy with tantalising silence and secrets (.....) Hallucinatory and unsettling, the prose vibrates like a high-tension wire. How can a book where nothing happens be so eerily compulsive? You read it not for the plot (there isn’t one) but for the brilliance of the language, and the shifting perspectives that transform what at first seems banal into something mesmerising and tragic. (...) It’s an interior spy story, a picture of suffocating isolation and voyeurism, Hitchcock without a murder." - Lee Langley, The Spectator

  • "The novel unfolds in rhythmic, propulsive prose, powerfully translated by Charlotte Whittle, in domestic spaces that are at once claustrophobic and infinite. Lange achieves this spatially elastic effect by transposing the novel into an alternate dimension: the imaginative plane. The typical anchors of fiction -- character and plot -- are eschewed, leaving the bare minimum of events and factual information about our players. (...) People in the Room could have been written today. Its protagonist -- restless but stymied, hypersensitive yet remote, prone to constructing imaginary worlds -- could walk straight from the pages of contemporary novelists such as Catherine Lacey, Alexandra Kleeman or Han Kang." - Ellie Robins, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       People in the Room is narrated by a young woman on the cusp of adulthood: seventeen, she occasionally asks for wine at the family table, or smokes a cigarette, but her family seems to take her largely for granted, a child mature enough not to need attending to, but not really included in adult spheres either: "No one took any notice of me", she observes even when she sits among them, her family oblivious not only to her thoughts and fantasies but practically to her being. She imagines actions filling: "my days and nights, until everyone noticed how much I had changed" -- but most of her story passes without anyone in her family showing much interest or concern. Bookish, everyone -- including her -- seems to have accepted that she mostly lives in her own little world.
       Here, however, in the family's house on Calle Juramento, she expands her world -- in many ways, still in her fantasy, but at least projecting elsewhere, too, as she becomes obsessed with the three women in the house across the street. Rather than immersing herself in her reading, her books are now cover for her obsessive spying on the three women who sit around a table in a dimly lit drawing room. She reads a lot into the unchanging scene and the three women, too:

I thought, too, that they were hiding something tragic, that it would be beautiful for them to be hiding something or remembering something dreadful, inevitable, endless
       Despite her being on the cusp of adulthood, the narrator is clearly wary of the future and what it will bring. The thirtyish spinsters and their static tableau -- frozen in time and place -- are an enticing other-world, an alternative to the adulthood she otherwise faces. So, too, she admits that, for her and for this fragile world she is drawn to:
The important thing was for them to stay as they were.
       The narrator dares to enter their world, and tries to make herself part of it -- and she is happy assuming this passive role in this strange still-life:
     I was often completely happy at their side, as if I were watching, without participating in, a beautiful performance that might go on forever, even if a scene were repeated or sometimes a conversation held me back.
       External connections remain frustrated -- notably in the telephone connection they acquiesce to, at the narrator's urging, but which can never link them to anything beyond: even the narrator realizes the futility of it when she calls them from next door.
       There's an air of mystery to the trio, tragedy, loss, portents of death -- the possibility of suicide (the "prepared death" they speak of). It entrances the narrator, rather than stifling her -- though clearly it's an unhealthy atmosphere for the young woman, regardless of how much of it is real and how much her imagination (Lange's presentation -- vague, suggestive -- leaves open many possible readings, right down to it all being played out in the narrator's mind's eye).
       It's only when her family finally does notice her behavior -- or rather, that she brings it to their attention, subconsciously or not (she literally locks herself in) -- that they grow concerned:
Books. She always has a book in her hand. Something she's seen outside. There must be some reason she no longer reads in her bedroom. She's changed. She hardly speaks to us anymore ...
       The cure that she agrees to -- with some but not complete reluctance -- is a change of scenery, a few days spent in Adrogué (hardly a great leap -- it's less than twenty miles from Buenos Aires).
       It's enough to break the spell. The world she returns to -- of her mind, of the neighbors, of whatever it was ... -- is fundamentally altered, and even as she fumbles for it, she understands it's lost.
       People in the Room is all atmosphere, as much this young woman's vision and projection -- we only have her word for, and her understanding of, all of it -- as any kind of reality; it remains clouded, hazy, vague. It feels like a bookish adolescent's fantasy-retreat -- complete with mysterious letters and a black dress --, and it's no surprise to learn that Lange's inspiration is said to have come from the portrait of the Brontë Sisters by their brother Branwell (another static, timeless representation). Lange captures adolescent uncertainty -- of what lies ahead, of what meaning there is in the adult that has been kept at a distance from her (death, sex) -- and the fear of facing it convincingly authentically -- right down to the continuing sense of uncertainty about it all. Little here is clear-cut or definite -- making it feel all the more real.
       People in the Room is not uneventful, but much of it has an intentionally intangible feel to it. Lange means to -- and does -- leave her reader as insecure as her protagonist; some readers might find that frustrating, but the art behind it has to be admired regardless.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 August 2018

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People in the Room: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentine author Norah Lange lived 1905 to 1972.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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