Dried stains on sheets.

Three, by Ann Quin

Ann Quin’s second novel, three, is superbly written. It’s a book as much about its own form and structure as it is about story, although here form and story cannot be separated. It’s less than 150 pages long, but is distinctly not a quick read.

Leonard and Ruth are a middle aged couple. Until recently they had a younger woman identified as S living with them. S is dead, drowned, though whether by suicide or accident is unclear. Leonard and Ruth speculate as to what happened, and their conversations intertwine with excerpts from S’s diary and audiotapes which she left behind. The language is frequently confusing, intentionally so, and requires extremely close attention to tell who is speaking. Sometimes, often, I would have to backtrack to find the thread of a conversation. This is not an accident.

Here’s the opening couple of paragraphs:

A man fell to his death from a sixth-floor window of Peskett House,

an office-block in Sellway Square today.

He was a messenger employed by a soap manufacturing firm.

Ruth startled from the newspaper by Leonard framed in the door-way. Against the white-washed wall. A wicker arm-chair opposite the Japanese table. Screen. Sliding doors. Rush matting. A mirror extended the window. Gardens. A bronzed cockerel faced the house.

What’s the latest then? Fellow thrown himself out of a window. Ghastly way to choose. But Leon her wasn’t like that – I mean we can’t really be sure could so easily have been an accident the note just a melodramatic touch. No one can be blamed Ruth we must understand that least of all ourselves. Yes yes I know and one could say it was predictaable her sort of temperament. I don’t know. You mean you don’t really care Leon? Ah you should know the answer to that my love.

Here the prose acts as a camera, panning across the room “Screen. Sliding doors. Rush matting. A mirror extended the window. Gardens.” The viewpoint slides across, yet in staccato fashion. The dialogue here can be worked out, Leonard and Ruth speak alternately, but it requires a little thought before that becomes apparent. This is not prose one can lose oneself in.

Ruth and Leonard try to comfort themselves, and they go through the rituals of married life. Their surface troubles are quotidian ones. Underneath though is the question of what S meant to them, how she fitted into their lives and what she brought that they couldn’t provide for themselves. Their conversation ends and Leonard goes out to the greenhouse to inspect his orchids while Ruth goes upstairs to look through S’s cupboards.

What follows is three pages of sustained erotic charge. Leonard strokes the fat leaves of his orchids while Ruth wanders through upstairs rooms naked and searching through piles of clothes. The prose builds up, becomes frenzied, then peaks and tails off. Here’s a taste:

Still murmuring he reached up, brought one down, parted a layer of tiny leaves, and looked in. His fingers trembled. His body sloped. Face flushed in the one stream of light. He pressed the earth in, smoothed over. Paused longer at some, peered into centres, ran a finger along stems, pink against pink laid there.

Breathing slowly, he listened with the plants that sucked, dripped around and above.

She went from room to room, closed windows, doors, cupboards. Tried on clothes, shoes too narrow, hobbled to mirrors. Squeezed into dresses, struggled out, touched the material, traced the design. Folded, unfolded blouses, cardigans. Slipped them on, off, until the bed, floor were covered with layers of clothes. Into which she flung herself, motionless, face buried.

She powdered her flushed face, neck, brushed her hair.

As I say, three pages. It’s prose written in the rhythms of sex, but there is no sex. What replaces it is a sense of frustrated desire, of sex reaching out and infusing the house. As the novel continues there are some actual sex scenes, but they are brief and Ruth refuses when she can. She services Leonard as marital duty, on his relentless insistence (or, on one occasion when she says no, his outright force). It’s not that Ruth’s without desire, it’s that the only desire Leonard cares about is his own.

Against this are the fragments left by S. Most challenging of these are what I took to be the audiotapes, which become prose poems the meaning of which is at first unclear (and much of which never becomes wholly clear). S is recording emotions, impressions, and some of it can be understood in the light of her diaries, but it would I think take several readings of this book to understand most of them and an unreachable kernel would always remain.

This is one of the more accessible audiotape sections:

Surrounded by chairs. Animals released. Octopus faces gullet

corridor. Float from island to island. Inherited from both sides

Sofa. Flora-pregnated

Chippendale chairs. Unchipped. Upholstered in blue.

They call turquoise.

Persian rugs. Second skins. For them.

Warm napkins.

Silverware pawns. Salt-cellar dominates.

Rooms soundproofed.


not hung

too small. Not small enough. But still-lifes that she used to do.


China plates

on the wall. Glass doors. Concealed lighting. White curtains


Nursery done in egg.shell blue. Empty.

A special place for the cat. Never used.

Visitors. Change of linen. Every other day.

Existence bound by habit. Hope. Theirs. Nothing to contend


The worst effort not to contradict their next movement

At first.

Again there’s that sense of prose as camera there, but this is more an exploration of significance than space. It’s reasonably easy here to understand what S is saying and what it means to her, but other sections are far more opaque.

This then is a novel of shadows. S played games with Leonard and Ruth in which they would all wear masks and improvise dialogue in mini-plays. Leonard and Ruth fight a pointless battle to keep ramblers off their section of the beach, which they privately own. Everywhere there is ambiguity and boundaries that shift or are ignored.

The Dalkey Archive edition of Three comes with a dismayingly perceptive introduction by writer and academic Brian Evenson. Dismaying because it leaves little for me to add. The best review I could write would be to type out his words. Evenson, rightly, points to Quin’s refusal to resolve the book’s strands. He points too to how the structure unsettles the reader, leaving them with doubt and a lack of finality as to what really occurred. He talks of the book “dragging readers into the text, demanding they plunge into the experience the characters find themselves in. The book refuses to stay at a comfortable distance.”

That’s exactly right. Here Quin forced me to engage closely with what she had written. I had to,  because otherwise I didn’t even know who was speaking let alone what was being said. She brought me into an emotional post-mortem in which the only judgement is an Open Verdict. She infected me as reader with the uncertainty of her characters.

The result is a difficult and often disquieting book. The rewards though match the effort, and unless I have a truly exceptional 2012 or some terrible fate befalls me between now and the end of the year I will be very surprised if this isn’t the second Ann Quin novel to make one of my end of the year lists. Quin has been overlooked, but she shouldn’t be and if you’ve any interest in modernist or experimentalist (a term I dislike) fiction then she deserves attention.

By way of balance I found a more negative review online here, and another positive review here. There’s also quite an interesting general overview of her work here, which to their credit the negative reviewer also linked to.


Filed under Modernist fiction, Quin, Ann

14 responses to “Dried stains on sheets.

  1. Oh dear, that’s not for me but your review is brilliant.

    You MUST read Marguerite Duras. (Le Ravissement de Lov V Stein or Moderato Cantabile)

  2. leroyhunter

    “an unreachable kernel would always remain”
    What an enticement to read the book!

  3. Quite how you manage to make it sound impossible but tempting I don’t know. But thanks. (I think.)

    I think there are four novels? Do you intend to read more?

  4. You’ve got me interested in spite of the fact that I find the audiotape part rather off-putting. I’m wondering how S fit in with the married couple?

  5. There’s not a lot of Duras in translation, but I probably should. I think Josipovici praises her too. What reminded you of her Emma?

    Leroy, absolutely!

    Sarah, there are four and I plan to read all of them. That said my understanding is that three and four are yet more formally about structure and yet less accessible, but possibly not to greater effect. This may therefore be the high watermark.

    Guy, that’s the key question of the book. I said when I reviewed Berg that it reminded me a bit of Joe Orton’s work. That’s less present here, but it’s still of that era and there’s an element of the situation in his play Entertaining Mr. Sloane.

    Here though it’s that more standard ’60s setup of a bourgois couple and a free spirit who comes between them, except of course it’s not that simple (come to think of it, that is a bit like Entertaining Mr Sloane). It’s a novel born of its time, and their relationships too are of that time. That’s not to say they couldn’t happen now, but if you look at that audiotape section again it’s a very 1960s British view of middle class suburban life.

    Incidentally, should anyone want to try Quin although this is ultimately a better book than Berg I’m glad I started with Berg and that’s what I’d recommend others doing too.

  6. I loved Berg. Somehow Three had escaped me.

  7. The quotes reminded me of her and the feeling I had when I read her modernist prose. I know all the words written but they don’t make sense put together like she does.
    It’s the same feeling I have when I watch a painting by Jackson Pollock : I know that it’s art because people more educated than me say it is but I don’t know why it’s art.
    I don’t find it engaging, I just feel silly.

  8. marco, if you love Berg you should love this.

    Emma, thanks. Not sure how much of her work has been translated. Josipovici I think praised her as well.

    I used to find the same with Jackson Pollock incidentally (I know it’s just an example, but a handy one). One time I just sat in front of one of his paintings, looking at it, trying not to impose narrative (which is hard).

    Whereas previously it had seemed like scribbles to me, I started to see patterns and areas of movement. I could see something there, and experience an emotional response. It’s hard to put into words because I lack the vocabulary, but the key was in part abandoning the need for sense and seeing instead what was there.

    I’m reading Anna Kavan’s Ice presently and it makes very little sense. The narrative such as it is is dreamlike, with jumps in character and place that are hard to follow because they lack internal logic. Except they don’t, they have thematic logic and the logic of a dream. It’s only by abandoning the need for it to make rational sense that Ice can be engaged with. Pollock is a bit like that too.

    That said, there’s no obligation to like Kavan, Pollock or any other artist’s work. I recognise that Peter Greenaway is a major filmmaker (was more now I suspect), but nothing in his work speaks to me at all and I tend to avoid it in consequence.

  9. LaurencePritchard

    Max, this has been a “to read” for a while so I’ll get back to you in the near future (and read the review).

  10. I’m in two minds about this, tempted and at the same time not. Some of the techniques sound interesting.
    I wouldn’t compare this to Duras. I find her much more poetical.
    You should read Sebald. Soon. He demands a lot of attention put the scope is so much vaster.

  11. Laurence, I’ll look forward to that.

    Caroline, I’d still suggest trying Berg first and seeing how you get on with that. Sarah’s Berg review is also well worth reading.

    Sebald, I know, I have one of his so I should try to prioritise it while the weather sucks. The trouble is I also have some review books (reminding me why I have a policy of generally not accepting them) which are preying on my mind. Still, Sebald is overdue.

  12. This is an exceptional review, and does what all fine appraisals do: make reading the book seem essential. Ann Quin is a writer I’m only lately familiar with and that’s probably a good thing. The excerpts here – and the review – have forced me to buy it.

  13. Thank you Lee and sorry for the slow reply. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts once you get round to it.

  14. Pingback: That Was The Year That Was: 2012 | Pechorin’s Journal

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