Paraic O’Donnell entered my consciousness through his essay about multiple sclerosis disguised as an essay about gardening, or vice versa. It’s an unmistakably writerly essay that requires a tissue at hand. It turns out there’s a whole other domain of captivating prose. O’Donnell uses a phrase in that piece that will one day be the title of a novel: “the wrong kind of wrong.”
The House on Vesper Sands is the right kind of right. It’s a surprise. I anticipated a kind of cozy mystery set in Victorian times. Wrong. One reviewer has the book as “part Wilkie Collins, part Conan Doyle.” Wrong. It’s more part Hitchcock’s Rebecca, part Poe, part House of Mirth. That’s probably wrong too, but in a right kind of way.
To get closer to what’s happening in the novel, it might help to avoid genre, a slippery thing by itself. The House on Vesper Sands is a pushmi-pullyu, a wonderous thing that can speak in two directions at once, one voice world-weary, cognizant of the ways humans bleed other humans. As Inspector Cutter says in the novel, “We can only keep house, in this life. We cannot tear up the foundations.” The other voice tells us that where we least expect it, a plenitude exists that can rip the world. The latter voice hears and understands both voices. The former knows the latter exists, but has no idea of the latter’s power.
If you want the plot, that information is readily available, and so not repeated here.
The British class divisions so rooted in popular culture, placed in this case within a Victorian frame, mirror the present’s concern about inequality, the growing divide between those with means and those who live in fear of the mean who have means. O’Donnell presents this admirably early on with the character of Octavia Hillingdon, a seemingly formidable woman journalist — until she bumps up against Mr. Healy at a gathering of members of London’s high society. As Octavia is about to give Mr. Healy her two cents, he interrupts: “What is not wanted, Miss Hillingdon, is sniping and insinuation about the fellow’s politics, or any pot-banging about the inequities of our social order or the plight of the working poor. If you can bring yourself to keep within that gauge, then perhaps I will begin to see your true promise. If not, it will be the last time you stray from your little paddock. Is that plain?”
In the realm of inequality, the queens, kings, influencers, dukes, duchesses, CEOs, and lords prefer that the status quo remain unquestioned. To talk about the facts is a breach of decorum. Some will kill to maintain the silence. The well-to-do don’t want to hear about what Slavoj Zizek calls the “vampiric exploitation” of the poor. It’s “what is not wanted.” Octavia persists in her mission. She “resorted to the method she knew best. She would encourage the right sort of people to say the wrong sort of thing.”
While Octavia pursues the case of missing girls that animates the plot, she has a male counterpart in Inspector Cutter, a Scotland Yard official who does not suffer fools, and who expects people to take responsibility for their words. Cutter takes Gideon Bliss under his wing as Cutter goes about his police duties. Gideon is a theology student from Cambridge with barely enough money to eat. Gideon does not comprehend the magnitude of the depravity Cutter shows him. Cutter: “When we have the leisure, Bliss, you must draw me up a list of the things you do know. I will give you a stamp or a matchbox, and no doubt you will cover every bit of it. Then I will know what respite I am to have from giving you instruction morning, noon and night.”
A blunt and imposing figure, Cutter functions as the book’s gyroscope. Despite his no-nonsense demeanor, Cutter demonstrates subtle kindnesses and fatherly tenderness. However, he’s not out to redeem the world. He doesn’t expect evil can be vanquished. He devotes his energies to preventing dark forces from turning all to chaos and darkness, making a space for others’ light to shine.
The characters with light in O’Donnell’s world are not from the privileged class. The spirited ones also speak a language that sounds like madness. A key characteristic that makes Cutter more than meat with a badge is his relationship to language. He tells Gideon that he is obliged to give some people “a more ordinary appearance,” one that diminishes detection of Cutter’s curiosity about the world. When circumstances are safe, Cutter insists on knowing what “riddles and rhymes” are uttered by the spirited ones who are exploited by members of the upper class. Unlike those around him, Cutter doesn’t dismiss the riddles and rhymes. Cutter rejects taking expressions at face value. Like O’Donnell, Cutter explores the more in the given.
The House on Vesper Sands works like a time capsule that readers can open to reveal the present to themselves.