” After the Chatham School Affair, my father always believed that the deepest tragedies inevitably unfolded slowly, reached their climaxes in seizures of violence and grief, then lingered on forever in the minds of those who were near enough to feel their lethal force and yet survive. ” (19:179)
The Chatham School Affair is told in retrospection by Henry Griswald, who, in 1926, was a student at Chatham, where his father is the headmaster. It is hardly a mystery, but a seductively suspenseful story told in bits of Griswald’s memories, interspersed with scenes of trials on the heels of the tragedy and happenings of the young Henry’s life in Cape Cod.
She was wearing a long, dark coat, and as she moved toward me from the crest of the bluff, the high collar raised up against the back of her neck, I remember thinking that she looked like someone from an earlier century, one of those women we’d read about in Mr Reed’s literature class the previous year, Eustacia Vye, perhaps, or Madame Bovary, wild and passionately driven, capable of that lethal wantonness Mr Parsons later described to the jury . . . (13:122)
The story unveils slowly, agonizingly, with gathering shadows and dark portents. Henry, although an outsider in the affair, is almost omnipresent. Miss Elizabeth Channing’s arrival at Chatham is a breath of fresh air to Henry, who is wearied by petty obligations and worn-out rules of the school. Whereas his father speaks of rules of life, Mr. Reed speaks of possibilities. With the two teachers, who live life on the edge, Henry forms a camaraderie that allows him into the secret of their affair.
She nodded but didn’t answer, and I suppose that it was precisely at that moment I first noticed the peculiar tension and uneasiness that would never leave her after that, a sense of being trapped or constricted . . . (18:172)
The narrative, full of subtle twists, shifts between the present the the moving index in the past. The misleading hints and scraps of information constitute an outline of the truth of the matter, but not the full picture. Indubitably and understandably Elizabeth Channing is accused of all kinds of accusation: hatching a murderous plot to rid of Mr Reed’s wife. She is not looked upon with favor and trust because she is what driven Reed awry. The result of the non-linearity is a continuous dread, a dark tinge of an inevitable disaster that concludes the illicit affair. Cook uses this genre to open a window into the human condition, in particular how our lives cannot always accommodate the very passions they inspire. There is neither a crime nor a villain in The Chatham School Affair, only a sense of inescapable disaster befalling people who don’t deserve it—because what they are involved is forbidden in the eyes of society and its values. Only Henry, who look upon them as romantic figures, who shall be free in spite of the social rebuff. The book really demonstrates the power of spoken word and prejudice, as in testimonies against Channing. It also shows how death is just the beginning of destruction, because those who are not directly involved in the tragedy are forever afflicted by the repercussion. The novel muses on the catch 22 between constant disappointments of a life “on the edge of folly” and one devoted to mundane responsibilities. Regardless of the case, life does offer possibility and miracle of love, however volatile and short-lived it might be.
303 pp. Pocket Paperback. [Read/
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