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Book Review: The Door by Magda Szabo

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The Door by Magda Szabo is a detailed, intimate account of a relationship between two women. Paradoxically, it was the distance between them that generated the intimacy. Presented with behaviour and attitudes she could not identify with or recognise, a young writer tries to analyse her maid’s motives, to rationalise her strangeness, to explain her unconventional behaviour.

It is clear from the start that the new maid, Emerence, has had a fundamentally different kind of life from her employer. And, as the relationship develops, details of that life are slowly unearthed to be shared. Memories and reflections unfold like a gently opening flower, each miniscule change adding to what has gone before. Eventually these individually small incremental revelations complete a picture of a life that even the imagination of a writer could not have created.

The Door is rarely a vivid book. Its tone and style are always measured. Details are picked apart and analysed, their consequences examined under a microscope that seeks out motive, honesty and guilt. Paradoxically – perhaps as a consequence of this concentration on the psychological – there is no great sense of place or setting. In fact, so deeply do the characters enter into the psychological aspects of their lives that they sometimes appear to have their gaze directed inwards on themselves. And eventually, an enduring reaction to the book lies in the constant consciousness of the distance between people, despite both intimacy and proximity.

The novel's style is quite dense. There is very little dialogue, and what is offered is often stunted and awkward. Szabo employs long paragraphs, whose content often meanders through different strands of the character’s emotions. It is not a stream of consciousness form, however, and always avoids the poetic, never obfuscates, does not try to cloud issues to create a false sense of significance. In some ways, this is a criticism of the book, since the overall effect tends to be somewhat one-paced, with the different characters’ perspectives inconclusively delineated.

Magda Szabo’s The Door is still a rewarding read, especially if taken slowly, when the nuances of character and their relationships can be savoured. There are grand events between its covers, but they remain mainly domestic. It’s the detail that counts.

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