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S has disappeared from Ruth and Leonard’s home in Brighton. Suicide is suspected. The couple, who had been spying on their young lodger since before the trouble, begin to pour over her diary, her audio recordings and her movies - only to discover that she had been spying on them with even greater intensity. As this disturbing, highly charged act of reciprocal voyeurism comes to light, and as the couple’s fascination with S comes to dominate their already flawed marriage, what emerges is an unnerving and absorbing portrait of the taboos, emotional and sexual, that broke behind the closed doors of 1950s British life.
British author Quin, who died by suicide in 1973 at 37, first published this unsettling work in 1969, and its story of a dysfunctional married couple and the mysterious young girl who rents a room in their seaside house before drowning herself still makes a heavy impact. Ruth and Leonard, the couple at the center of the novel, lead restless, dissolute lives of mid-century luxury. Their interactions, depicted in a running stream of blunt directives, are mostly superficial and often devolve into bickering: "Oh do get the little cups darling I do prefer the little ones. But I've got these now love these will do. But it tastes so much better in the little cups. He held a cup out. I want the small ones darling." Ruth is determined to figure out why the charismatic, down-and-out girl known only as S, who rented a room from them, killed herself, an event that seems to have happened just shortly before the novel's present. They listen to tape recordings S left, which remain in their possession and appear as long sections of poetry, and read through her diary, also presented as chapters of their own. The investigation hints at a physical connection between Leonard and S, threatening to upend Ruth and Leonard's balancing act. The reintroduction of Quin's dark, difficult work, which presages contemporary English writers such as Deborah Levy, is a gift to readers interested in experimental literature.