“Mrs. S” by K. Patrick holds the promise and potential of an exciting read from an emerging queer author based in Glasgow, Scotland: a coming-of-age story about an outsider Aussie, an outsider lesbian, transported in her early twenties to the confining hothouse world of a girls’ boarding school, with its claustrophobic atmosphere of rules and restrictions, informed by embarrassing, time-bound traditions, heightened by rural isolation. It is a world peopled by The Girls, the Housemistress, Nurse, Vicar and, of course, Mr. and Mrs. S—he, the headmaster, she, the lovely, gracious appendage. There are no names. The narrator, by default, is Miss.
In the opening scene of the novel, the narrator, speaking in first person, stands at a distance, witness to the awkward, intriguing interaction between Mrs. S and a gardener, whose confident deployment of male power and allure—the bared, muscular chest—is inconsequential, misplaced; immediately, subtly exposed as ridiculous under the directives of Mrs. S and gaze of the narrator. He is not the center of the scene. She is all elegance and precision, her motives elusive, her inner life, hidden; svelte, sophisticated, she is imagined with many secrets, or, at least, because of the world into which she has been cast by her husband’s position, submerged desires.
The first scene draws in the reader with the fascinating interplay of consciousness achieved by writers like Virginia Woolf, permeating the agency and primacy of subject and self with the reality, the exigency of others—always there, sought, connected, and out of reach. A compelling opening for a novel about transgressive, forbidden desire bridging gulfs of age, station, cultural mores and propriety. But the intensity and focus of the opening scene dissolve in writing that’s a relentless staccato of data and details. Think 150-plus pages of texting, or worse, telegrams. Interludes of contact, approaching closeness, and unexpected intimacy are sandwiched between running commentary on seemingly endless, distracting minutiae.
What should be a light, thrilling, hungry and bumpy ride through events and emotions that peak and dip, with moments to retreat, regroup and reflect—to fantasize and agonize; of doubt, determination, and courage in its true meaning as strength of the heart—is flattened out with a relentless crush of everyday details that don’t let up, that the story and reader do not need.
Take a breath, please! Find a rhythm. All this juicy material, the fluttering heart and pulsating body; the baffling confusion and tantalizing ambiguity of attraction; moments, from wild to weary, that make us human; that make art, art and writing, writing, are trapped inside a relentless deluge of data, delivered in a monotonous one-stroke drumbeat that has no crescendo, no denouement, that dissipates or destroys meaning and suspense.
Life is full of clutter and chaos, an endless rush of events. It is the writer’s task to curate and shape the experience, so the reader sees through their senses, through the unique filter of their mind, what they choose to have their readers see. Reportage is not art.
But “Mrs. S” is worth the read, especially for the homestretch, when longing and desire, and even distractions and dramas of the earlier part of the novel—adventures with the Housemistress pal, misadventures with their charges, The Girls—find their expression and do not disappoint. Finally, K. Patrick creates for the narrator, and Mrs. S, the space—the language and the pace—to break free and gallop, demonstrating their statement about what they “suspect, but had not yet experienced” about sex: that it can “transform faster, harder than anything else…”
By K. Patrick
Europa Editions, 240 pages