Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Love They Sought

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky: A London TrilogyTwenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky: A London Trilogy by Patrick Hamilton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At the Midnight Bell, a quiet struggle embroils the hearts of three people: Ella the barmaid loves Bob the waiter, and Bob is hopelessly in love with Jenny--a prostitute with worries of her own.

This is a trilogy comprised of three novellas: The Midnight Bell (Bob's story), The Siege of Pleasure (Jenny's story), and The Plains of Cement (Ella's story) as these three unfortunates struggle against their fate in the backdrop of 1930s London. Hamilton has a gift for characterization, and each of the three vertices of the failed love triangle display his virtuosity at getting into the heart of each character.

Hamilton's side characters are something to behold: the denizens of the bar where Bob works, the two spinsters who employ Jenny, and Ella's pushy suitor feel like people Dickens might have written about, and the humor they bring relieves some of the bleakness of the main stories. His writing is gorgeous, witty, and sympathetic to these anguished souls.


The Midnight Bell: Bob sees and falls madly in love with the beautiful Jenny one night when she comes into The Midnight Bell. His quixotic quest to buy her love drains him of his carefully saved money (though he is not paying Jenny for sex) and sends him into a turmoil as he tries to gain the upper hand.

From Bob's story: "(She would never, he perceived, under any circumstances take anything; and she never, under any circumstances, failed to take everything.)" - 148

The Siege of Pleasure: The weakest story of the three. Jenny flashes back to the night that led her to become a prostitute in the first place. Jenny remains something of a cipher, an empty vessel into which other characters pour their own desires and ideas. Most of her actions seem accidental, and she has no dreams of her own.

From Jenny's story: "It is doubtful whether Jenny could be said to be the owner either of a character or conscience. Though no frequently inspired with true generosity, she had no active evil in her soul, and her gift of pleasing was as yet an invaluable discipline upon her conduct. It often happens that to make people good it is not advisable to tell them to be good,but to tell them that they are good." - 248

Ella's story in The Plains of Cement was by far the most powerful, detailing Ella's futile love for Bob as she figures out how to cope with the unwelcome advances of Mr. Eccles, an older man with a vague yet forceful method of courtship that she feels helpless to repel. Mr. Eccles' half-drunken interrogation of her one night, consisting entirely of the word "What?" has a bleak humor as Ella tries to figure out the best way to extricate herself. All the while Ella is clear-eyed enough to realize that her hope of gaining Bob's love is unattainable, though that fact does not deter her steadfast adoration. The end of her story is quietly devastating, and ties up Bob's story as well.

From Ella's story: "There he went again--blurring the issue with conventional phrases which still told her absolutely nothing. Again she was tempted to succumb to the tremulous yet loose and meaningless atmosphere with which he sought to wrap her, but she stuck fast." - 416

Opportunities appear and vanish before these three hapless beings, all of whom live with terrible loneliness in spite of each being the focus of someone else's desires and dreams.

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