Beneath the simple elegance of Hugh Fleetwood’s glacial prose, The Girl Who Passed for Normal (1973) festers with a menace that bleeds throughout the story like slow-working poison. A winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1974, the novel marked the British writer as one of the more unusual mystery writers to emerge from Europe at the time.
Fleetwood’s stories have normally dealt with the psychological complications of those involved with a crime rather than the crime itself. In many ways, this puts him on par with other mystery writers like Ruth Rendell and John Franklin Bardin. What distinguishes Fleetwood’s work from other writers of his ilk are his themes of sexual ambiguity, the troubles which occur when sex enters the private quarters of bourgeoisie lives.
The Girl Who Passed for Normal deals with a young woman named Barbara, a dancer and teacher who has moved to Italy from England to be with her lover David, whom she silently obsesses over with a nearly puerile and anxious need that alienates her from her peers. Feeling trapped in the stifling social climate of her new home city of Rome, Barbara takes up an offer to tutor a wealthy mentally-challenged girl named Catherine. Deciding that keeping herself occupied with the routine of educating Catherine will alleviate her anxiety over David, Barbara throws herself into her work with abandon.
Pretty soon, Barbara discovers that the young girl isn’t exactly whom she appears to be; Catherine has a propensity for mind games which soon turn deadly. When David suddenly disappears, Catherine’s insinuations about his possible death cause Barbara to mentally crack.
Sleekly written, Fleetwood’s novel exudes a certain continental chic, the at once strange and familiar landscape of Catherine’s estate in Rome enshrouding the proceedings in an atmosphere of dread. Barbara’s interaction with her new surroundings is carefully detailed, the culture shock of the immense beauty of the city and its disaffected inhabitants leaving the young woman in a nearly somnolent haze as she struggles for emotional stability.
As a protagonist, Barbara is wretchedly flawed; her inability to discern the psychological dangers in her relationships with both her student and her lover allows for poor judgement to eclipse any sensible action. Barbara’s vulnerability is the bud from which the evil flowers, setting in motion the events in which she will be taken emotionally hostage by her young charge.
Fleetwood’s masterful turns of the plot find an equally erotic and horrific counterpoint of tension; Barbara’s desperate need for a co-dependent allows for the subtle blurring of lines of sexual identity within the confines of secluded home space. Slowly, but surely, the temperature of the festering anxiety rises to a hysteric pitch as the two damaged psyches battle it out for body and mind.
Because his stories work from the point of sexually driven egos and needs, Fleetwood deploys the cataclysmic results of these unstable relationships in accordance to each character’s desirous attributes. Catherine is a young girl, sexually curious but untouched. Barbara is a woman of resolve, a willing surrogate to replace Catherine’s own imprudent mother who is on the verge of abandoning her daughter.
Upon learning that Catherine may have had something to do with David’s disappearance, Barbara is forced into a space of matricidal despair; her own issues with her own mother intensely fuel her affair with David. When he is gone, Barbara’s need for control is heightened through her relationship with Catherine. Somewhere along the line the wires get dangerously crossed and the emotional transference of maternal, sexual and murderous desires spirals in a climactic release of both familial destruction and death.
Having been long out of print for many years, Faber Finds have recently reissued a number of Fleetwood’s novels, including his most celebrated work, The Girl Who Passed for Normal. The author’s most impressive feat as a writer, deeply psychological explorations of characters and their burgeoning desires, is best appreciated here in his most sagacious study of the female mind.
The novel’s carefully paced plotting and deeply sympathetic examinations on human behaviour are the result of good, old-fashioned writing, the kind that may seem antiquated by today’s standards of mass market, quick-sell fiction. Moreover, Fleetwood’s story embodies a highly fascinating portrayal of functionalism and Freudian desires, themes which were once typical of many a fiction throughout the ‘70s.
At once a substantial work of fiction and a richly-evocative document of its time, The Girl Who Passed for Normal stands as a chilling narrative on deadly symbiotic relationships formed in the wake of disintegrating families.
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