Anaïs Nin is able to capture the human condition in a way that few writers can; and this is evident in her 1954 fictional novel A Spy in the House of Love. The story follows Sabina, a 30-year-old woman living in New York, and her tumultuous lifestyle. Nin’s mastery of figurative language, combined with her expert handling of the construction of human identity, form a work that is both intriguing and revealing. For example, the narrator describes early Sabina’s reasons for using make up, ‘She must redesign the face, smooth the anxious brows […] accentuate the mouth as upon a canvas, so it will hold its luxuriant smile.’ Already, Nin has created the image of a fragile and broken woman. As the text progresses, this only becomes more and more clear as we delve deeper into Sabina’s choices, relationships and psyche. There is something incredibly heartbreaking about the way Nin is able to create a character that is falling apart, but trying so hard to appear strong. The intrigue her writing produces leaves you unable to stop reading, and I have not found that in a book for quite some time.
Her representations of the various characters in the novel are particularly astute. All of her characters serve a purpose, and they are all sufficiently well-rounded. For this reason, A Spy in the House of Love makes for some extremely intense reading. Nin’s exploration of love, and its forms and meanings, is exceptionally interesting. To those familiar with Nin, this will not come as a shock; love, relationships and sex are themes common to her works. But the manner in which she implements them in this novel in particular is exquisite (even if some of her euphemisms are a little awkward). Her writing style is able to elicit feelings of sympathy and frustration in you simultaneously: such as when Sabina tells us that ‘what remained was a costume: it was piled on the floor of his room, and empty of her’. It is hard to determine whether you feel pity for her pathetic situation, or irritated that she does not try to change it.
Another spectacular element of Nin’s novel are the pseudo-psychoanalytic moments that the narrator describes in Sabina. It is like receiving a neo-Freudian lesson on the ego’s defence mechanisms. For Sabina, ‘when the anxiety became intolerable it was transmuted into playfulness […] Wits and good acting were employed for such justifiable ends: to protect human beings from unbearable truths.’ It is infinitely sad to watch Sabina’s confident ‘decisions’ slowly turn into self-loathing and a downward spiral from which she cannot escape.
Despite this, I do think that the ending is a little disappointing. Whilst I am very pleased that sections from near the beginning start to recur and take on different meanings towards the end, the actual last few pages feel slightly anticlimactic and incomplete. And although I would be the first to praise Nin’s charming and alluring use of adjectives and imagery, at times her descriptions can feel rather too lengthy and they begin to lose meaning.
Saying that, overall I enjoyed Nin’s novel immensely. The plot gathers speed at a tempered pace, the characters are well developed and the writing is truly gripping. I would highly recommend this, and Nin’s other novels, to anybody that loves to read humanist literature.