The Times calls Paul Torday’s The Girl on the Landing ‘A clever, gripping novel’, and for the most part I would agree with this sentiment. Whilst the novel starts off excruciatingly slow, it does become increasingly interesting around the halfway mark. This psychological fiction novel, published in 2009, is written alternately from the point of view of Michael and Elizabeth, a husband and wife who lead very separate life in the heart of Central London. What starts off as an uncannily realistic tale of married life slowly turns into an uncanniness of another sort, although not one that I can say was entirely unexpected.
In fact, at the beginning, much of the novel appears as cliché: the protagonist is dull and stuffy, his wife is distant and frustrated with life, and their life is cyclical and uneventful. The settings of old, spooky houses in the country with eerie paintings are exactly what you would expect in any traditional horror story. And horror story this is; but not one as conventional as the aforementioned elements suggest. Unfortunately, Torday’s many red herrings were not quite powerful enough to conceal the twist in my own reading. I had guessed the ending from rather early on in the novel.
However, that did not impede my eventual enjoyment of the novel. After the initial lack of suspense and seemingly unnecessary repetition of episodes died down, the appeal of the characters and the realism (and at times, surrealism) of the plot really begin to show. It was with renewed enthusiasm that I read Elizabeth’s telling of their evening at the restaurant: ‘We were laughing now, or at least I was, and Michael was smiling, that curious expression I had noticed recently in his eyes: something unfamiliar, something new’. This chapter is the turning point in the novel for me, whereby some elements seem like you are reading a new novel, and the ones that are reminders of the first half of the novel are read in a new light, as the character’s views on things change.
It is at this point that Michael himself sees the obviously grotesque and undesirable members of his men’s club for what they are, and the claustrophobic exploration of race issues becomes a little easier to digest as we fully realise that Michael does not share in his associates’ views. With relief, I agreed with Michael’s statement about the Mr Patel issue at the men’s club was ”completely unnecessary; absolutely pointless. It sums up Grouchers perfectly.”
It is also from the midpoint of the novel that Torday consistently begins his serious and intriguing consideration of mental illness. Despite occasionally seemingly a little politically incorrect, Torday does raise some very good questions about the nature and treatment of certain mental disorders. It is this aspect of the text that really gripped me, and made the ending so disappointing to me. Rather than giving answers to questions posed right from the start, the text just gives the pretence of an answer, but one that seems insufficient compared with the build up it provoked.
Overall, The Girl on the Landing is not as clever or as enjoyable as his novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, but the strength of his characterisation is just as evident in both. His writing style is affable and easy to read, but it would not be at the top of the list of books I would recommend.