The Last Life by Claire Messud would definitely go into a list of one of my favourite books so I was eager to read her latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, and on the whole, I wasn’t disappointed.
“The Woman Upstairs” refers to the narrator of the novel, Nora, and is a term that Nora uses to refer to a woman like her, who she believes at a certain age, approaching 40, has become invisible and is dismissed as being or having of little consequence in society. Nora is furious at this and the novel gives us a view inside the mind of “ the woman upstairs”.
Nora had dreams when she was younger of becoming an artist but now is a schoolteacher and I think it would be fair for us to assume this is something she enjoys and is also good at.
The novel focuses on the relationship that Nora strikes up with the family of Reza Shahid a young boy who is a pupil in her class. Nora develops a friendship with the boy’s mother Sirena and father Skandar. Sirena is an artist working on a new project and encourages Nora to take on a studio with her, where they can both work on their art. We see this relationship through Nora’s eyes and we see it as bordering on an obsession, and to a great extent it appears to be rather one sided on the part of Nora. It is unclear to begin with whether Nora is actually falling in love with Sirena or whether it is more an infatuation with the entire family and a desire for their life.
The book frequently reminded me of “Notes on a Scandal”, by Zoe Heller, as the narrator has a similar way of not being fully self aware, and at the same time not always generating a great deal of sympathy from the reader. However neither Sirena nor Skandar particularly endeared themselves to me. Their relationship with Nora is, to a certain extent, self-serving and not of the utmost importance, whereas Nora makes this relationship the most important thing in her life, putting it even above the needs of her ailing elderly father.
Despite being rather unlikeable, these characters were all engrossing and kept me fascinated until the end. It is a somewhat disturbing and a rather sad read in some respects – which I would also say is true of The Last Life but in spite of that, I really enjoyed this novel and would definitely recommend it for an absorbing and thought provoking read.
This recommendation was provided by Ceri Chaudhry. She is not in any way connected to the book, the author or the publisher.