First published in 1972, The Hearing Trumpet is Leonora Carrington’s debut novel (not counting The Stone Door which was written around 30 years earlier but published later). The new edition by NYRB has a brief yet informative afterword by Polish Nobel-winner Olga Tokarczuk.
The novel features a spunky nonagenarian named Marian Leatherby who has been demonized by her family in an almost Ashiepattle fashion. Marian becomes privy to the extent of their ill feelings when one of her only friends gifts her the titular hearing trumpet. A large device that she must use subtlety when eavesdropping. She eventually learns that they plan to foist her upon a home for the elderly, but not just any home, one that follows a cultish creed. Although Marian dreams of returning to her homeland of Lapland, she knows that she’s powerless in her situation. The premises of the old-age home turn out to be weirder than she expected, with a hodge-podge of eldritch buildings, including one shaped like a sarcophagus, another like a boot, a clear allusion to that Mother Goose nursery rhyme.
Written in first person, Marian’s quirky and fairly upbeat tone is maintained through most of the novel. Sure, she’s a vegetarian (“I never eat meat as I think it is wrong to deprive animals of their life when they are so difficult to chew anyway.”) and she questions biblical faith (“I often wondered how their angry and vicious God became so popular.”), yet her views aren’t particularly shocking, at least not to readers nowadays. Depending on your sense of humor, Marian may make you laugh or at least evoke occasional if lukewarm amusement. There is, however, a feminist sensibility that remains pertinent, particularly in the independence of Marian and her sisters of the home.
The prose style is mostly pedestrian, composed of short and safe sentences. It gives the story a comfortable, cozy feeling. When a young man asks her what she prefers to read, Marian says, “No, not an intellectual book, just fairy tales.” He questions the maturity of the preference and she continues, “Why not? What is age anyway? Something you don’t understand, My Love.”
I couldn’t help but wonder how much the novel could have been heightened if written with the passionate virtuosity of Angela Carter or Rikki Ducornet, two writers who are no strangers to the fairy tale form, yet their language matches the wondrous plots within. After the same register for about a hundred pages, there is a welcome intercession, as it were, when the protagonist comes upon a manuscript that we get to read along with her, written in a somewhat stuffy style to match its antiquated nature. Adding to the fable feel of it all are illustrations by Carrington’s son, Pablo Weisz Carrington. They’re amateurish ink drawings but they do add to the atmosphere. The cover itself is by Carrington herself, adapted from a 1977 painting titled Play Shadow.
Ali Smith’s book-back blurb invokes “an Agatha Christie domestic mystery” and while this is relatively true (a murder does occur in the home), there’s not enough titillation or narrative propulsion to satiate mystery genre readers or Christie fans in particular.
One wishes that The Hearing Trumpet was as surreal as the author’s awesome art, but it’s mostly tame until about the last quarter, which culminates in an apocalypse with a heartfelt message about the non-human animals of this earth. If you go in without the expectation of a surreal or innovative work, then you’ll probably find The Hearing Trumpet a satisfying read for an afternoon or two.
Featured artwork by Leonora Carrington (Green Tea, 1942).
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.