“My mother keeps every key to her house on a ring attached to her bag,” says seventeen-and-a-half-year-old Thea early in Lynn Freed’s beautifully told fifth novel, House of Women . The girl-soon-to-be-woman’s observation is a telling one; in a novel freighted with symbolism and endowed with complex characters, what dangles from her mother Nalia’s key ring is the aging woman’s raison d’etre . The keys, which appear so frequently in this novel, are Nalia’s instruments of confinement, her means of holding her daughter within the walls and gates of their luxurious South-African home. Nevertheless, Nalia’s grasp on her daughter grows increasingly tenuous, in this modernization of the Demeter and Persephone story, a poignant narrative about the gates of captivity that life erects and shoves aside when daughters grow up and mothers let go.
Ever since she learned about her lover’s “other women,” Nalia has scornfully considered him, and every other man, to be a “non-entity.” And she takes every opportunity not only to ensure that her daughter feels the same way, but to protect her from similar heartbreak by guarding her innocence at all costs. So powerful is Nalia’s hold in the beginning of the story that Thea states, “When I look into the mirror, it is she who is behind me, looking too,” and, “Even when she is silent, her voice is everywhere around me.” Through Freed’s descriptions–set forth in vivid detail and shades more luminous than those in nature–it is apparent that the physical intimacy between mother and daughter has reached unusual proportions, similar, Thea recognizes, to that between “a pair of lovers.”
As the story opens, Thea is well aware that “I would have to find a way to be taken from her sooner or later. Or even ripped from her as I have been, like a baboon–one minute a young female picking grubs out of her mother’s fur, and the next snatched off into the future screeching.” Her expectation is fulfilled when a Syrian named Naim kidnaps her with the help of the man she calls her father. Before she knows it, he has married her and brought her aboard a ship destined for his secluded island. Freed’s vivid prose suggests that, like Hades, Naim’s surreal and strangely alluring home–with its eccentric seasonal patterns and bizarre inhabitants–is a world unto itself. And as Naim’s wife, Thea realizes that “I am his, I will always be his” in an arrangement of possession rooted in long-standing promises. Having escaped her mother’s grasps, Thea has stumbled into another form of imprisonment.
As Thea drifts further and further into Naim’s clutch, her mother’s fierce grip slowly loosens. So devastating is Thea’s absence to Nalia that it leaves her temporarily bedridden and almost suicidal. Portraying both sides of the symbiotic relationship between mother and daughter, Freed describes Nalia’s heartache as well as Thea’s, showing keen sensitivity and strong psychological insight into the old woman’s past. Freed thus reveals that a need to protect lies at the heart of Nalia’s behavior. As the old woman rises from her bed and attempts to replace Thea with two other women in turn, it becomes clear that her need simply to be a protective figure supersedes the particular bond between mother and daughter that Naim has broken. However, Nalia’s attempts backfire when the other women slip out from under her wing as Thea did, to attend lives of their own. Thus, Nalia must learn to relinquish her protective role, not only towards her daughter but towards all the lives she cannot control.
Letting go is also central to Thea’s struggle, but in her case, it is safety she must give up. After her abduction, she is initially as resistant to her new residence as her mother is. From the moment she physically draws away from the Syrian’s caress, Thea defies her husband’s every gentle yet possessive effort to treat her as a wife. However, it is quickly apparent that “there is no way back.” Like Persephone’s pomegranate seeds, which prevent her from fully returning to her old life, what transpires during Thea’s sojourn on Naim’s island alters her in ways that block her re-entry into her mother’s prison. As she grows from daughter to wife–and ultimately mother–and learns to accept a new prison as the object of male desire, she exchanges a life of sweet, simple protection for one of dark risks and complex pleasures.
The novel shifts between the intertwined stories of Thea, Nalia, and, briefly, their housemaid, Maud. The first-person narration Freed uses for Thea allows a child to speak in the opening pages of the novel, using her mother’s turns-of-phrase–like “common rubbish” to describe men–as her own. After Thea leaves her mother’s house for Naim’s island, her early impressions take the form of letters addressed to her mother, for Thea knows no other way to express herself. It is when Thea simply speaks, no longer directing her words towards her mother, that a young woman emerges from the page.
The surreal quality of Freed’s language and description enhance the sense that the story’s events are echoes of a myth rather than incidental occurrences, and as such, these events take on a quality of the inevitable. Thus, Freed shows Thea’s grave realization–that her only possible escape from one prison is an entry into another–as a universal truth.
“In a month I will be turning twenty,” Thea remarks on the penultimate page of the novel, “and I think I understand the sadness of life.” And Freed displays a deep understanding of this sadness as well, depicting a young woman’s fall and her mother’s resulting loss as the modern-day Persephone stumbles from her mother’s prison into her husband’s. And at the same time, Freed isn’t afraid to convey her characters’ sentiments, from jealousy to visceral desire, without trying to fully explain them.