on 4 June 2007
The Quiet Woman is probably Priest's least known novel. It's certainly not in the same league as The Affirmation or the The Glamour or The Prestige, but it is compelling nonetheless. The story revolves around a woman writer living in rural England, the murder of one of her friends, and the suppression of her most recent book. Priest touches on many themes here - largely political and literary - and the book is populated by a small cast of characters, each of whom is mysterious in their own way (except the cat, which is delightfully and typically feline!) The ambiguity of the characters, far from being a weakness, adds a certain edge to the story and, in typical Priest style, leaves you wondering about the nature of reality. It's not an 'alternate reality' novel like some of his others (The Affirmation, A Dream of Wessex, The Separation); it's more about different perceptions of reality, and how people create their own realities.
The setting is equally mysterious, with hints of a recent nuclear disaster, crop circles and shadowy government cover-ups, none of which are developed to any great extent. Together, they provide rather a dark, disturbing backdrop for this interesting, slightly weird novel. If you like your books to leave you pondering, you should like this one.
'The Quiet Woman' was Christopher Priests' eighth novel and his tenth book. Originally with Faber from his first novel ('Indoctrinare'), Priest remained contracted to this publisher until 'The Affirmation' (1982), who then lost interest in publishing first rate literary SF -and consequently Chris Priest - due to changes in their editorial policy staffing. This was arguably unfortunate for them, as at this point, Chris had been selected for the innaugural 'Best of Young British Novelists' marketing campaign championed by "Granta" magazine and the Book Marketing Council. "Granta" dutifully produced an issue devoted to the selected authors (for the record, they included Amis, McEwan, Barnes, Ishiguro, Rushdie, Tremain and a load of others, all of whom who became bestsellers in the 1980s) all of whom except Priest went on to form the dominant British literary fiction establishment of that decade - and of course many of them are still critically and commercially predominant even now. Priest, of course, was cut from different cloth - he came from a background in genre fiction, still an unnacceptable sin in the snobbish circles of the critical consensus and the blinkered public who rely on said critics for their intel on what books to buy for discussion at their dinner parties, plus he was unafraid to step outside the grounds of simple mimesis. Even Rushdie, for all his largely hidden start as a fabulist ('Grimus', his first novel, was published as a Gollancz SF hardcvoer), was acceptably exotic, being of Indian blood, while an Englishman who owed too much to Wells and Ballard could never be acceptable....
In the early eighties Priest had expressed his dissatisfaction with the SF establishment, seeing the experimental verve of the New Wave being subsumed once more within the corpus of American magazine-driven scifi. Like so many of his peers, he was naturally seeking a new synthesis of SF and mainstream, the only possible course of evolution for him and Ballard, Harrison, Moorcock, Aldiss, Roberts and so on. Literary writers not that interested in the geeky minutiae of technology enough to make it the foreground of their books, the British tradition of realistic dystopian ideas set in a distroted by recognisably British future (Orwell, Wyndham), Priest and his contemporaries were by now producing their best work, reminding many readers that until the birth of US magazine SF, Science Fiction had always been an established stream within fictionper se, most major novelists trying it at some point - even Trollope, Forster, Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford had dabbled with SF.
Although his earlier 'Fugue for a Darkening Island' was barely SF at all (while nonetheless fitting beautifully into the Wyndham/Christopher/Roberts/Orwell disaster-dystopia subgenre), Priest made a definitive move with 'The Affirmation' and 'The Glamour' (1984). The latter, his one book for Cape -then and now Britain's most credible and important literary imprint - remains for me his finest work, a fully realised marginal work that stands immaculately between SF and mainstream writing, the space that is for me, the most relevant environ of fiction in our contemporary age. A quick aside - Priest often revises his work on republication and I'll express a personal preference for the first revision of 'The Glamour' (the Abacus paperback), which to me strengthened the final segment of the book, while later revisions for the Simon & Schuster and Gollancz editions have, to my mind, make the final segment too much like a conventional misdirection thriller. Interestingly, in the last couple of years, mass market readers have finally been exposed to the unreliable narrator effect in a few bestselling thrillers. Priest, of course, has been onto this for decades.
While the influence of John Fowles' 'The Magus' was massive upon Chris' work, this finally bore best fruit in the eighties novels, both of which featured immaculate, perfectly poised endings of the kind I've only seen matched by the likes of Keith Roberts (in 'Molly Zero'), Philip K. Dick (in 'Galactic Pot-Healer') and Kem Nunn (in 'Tapping The Source'). So when 'The Quiet Woman' arrived in 1990, I'll admit I was disappointed by its final sentence, expecting more of the same from a different angle - my fault, of course. At the time, I felt the book raised more threads than it resolved and that they were undeveloped (as another reviewer has said here) or perhaps not left ambiguous enough to have the profound impact upon me that the codas of 'The Affirmation' and 'The Glamour' had upon me. I was wrong, of course. Priest was trying to say something different, as is an artists' right- nay, duty!
'The Quiet Woman' is set in a (then) near-future Britain whose South West coast has been affected by a nuclear power station meltdown in France. Our heroine is Alice Stockton, a recently divorced biographer on the cusp of turning forty, who has recently left London to live in a Wiltshire village to start afresh. Here, Alice has made the acquaintance of an elderly lady with left-radical political leanings, whom she is thinking of writing a book about while she (Alice) waits for the manuscript of her previous opus to be published. But there's a problem; under an obscure and new ruling, the ms. has been seized by the home office on the grounds that it may be subversive..
I'll say no more about the plot here, as the reader needs to discover it for themself. However, what I will say is that other reviewers seem to have missed that 'The Quiet Woman' is part of Priests' celebrated "Dream Archipelago" sequence (which is also comprised of 'The Affirmation', 'The Dream Archipelago', 'The Islanders' and 'The Adjacent'), a loose-linked anti-series of novels and short stories whose connexions are elliptical and indirect. This sequence is, more than anything else, metafiction - i.e. fiction about writing and telling stories, fiction about fictions. I use the term 'fiction' here in a loose sense, because what priest is cardinally interested in, of course, is the nature of our individual subjecticity and how we each interpret reality differently, whith often disasterous effect upon our psyches. "The Dream Archipelago" sequence can also be read purely as superb alternate-world SF. With Chris of course, nothing is certain, and the pleasure in reading him is in the deftness with which he makes subjectivity a delight as well as a dizzying, disorienting reality we all have to face.
Names of characters are key in this novel, connecting it to 'The Affirmation', Priests' best short work "The Miraculous Cairn" (get the original issue of Granta that features this if you can, as the unrevised edition is the most powerful and jagged one) which is collected in 'The Dream Archipelago', and by their nature, to the other books I mention above, The key to understanding 'The Quiet Woman' and finding it a satisfying, resolving read, is to work out which of the characters cannot be trusted - which is actually pretty easy -and who the true protagonist of the story is. Although Alice is in the foreground, she is not the character who sets the wheels in motion.
Although it is true that some of the speculative ideas in the novel are not fully developed in an SF sense, the truth is that they relfect real-world concerns so closely that they don't need to. Technology and science have changed us and the environment and the situation is ongoing for us, so it should be ongoing at the close of the novel. There is no resolution of the arguably SF elements in the novel in the classic conceptual breakthrough manner - the world isn't changed and life goes on the way way and isn't changed irrevocably, though it is changed for the better for Alice.
It's also worth pointing out that typical Priestian concerns/tropes are present and developed in the book; a sympathetic and convincing female lead (as in 'A Dream of Wessex' and 'The Extremes'), superb small-town realism (as in 'The Extremes'), the rise of survelliance society, the weakening of home government under Globalisation or religious revolution (present in many Priest works from his first story, "The Run", and througghout his work right up into 'The Adjacent'), sexually twisted and aggressive men (several of the short stories, 'A Dream of Wessex', 'The Glamour') and of course that marvellous, measured, cool prose style. For all this, 'The Quiet Woman' is one of Chris' warmest and most affecting novels, possibly because of his easy command of a likeable, humane and realistic female lead.
..and now some inside information. When Priest was writing this novel, we were in contact fairly regularly. At that time, he lived in Pewsey, a village in Wiltshire on the main train line to London, so my theory is that Pewsey is the model for the village in 'The Quiet Woman'. Walking through Pewsey one summer day, Chris told me that his next book would be called 'Explanations' and that it referred to a specific character in 'The Affirmation'. This, of course, became 'The Quiet Woman'. With these facts in mind, fans can re-read 'The Quiet Woman' and enjoy it all the more, perhaps winkling more connections and echoes of other works from it, weaving it more fully into "The Dream Archipelago".
To sum up, 'The Quiet Woman' is a refreshingly short, taut, yet measured Priest work, gentler in tone than much of his writing, but occupying an important position in his canon. Making a break from the extremes of his most pointed and vertiginous 80s work, 'The Quiet Woman' links back with earlier stories and novels and points forward to 'The Islanders' and 'The Adjacent'. A long period of quiet followed, which led to his most dramatic and accessible works, 'The Prestige' and 'The Separation', both of whch resulted in a wider audience for Chris, albeit through the filter of the film of 'The Prestige'. A subtle, underrated, understated work with moments of tremendous visceral power, 'The Quiet Woman' shows how even in silence, a vanished individual can affect those who follow...
Stephen E Andrews, author, '100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels'