Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Albatross - Charlotte Armstrong

First published 1958. 103p.

The Albatross, a novella of barely 100 pages long, is one of Charlotte Armstrong's most acclaimed works of fiction.

When Tom Gardner strikes a man he finds in his wife Esther's hotel room, he sets off a chain of events culminating in the near-disintegration of his marriage. Courtney Caldwell - who had wandered into the room by mistake - apologises and leaves. Tom and Esther return home to their average but happy existence. Two days later Tom reads a small article in the paper which devastates him: the man he punched has dropped dead from an inexplicable head injury.

Tom, wracked with guilt, travels with Esther to the nearby town of Arcadia to visit the man's widow. Audrey Caldwell lives with her wheelchair bound sister, Joan, and quickly reveals she is having trouble financially and cannot keep her apartment. Tom, who cannot get past the fact that he has caused the death of another human being, invites Audrey and Joan to live in his home until they find a cheaper apartment. Audrey readily and sweetly forgives Tom for killing her husband, laying the foundations for a diabolical plan of deceit and mind games.

The days turn into weeks, with Audrey making little effort to house hunt. With Tom away at work, Esther is left alone with the saintly Audrey and the resentful Joan. Audrey's underhanded efforts to become the new lady of the house escalate, along with her continual sugar-coated insults directed at Esther. Esther is the first to realise that Audrey and Joan are hiding something. And when she discovers that Courtney had visited a doctor an hour after Tom had knocked him down, she realises the shocking truth: Tom had nothing to do with Courtney's death, and Audrey and Joan are completely aware of that fact.

But while Esther is convinced of Audrey's guilt, Tom - still consumed by self-loathing - is not, and his continued refusal to listen to his wife or take her side is heartbreaking. The climax of the story takes place in the final 20 pages, and the reader is not left disappointed.

Charlotte Armstrong (pictured) wrote her first novel (Lay On, MacDuff) at the age of 37, and met with immediate success. She wrote numerous mystery/suspense novels and short stories before her death at the age of 64.

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