I found the first half of this book better than the second. I’ll try and explain succinctly why I went on to give it just two stars (contains spoilers) The story is about a doomed love affair which ends for two main reasons as I understood it – the narrator Maurice’s jealousy and suspicion, which ends up driving his lover Sarah away – and Sarah’s own struggles with a peculiar, obsessive religious confusion mixed with guilt. The latter third of the book consists of Sarah’s diary which Maurice has obtained via a private detective, and this is where the novel becomes annoying.
I understand that Greene is trying to understand and depict what goes on in a woman’s mind. Now I’m not a woman, so perhaps I can’t best say whether he got this right, but it just didn’t seem believable. I felt quite moved by the revelations in the diary that she did in fact love him despite all his doubts and insecurities. What really didn’t work for me was the heavily laboured, protracted mental wrangling over her faith (or not) in God. Addressing God as ‘You’, she goes about parsing every single thought and decision through this lens of religious confusion, something along the lines of ‘would You approve of this or not’ or ‘ if You existed, would this happen or not’, with ‘this’ mostly being her dealings with her cuckolded husband Henry and her lover Maurice.
I think it’s fair to say this becomes excruciating. If you did a word search for ‘You’ in her diary, you’d find hundreds of entries, but I can’t say anything is learned reading the whole thing other than her mind is complete chaos and goes in circles without reaching any conclusions as she turns over mental dilemmas which, for me, didn’t really ring true.
The two loved each other and wanted to be together. I saw no real reason they couldn’t have made this happen. Likewise Sarah’s reason for not visiting the doctor with her illness, something like trusting in the will of God, seemed to me a clumsy novelistic contrivance to set up the later tragedy of her death. Again, needless.
Greene weaves in some back story about Sarah being baptised Catholic by her mother as a child which somehow sets up the later religious turmoil. Sarah seeks evidence of God’s existence when Maurice is buried under rubble from a V2 rocket strike, which I suppose is intended to further foment this turmoil, but ultimately all I saw with these characters was prolonged, needless suffering, much of it caused by a constant masochistic introspection tending towards the negative and the morbid. The diary felt like repetitive, self obsessed teenage ramblings and dragged on far too long.
When Maurice has opportunities with other women, including one very pleasant girl who deserts her colleague to spend time with Maurice, I found it beyond irritating that he didn’t simply go with the flow and enjoy it. No, of course, he has no interest in anything or anyone else but the doomed Sarah, who he has barely seen in years. Lighten up, Maurice!
At least in Russian novels, or Shakespeare plays, you can sometimes believe the reasons for the deaths, suicides and tragedies which mark the climax. Here not so much. As a fan of Graham Greene who greatly enjoyed other works of his such as ‘The Quiet American’ and ‘The Comedians’, I can’t recommend this one at all.