Given that I have still been struggling with reading post-slump, I thought that I would pick out a book that I had read several times before, but hadn’t looked at since before I started this blog. Hence Therese Raquin, one of the texts that I studied for college, complete with underlined quotes that were evidently important at the time.
Therese Raquin follows the eponymous protagonist and her lover as they plot to murder her feeble and sickly husband, so that they can carry out their affair in peace. What they don’t anticipate is the dramatic effect that it has on their psyches, and how little they will be able to enjoy the fruits of their crime.
When I mentioned that I would be reading Therese Raquin to my partner, they were less than impressed. I had forgotten that they took the same class in college and had studied this text as well, and had evidently not taken away fond memories of it. Re-reading it and taking a look at some other reviews, it would appear that this is something of a love-it-or-hate-it type of book. And I think that that comes down to two things: the bleak and grimy tone, and the characterisation.
The tone is kind of interesting, as it’s produced by using very artistic language and references to contemporary artwork of the time, but with a distinctly unpleasant twist. There’s a definite green/grey/brown palette to the imagery described, like everything’s a bit dirty and waterlogged, and it influences the whole atmosphere of the novel. Even before anything bad has happened, you can tell that nothing good will come of Therese and Laurent’s actions, because their surroundings are such that it cannot come to pass. For me, the focus on murkiness and chiaroscuro is really interesting and easy to envisage, but I can definitely see why it could come across as overly oppressive and unpleasant.
With regards to the characterisation, there’s a kind of simplification going on that can go very poorly. The characters in Therese Raquin are not complex people, they are at worst caricatures and at best archetypes drawing from Hippocrates’ humours. Again this is very subjective, but I would argue that in conjunction with the atmosphere it does work in a grotesque kind of way. The side characters are frequently compared to dolls and puppets, bringing to mind jerky movements and unnatural articulation. Therese and Laurent are the most complex of the characters, but their actions are solely influenced by their assigned temperaments, making them little better than animals instinctively reacting to outward stimuli. There’s something fascinating about a collection of people that are so unpleasant coming into close contact and clashing so spectacularly. There are no good people, just a lot of individuals indulging their own egos. It’s not something you’d read for pleasure per say, but it is engaging.
Very much a love-it-or-hate-it kind of novel, Therese Raquin works best for those readers who are willing to forgo anything pleasant in exchange for watching some unpleasant people slowly fall apart at the seams. The characterisation is basic, but it combines with the tone and atmosphere to create a grim sort of spectacle that is greater than the sum of its parts. 4/5
Next review: Occultist by Oliver Mayes