Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 223 pages; 2009.
Paul Bowles, an American-born writer and composer, is probably best known for his 1949 debut novel The Sheltering Sky. He penned Up Above the World, his fourth (and last) novel, some 17 years later. I picked it up by chance while browsing in the library last week and am so pleased I did.
A masterpiece of suspense writing
This novel is a masterpiece of suspense writing. It’s about a married couple who are taken advantage of while travelling through Central America. It’s the mid-1960s and Dr Taylor Slade and his much younger second wife, Day, regard themselves as travellers, not tourists. But for all their so-called worldliness and their willingness to visit places independently, their naiveté is somewhat alarming.
Within about 15 pages I’d decided these people, regardless of wealth and circumstance, probably shouldn’t leave their own homes — their trusting nature would only lead them into trouble.
It all begins with one simple act of kindness. Day loans $10 to Mrs Rainmantle, a Canadian passenger on the cruise ship, who has forgotten her line of credit. When Dr Slade finds out about the loan he is mildly horrified — he thinks the “big woman with pink cheeks” is “ridiculous” and dubs her “Mrs Crazy” behind her back. It’s not that he distrusts her, he just finds her tiresome and a little bit parasitic.
But later, when the Slades finish their voyage at Puerto Farol — before catching a train further inland — they find Mrs Rainmantle has checked in to the same hotel. It seems there is no escaping this rather large, jolly woman, who now wants to borrow some of Day’s clothes. That’s because the British consul won’t let her take her luggage from the ship until she pays an outstanding bar bill.
But once the Slades do, eventually, escape the clutches of Mrs Rainmantle, their holiday fails to improve: if anything it gets worse.
When Dr Slade falls ill, Day is grateful for the help she receives from a handsome young expatriate American man, Grove Soto, and his teenage Cuban mistress, whom she has befriended. But all is not as it seems.
There are aspects to Grove’s character that suggest he is not a man to be trusted, but Day doesn’t seem to have an ounce of paranoia in her body. It takes her an awfully long time to realise Grove’s nefarious ways, and even then she wonders if maybe she’s just imagining it.
A slow build-up of tension
What I really loved about this story is the way that Bowles builds up the suspense slowly but surely, so that by the time you realise what he’s doing it’s too late to back out and put the book down — you have to keep ploughing on regardless because you simply have to know what happens to these poor unsuspecting people. And yet, when he ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable level, it never seems false or showy. There was never a moment when I thought it would be impossible to fool two travellers in this way — in other words, despite the horror of the story, it is entirely plausible, which only makes it more terrifying.
And while his prose style might be economical this doesn’t mean he leaves out important detail. In one particular scene Day hears a small child in another room, but Grove insists that it could be a parrot — immediately the reader isn’t quite sure what to believe. This sense of self-doubt is everywhere in the book and it creates a growing feeling of unease in the reader. The line between truth and paranoia is a very thin one indeed.
It’s only at the very end, when events are explained and you discover the true nature of Grove’s scheming ways, that you come to understand what the Slades have endured. It’s not pleasant, but then suspense novels aren’t supposed to be pleasant; they’re designed to be creepy and unnerving. And John Bowles’ Up Above the World is one of the creepiest and most unnerving novels I’ve ever encountered. More, please.