Over Christmas I’ve been enjoying this very unusual and utterly absorbing (thinly veiled, true) story about a Hungarian writer (the narrator and Magda Szabó herself) and her housekeeper Emerence. It’s a novel about a precarious relationship, mutual respect (and some disrespect), balance of power and the secrets of a remarkable life, all under the magnifying glass.
Emerence is a formidable woman, an excellent housekeeper with extraordinary energy and iron will. ‘I don’t wash just anyone’s dirty linen’ she retorts as her prospective employer asks about references. And on it goes. Emerence shows up when she pleases (sometimes not at all), practically kidnaps Magda’s dog and bosses Magda and her husband around.
When she gives them a kitsch tattered statue of a brown dog and a pile of other junk, she insists on deciding where it should all be placed.
‘Just because the master doesn’t like animals, you can’t even have statues of them, they’re banned? Do you think this horrible shell is any prettier? But you keep it on your desk and you’re not ashamed to store your invitations and calling cards in it. Dogs no, shells yes? Get it out of my sight, or one of these days I’ll smash it to pieces. I loathe the touch of it.’
Emerence oscillates between being intimidating and rude, caring and generous. She’s bright but rejects education, despises intellectualism and is dismissive of Magda’s work as one of Hungary most revered writers. In Emerence’s world there are two kinds of people: ‘those who sweep and those who don’t’. Every time Magda is on the verge of calling it quits, Emerence redeems herself. Besides, Magda finds herself completely dependent on her help; her work and house descend into chaos whenever Emerence is absent.
Emerence rarely reveals anything about herself and refuses to let anyone into her house. She flares up when asked personal questions only to confide some personal secret a moment later. Through drops of information, here and there, her past during the Second World War comes to light, and it’s a lot more colourful and dramatic that you might think.
The Door is a novel about an intense relationship between two strong women whose mutual respect underpins their volatile co-existence. It’s an unsettling story with a strong sense of foreboding, at times hilariously funny, at others, achingly sad. Rarely have I read a book where the main character jumps out of the page to this extent. The portrayal of Emerence is so vivid, so real that you can’t help but get completely sucked in. A great read!
The Door by Magda Szabó is published by Vintage Books, 262 pages.