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Nihilistic Devil or Misunderstood Genius?

[New Books]

The Luminous Memories of Alexander Vile

The Luminous Memories of Alexander Vile [as a Kindle Edition]

The Luminous Memories of Alexander Vile [as a Kindle Edition]

A new novella by author Natasha Jones, available for $4.95 on Amazon

Reviewed by Kent Manthie

In the short story, The Luminous Memories of Alexander Vile, Natasha Jones has, with a pen, painted a wonderfully interesting portrait of a man who takes in a young orphan, not a newborn, mind you, but a somewhere around prepubescent girl who he decides to take on as his female protege.

Written from the point of view of Alexander Vile’s long standing maid, the unnamed woman who has been in the house for a long time and who knows the man better than anyone, has, as Ms. Jones has had her do, put together a collection of journal entries, poetry, letters and the odd paragraph here and there by the maid herself, when there is something to clear up or an opinion to be rendered, et cetera and also at the very beginning, when she (the maid), writes an introductory paragraph to introduce readers to this man, Alexander Vile. It doesn’t give a full description of the man or his story, but does pose some rhetorical questions for the reader to keep in mind and, as for Vile’s character, which is an apt name for the man, who can, to an unmet stranger or to average passerby, it turns out, come off as “vile” indeed. But, the maid writes, at the start of it all: “ He was no hero for ‘simpletons’ but he was mine.”

Alexander has fallen into this caricature of the reclusive ogre for whom society at large is not all that agreeable since having lost his beloved Luciana in an unnamed, undescribed “accident” some time (years, it must be) beforehand. This loss, it turns out, has taken out all the joy of life, all that kept him going and made things seem worth doing, life worth living to him. Since he is too vain a type to commit suicide, he has thus remained in his manor in London, composing grand music, which is a vocation for him as well as painting, writing poetry and, of course, keeping a steadfast journal, wherein he commits to paper all of his inner thoughts, activities and idle questions. These entries are a main part of Ms. Jones’s story. Instead of writing the usual narrative story, where the protagonist gives the accounting of events or an omniscient, unnamed narrator (the author herself or a minor character in the story) does so. Well, does, basically, follow the latter way, although, the maid, who is the character through whose eyes we take in the tale, does so, not in a straight narrative, but by way of introduction as well as a few paragraphs throughout, to tie things together in a way. But, other than that, The Maid, whom I suppose, is all one can call her, since she goes unnamed throughout, presents the story in an unusual sense: by collating a number of Alexander’s journal entries, some of the poems that he includes in them, along with numerous letter to and from Joanna, the young protoge.

After a bit of getting accustomed to the house and the man in it, Joanna is tutored by Vile, given piano lessons and is given a good deal to read, including books by such writers as Oscar Wilde, Elizabeth Gaskill, Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters and others; pretty soon Joanna is devouring as much as she can, as well as going to school now, to get a proper education, which also gives the normally solipsistic Alexander, time for solitude.

It’s when Joanna meets Vincent Valentine that things begin to change and all involved start a metamorphosis. The two fall madly in love with each other, go out together often and eventually, they decide to get married. During all of this, Alexander isn’t quite sure what to make of the feelings he is having about this. Is it jealousy? Is it pride? Is he afraid of being left alone again?

Then there is the matter of Vincent’s brother, Christian, who, after meeting Alexander at a dinner party Vile throws at his manor, where the whole Valentine family is invited, Vincent, his parents and his brother, Christian. It is here on that night, when he first meets Alexander that Christian sees through the man in a way, it seems, that no one in his family cannot – or will not(?) At the end of that evening, it only ends in a semi-friendly bit of verbal sparring that Vile writes in a later entry, he kept things from getting ugly for fear of offending the other guests and that, if he’d wanted to he could’ve done much harm, verbally at least, to young Christian.

Then comes the wedding, a day on which everything seems perfect – the weather, the smiling faces at the ceremony, even Alexander has had his hair trimmed and fixed to look its best that day, dressed fabulously and the two stars, the bride and groom are stunning as well. It all seems to be going great – the wedding is just about to commence, in fact has started and the groom has come, taken his place at the outside, makeshift “altar”, awaiting his beloved bride, Joanna, who, when about to walk down the aisle, suddenly scans the audience and notices that Alexander is no longer there, which, for some reason, really makes her crazy and she suddenly runs away from it all, back to where she assumes he’s gone – back to his house, where upon finally getting there, she looks about and finally finds him half dead with an overdose of Laudanum (tincture of morphine, a popular, onetime over the counter pain remedy, popular, of course, in Victorian times, even through the first part of the 20th Century). Alexander has been overcome with his feelings, which he must have realized was real love for this, now-beautiful young woman and when he had seen her about to be taken away by Vincent, it proved to be too much for him, so he gets up and rushes back to his home and intends on taking his life. But when Joanna gets there, she is in time to help revive him (plus I don’t think he had taken enough to prove fatal anyway). But that seems to end the wedding plans for her.

Days later she receives a letter from Vincent, sad but perplexed at why she should’ve run off like that, right in the middle of their wedding. He writes in his missive if they can make plans anew to wed, writing Joanna that he still loves her and wants to be with her forever, if she’ll have him.

At this point the story starts to fracture a little. A new character, previously unmentioned, Clarissa, is brought in, so to speak, in the form of a few letters that Joanna has written to her. The first one is where we, the reader, learn of what transpired at the wedding and how Clarissa’s dislike of Alexander is misplaced, that she has not understood him the way she, Joanna does.

She writes a couple other letters to her and soon the maid jumps in again and tells us that after this, Joanna had changed quite a bit, that she started to become an angry young woman, temperamental in disposition and that she is not any longer the carefree young girl she once was. And just as Vincent’s brother had deduced, Alexander is really a kind of Dr. Frankenstein – taking a malleable young mind and warping it sufficiently to his twisted views on humanity. Ever since losing the one love of his life, his sweet Luciana, he has turned into a nihilistic monster who hates the world and only goes through the motions at living in it; during his morning walks, his occasional dining out or wandering about in search of whatever it may be. His towering intellect plus ego and his misanthropy have conspired to take his revenge on a cruel, cardboard world and Joanna is that instrument of vengeance.

By the end of the story several twists and turns have come up that will either reinforce what you may already have suspected or else will surprise others.

I’m not going to spoil things by revealing the ending here. Suffice it so say, though, Natasha Jones has made this an innovative way to tell a story. For all her “offstage” sensibility, the maid is the one who is telling this story and at times it even gets away that it is her, even though, most of the things we read come from the journal of Alexander Vile, letters to and from Joanna and even letters from Vincent Valentine. It’s a bit jagged, the way it’s presented, at least in the beginning, but when you get used to how things are set, you will get into the meat of the story a lot easier – sometimes, it even takes a few false starts to get yourself going. At 49 pages, it is just the right length: it’s not embellished so much as to make it into a longer novel nor is it abbreviated too much, leaving out some great details.

-KM 

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