Sylvia Ashton-Warner John Wain - Essay

John Wain

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "Spinster," the] spinster in question is Anna Vorontosov, a teacher in New Zealand, working mostly among Maori children—sensitive, alive, unskilled in protective evasions, tortured by memories of a past sexual relationship that took some kind of unexplained wrong turning. Everything about her is credible, and yet one never catches oneself thinking, How well the author has imagined this character! One simply responds immediately, as if it were all happening in the room where one sits reading. Analyzed, Mrs. Ashton-Warner's technique seems quite simple; everything goes into the present tense, the voices of the children continually chime through Miss Vorontosov's unbroken solipsism, and nothing is allowed into the picture that might suggest an author, a sensibility outside Miss Vorontosov's. (p. 169)

"The hazards and glamour of communication" would be a good short description of what "Spinster," a first novel, is about—as if the continual presence of this crowd of half-articulate children, teeming and tumbling in the center of the story, had given Miss Vorontosov an awareness that communication is a miracle in itself, that it is a strange thing that we should use language at all, and an even stranger thing that real ideas and emotions should actually, by this means, make the journey now and then from one skull into another…. [The relationships in "Spinster"] are shown as endlessly delicate and unpredictable. And the identity at the center of it all, the woman who somehow preserves each day, and every minute of each day, so as to achieve some sort of twoway relationship with so many people and things, is wonderfully real and moving—a useful reminder that the novel is still a field in which the novice, given inspiration, can produce work beyond the range of the average professional, and in which there are many discoveries still to be made. (p. 170)

John Wain, "Books: 'Spinster'," in The New Yorker (© 1959 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXV, No. 8, April 11, 1959, pp. 169-70.