Nancy Wilson Ross

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

Many people, including this reviewer, who read Sylvia Ashton-Warner's first novel, "Spinster," closed the book with an exhilarating sense of personal discovery. Here, one felt, was a fresh voice. Though the writing seemed at times almost willfully oblique, the novelist demonstrated a singular creativity in her account of an unconventional New Zealand school teacher's experiences….

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Mrs. Ashton-Warner's present novel, "Incense to Idols," … tells the story of a worldly young Parisian widow….

As in "Spinster" the story is told in the form of an interior monologue. Thus the reader learns, from the heroine herself, that Germaine is young, ravishingly beautiful, fond of drink, exceptionally gifted, devastatingly soignée, and fascinating to the opposite sex. An inordinate amount of attention is paid by the author—and one can only conclude, with a novelist of Mrs. Ashton-Warner's stature, by deliberate design—to detailed descriptions of what the heroine is wearing. Yet these costumes sound much more like clothes from a provincial main street emporium than from the wardrobe of a chic young Parisian. This seemingly minor point cannot be overlooked because of the emphasis Mrs. Warner herself places on it. It is impossible to believe that Germaine is a sophisticated Parisian, or, for that matter, a gifted artist…. [In] general, the heroine seems more a frustrated suburban matron than a free-wheeling young widow….

"Incense to Idols" is in many ways a puzzling novel, and part of its bafflement rises from the surprising and frequent ineptitude of the author's prose style. What, for instance, is the motivation behind the heroine's compulsive use of the word "Ooh" which appears every few pages?

There are compelling undercurrents in this strange novel: Germaine's obsession with an interior music and her physical inability to endure loud sounds (due to certain circumstances of her birth—belatedly revealed); the musician-teacher who has, in the past in France, been charged with a brutal murder; the complexity of the clergyman's character and Germaine's effect on him; the suggestion of Biblical analogies—Baal, the whore of Babylon, and so on. Yet somehow, these dark, rich depths seem never sufficiently explored nor structurally integrated into the central theme. Since, however, nothing Sylvia Ashton-Warner writes can be a total disappointment, if one patiently pursues the plot through its turgid mazes to the uncompromising end the reader of "Incense to Idols" will be left with the sense of having been in the presence of an uncommon, though uneven, talent.

Nancy Wilson Ross, "Celtic Saga," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1960 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLIII, No. 46, November 12, 1960, p. 32.

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