Ursula Holden

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James Brockway

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 662

Art should disturb, it should elate, excite the participant, affect the outlook of onlookers.

These are the thoughts of Logan, ill-fated character in Ursula Holden's third novel, Turnstiles—not that many of her characters are anything other than ill-fated, for that matter. 'Birth, and tribulation, and death'—with copulation by no means overlooked on the way—could have stood as the epigraph in the latest work of this most extraordinary artist…. It would have been appropriate to all three of her novels so far, and perhaps even more apt for this one than the quotation she has indeed chosen for it from Eliot: 'For us, there is only the trying. / The rest is not our business'. Yet these last words are fitting enough for Ruth Cash, 'a natural slob', who is the central character of Turnstiles and who goes, dolefully, through many symbolic turnstiles during the course of the novel.

Although 'art should disturb' does not imply that all that disturbs is art, there can be no doubt that [all of Ursula Holden's] writing is highly disturbing…. (p. 47)

What is Turnstiles about?… [It is] based on the psychological premise that 'isolation acquired in childhood soon becomes habit'—a thought which passes through Ruth Cash's mind towards the close of the novel, when she is recalling her childhood for her psychiatrist, Dr. Greanbach.

It is a childhood several of Ursula Holden's characters have known: selfish or useless parents, absent parents, parents who meet violent deaths in accidents; being fostered out, evacuated to unwelcoming arms during the last war—a childhood which produces sad misfits, often seen by us romantically as 'born losers'. Romantically, because they weren't born that way—we made them that way. Misfits but also, at least where this author's characters are concerned, human beings hyper-sensitive to existence as a result of their deprivation, creatures who think about life. A rare breed. (pp. 47-8)

[The characters in Turnstiles] are made for tragedy … and the upshot is the death of both Logan and the apparently autistic child, Tangerine, when it was well on the way to recovery. Both die by what was, if the truth would out, murder.

While writing this, I have grown increasingly aware that with the author's contribution removed (her style and attack), it would be the easiest thing in the world to send up her material and her novel, which in several respects is a re-working of the subject matter of her first, Endless Race….

[Ursula Holden's strength] lies in daring to choose slobs and failures and fool Bohemians—the anti-bourgeois—or, to go American, the 'disadvantaged', as her subject matter, and then applying to this subject matter her equally daring style….

[In] Turnstiles the horror is purer than Polanski—indeed, Ruth's Tangerine is really that film producer's Rosemary's Baby, minus the kitsch. Here the horror is genuine, because it proceeds from the real evil which resides in all of us, the most ordinary of people, and particularly in human fecklessness….

Ursula Holden goes to work with words as Van Gogh went to work with paint. She jabs them on in short, sharp, flat strokes in thickest impasto, perhaps with a stick or possibly with her thumb. Often carelessly, clumsily (notice 'outlook' followed by 'onlookers', quoted in my first sentence); often perpetrating the most wilfully odd juxtapositions, not merely of words but also of thoughts and ideas. But: always effectively….

[Of Crows over the Wheatfield], Van Gogh wrote: 'I had no trouble in expressing sadness and extreme solitude', and these are what Ursula Holden's work, too, is all about.

There are a thousand more things one could say of this work….

Here, however, I must be content to say: this novel, this whole oeuvre so far, disturbs; it elates; it excites; it affects the onlooker's outlook on life. It will give you sleepless nights. It is art. (p. 48)

James Brockway, "Passions in Impasto" (© copyright James Brockway 1977; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 22, No. 9, June, 1977, pp. 47-8.

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