The story is set in the early late 1800s - early 1900s in Sydney. Albion is a well-to-do man who inherits his father’s stationery business. He has been excruciatingly aware of how he is regarded by others from a very young age. He is steamrolled into the role of ‘gentleman’ by his father and other people in his life, and learns—not quickly and not easily, but very thoroughly—the rules of masculinity. One of the central pillars of this masculinity was the incomprehension of women. Albion’s extreme self-awareness also included being self-conscious around women. There is a scene where he is utterly helpless as he hears a group of women, including his wife, mother and sister, laughing amongst themselves. Of course he suspects they are laughing at him. This scene encapsulates Albion’s mistrust of women because of his own insecurities. Albion is a shell. He is an empty man who fills the void with ‘facts’. From a young age he absorbed facts and this becomes a life-long hobby, but there are never enough facts, of course. Filling his void with facts is a way he assumes status and power. He deploys his facts to put down others, mainly women, and maintain his superiority over them. This enables him to present an image of who he believes he should be and who he assumes people see him as.
Everyone, at some stage in their lives, is aware of how they appear to others. For some highly self-aware people, they can feel as though they are playing the role of who they and others think they are, or ought to be. Albion is one such person. His body is a shell, and he plays the role of husband, father and pillar of the community. He is always hovering outside his own life, watching on.
I just finished reading another book where this phenomenon was also quite central in the protagonist’s narration. The narrator of Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, Peter Harris, was also a middle-aged, middle-class male who was hyper self-aware. I preferred Grenville’s by a long shot. In fact, By Nightfall is the least enjoyable of Cunningham’s that I have read. I’ve only read two others—A Home at the End of the World and The Hours, and I thought they were both excellent—but I found his most recent book a bit annoying in spots. Peter is constantly questioning his actions and thoughts and this is made explicit with lots of brackets (parentheses). The overuse of brackets really got on my nerves. Am I being pedantic? I can’t remember brackets in Grenville’s Dark Places so she must have been able to communicate extreme self-awareness without using them. It’s interesting how a stylistic thing can have such an effect on my experience of the book. The characters were completely different too of course. Peter Harris was irritating in his middle-class existence but he wasn’t despicable like Albion Gidley Singer. I got a bit bored with the art references in By Nightfall as well. Peter is the owner of an art gallery, and his wife, Rebecca, also works in the art world. At the centre of the story is Rebecca’s younger brother Mizzy, who comes to stay with them, while attempting to sort himself out. He’s a drug addict who hasn’t found a place in the world yet, despite being well into his late twenties. He’s also beautiful and charismatic. So charismatic that he charms Peter into falling in love with him. Peter then has to question everything. All of a sudden he is willing to give everything up—his successful career, his long and stable marriage—to pursue a reckless relationship with the much younger drug-addicted brother of his wife. Peter realises this is madness and the depth of the feelings he has for Mizzy and what a relationship with Mizzy represents places his whole world into question. I was convinced, but frankly, not really very interested. I didn’t like any of the characters in By Nightfall. But I didn’t despise any either, like I despised Albion. So for me the book with the despicable character who repulsed me but compelled me to keep reading was more appealing than the book with the average and insipid character who failed to strike a chord.