10 OCTOBER 1981, Page 25



• •

Francis King

The Temptation of Eileen Hughes Brian Moore (Cape pp.211, £.6.50) Brian Moore must always be a cause both of bewilderment and of envy to his fellow novelists. Whereas other modern Irish writers fizz and flash with stylistic intoxication, he has become increasingly sober. So rarely does he produce an out-of-the-way metaphor or simile that, when he does so, it has an unusually powerful impact. ('He hunched his shoulders as though pressing invisible wings into his back . . ."The rain wept in front of her . . ."The waiters stood in groups, chatting, like workers waiting for a factory bell . . .'). In general his sentences are unelaborate and his vocabulary narrow. His only idiosyncrasy is to begin a sentence with an 'And' followed by a verb without either a noun or a pronoun before it. For example: "He's all right," he said. "He'll look after you." And went off to open a taxi door for an arriving guest.'

But, mysteriously, beneath this surface flatness, strange creatures thresh, slither and collide with each other. Many sentences may seem bare, some may even seem banale; but the cumulative impression left by a sequence of them is one of complexity and originality. It is as difficult for another novelist to say precisely how Mr Moore brings this off as for another dramatist to say precisely how Terence Rattigan accomplished the same kind of feat in a series of plays in which memorable characters come to life out of lines through which no blood seems to pulse.

In The Temptation of Eileen Hughes, a married couple and a young girl arrive at an expensive Belgravia hotel from Northern Ireland. The girl, Eileen, imagines that she has been brought along as the friend of the young wife, Mona; but it is in fact the husband, Bernard, who has insisted on having her with them. Bernard, rich, intelligent and well-educated, is a brilliant study in the kind of panicky neurosis that seeps into an empty life like damp into an empty house. He owns not merely the department store in which Eileen works as a shop-girl, but also other shops, pubs and a construction business. But his money buys him no satisfaction, and he takes up interests — amateur dramatics, music, art, travel — only to weary of them. In his youth, he entered a monastery; but, after a few months, he quit it, feeling that, by having approached too near to the radiance of God, he had let his faith be shrivelled.

His love of Eileen is similar in its passionate asexuality to that previous love of God; and in confessing it to her and so approaching too near to her, he fears that, as in the case of his faith in God, he may have destroyed what is of most value to him in the whole world. 'Never seek to tell thy love . . .' Mr Moore makes one see this physically unattractive man in his expensive English clothes; and he also makes one both shrink from him, as from some bird of prey, and feel sorry for him in his bondage to an obsession. He must have Eileen solely for himself; and to achieve that objective, he is prepared to make any deal with her or his wife.

Mr Moore has always shown uncanny empathy in his depiction of women. It is therefore no surprise that Bernard's 'attractive, corrupt wife, daughter of a failed dentist, should be so convincing. Mona has not married Bernard solely for his money; but money is the reason that she has stuck with him even after he has come to prefer furtive masturbation over pornographic magazines in his study to sex with her in bed. By the time of the London visit, they have reached an accommodation: if she does nothing to disgrace herself or him in Ireland, then anywhere else she can amuse herself how she wishes. So it is that she at once casts greedy eyes on the driver of their hired car and subsequently picks up men in their own and other hotels.

But the most remarkable creation of all — since simplicity, decency and innocence are things always difficult to make interesting and not insipid — is the girl, Eileen. Her life with her widowed, ailing mother has been narrow and unadventurous. She has met few boys and those that she has met have immediately tried to grope their way to clumsy sex. She is dazzled by the luxury hotel, the hired limousine and the costly meals in restaurants; and inevitably, she contrasts the freedom and splendour of London with Belfast.

At first Eileen sees herself, as we see her, in the role of victim; but, as the book progresses, both she and we come to realise that the reverse is, in fact, the case. She has the couple in thrall and can do with them what she wishes. Her 'temptation' in the title is not merely the obvious one of selling herself to the man who is prepared to pay all that he possesses for her; it is also the temptation to make use of the powers of life-and-death, God-like, she now wields. Whether she succumbs to one or other or both of these temptations, it would ruin the reader's pleasure to reveal.

Particularly subtle is the way in which Mr Moore enables us to see London through the eyes of this unsophisticated girl; we, too, might be seeing it for the first time, as she walks past Buckingham Palace, explores that desolate waste-land of squalid hotels south of Victoria Station, or ventures into a restaurant of a kind previously unknown to her. But the tyranny of the loved one over the lover — wonderfully exemplified when Eileen runs away from Bernard in Regent's Park and then watches him, in hiding, as he desperately tries to find her — is the strongest and most fascinating element in a strong and fascinating book.