Reviewed in the United States on November 2, 2020
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This magnificent book brings the reader on a journey through the mind and actions of a man whose fate it is to be employed as a caretaker in a private museum. The method he uses to acquire this position and his physical and mental state of mind is studied and made so real for the reader, the intensity of his personality as well as what motivates his actions which are brought to life and made so disturbingly real or hilariously frightening is, for this reader, a virtual triumph in every written page.
I love how Doon Arbus has the power to bring us a great deal of simple, sensible thought about who we are (or aren’t) as human beings, thrilling us with frightening honesty all the way through and leaving us at the end with much to ponder as we are brought through this book on a rocky voyage with the most beautiful, insightful prose I have seen on every single page.
This novel works through an accumulation of one exquisite detail after another, rather than through action. For this reason it takes more commitment and concentration than a conventionally plot-driven novel, and its rewards are different, and deep. I don’t think there is a better way to have told this story about the new caretaker for a strange collection of stuff, a museum where “peerless antiquities commune happily with the ignored, the discarded, the undervalued and the valueless.” Doon Arbus feels in complete control of her unusual story here–her storytelling left me feeling like I was in assured hands. The narrative voice is so matter-of-fact as to be disorienting; as the story progresses this voice begins to gather echoes of dusty dread. The publisher’s comparison with Shirley Jackson is apt–this novel feels like an everyday encounter with madness, told so dryly that it all seems completely normal until it’s too late.
This must be the greatest debut novel by a 75-year-old ever written. I had no idea of Arbus’s age; I thought it was the very mature work of a young woman. The prose is controlled, very intelligent, with an excellent rhythm. What there is of a plot is always surprising, and the protagonist is one of the best of the lost losers who populate a large section of contemporary literary shelves (mostly by men). The short length is perfect, as is the novella’s present tense. Although I would have preferred a different ending, I found this novella near perfect.
The Caretaker is filled with beautiful, expressive, poetic writing but demands your absolute attention and that’s okay. I was falling in love with everything. I’m still not sure I understand the point of it all but God, it was so much fun to immerse my brain into all that glorious language. Of course, I think I could listen to Alan Cumming read the phone book but hearing him read all these luscious, provocative phrases is heaven.