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Mrs Ellingtons cleaner is not what she seemsThe HuntersClaire MessudPicador 1299Reading a pair of novellas is rather like having two starters in place of a main course a lighter and more varied alternative to one large helping With The Hunters Two Short Novels Claire Messud serves up two small very different dishes The first is a poignant moving portrait of human endurance the second a cleverly crafted exercise in suspenseIn her previous acclaimed novel The Last Life Messud explored the territory of identity and history and she returns to those ideas in this book A Simple Tale tells the story of Maria Poniatowski a displaced person relocated after the Second World War to Canada She has worked for 40 years as a cleaner and companion for the smart but cantankerous Mrs Ellington Messud begins the tale with an ending Mrs Ellington is about to die and Maria worries that she will be left alone with no one to remember herFragments from Marias past are layered like millefeuille her journey to the German work camps her escape from a munitions factory during a night bombing raid the moment she fell in love Messud tells Marias history in a compassionate but unsentimental voice unravelling the ribbon of years to reveal the extremes of human experience and the way the human spirit adapts to surviveMarias is anything but a simple tale She blots out the parts of history she cannot confront so that her life is as much a product of her imagination as of her past After her husbands death she is convinced his heart attack was caused by her hated daughter-in-law She covers all the spotless furniture with plastic wraps to keep safe untainted the life the permanence that she and Len had built together To preserve and rebuild her past is to preserve herselfMarias panic about her growing isolation from her son christened Radek now an all-Canadian Rod comes to a head on a
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