From the very start, I wasn’t sure about Hannah – a small, thin girl playing chess against herself in the damp cloakroom of an all-girls boarding school. It’s here we’re introduced to a budding friendship between the narrator, Claudia, and this mildly enigmatic woman-child who tells her about-to-be-new best friend about her solo chess game, “I’m never sure who’s going to win.”
I wasn’t, either, while reading Rosalind Brackenbury’s Without Her (Delphinium Books). The two girls become inseparable partners in crime, unapologetically late for meals and brazenly absent from roll call altogether. But from page 3, it’s clear who’s the inspiration for misbehavior, who has the moxie; and so right away, we readers know who the “her” is in the title. It’s Hannah.
Brackenbury’s sentences have an arresting cadence. I had the feeling that each sentence was heavier at the end, that words slid downhill, taking me with them. This made for easy reading, but not a hurried read because Brackenbury has a lovely penchant for appealing to as many of the five senses as she possibly can. The cloakroom smelled sweaty and polluted, the housemistress had the piercing stare of a bird of prey, chair legs scraped on bare wood floor, there was cold leftover food and leaves at the window like hands against glass, footsteps and shouts. All this in the first five pages.
The book toggles back and forth between the past when they were schoolgirls, and the present when the two women are in their 60s. Hannah is married with children and lives in France with her husband who loves her very much. Claudia teaches film studies at a Virginia college. She’s never married, but for the last 40-some years, she’s maintained a transcontinental relationship with Alexandre, a floppy-haired Parisian charmer the two girls met years ago on a train.
It’s at this stage that we are told Hannah is missing. Her husband Philip had gone on ahead to their country house; Hannah was to follow after a day of shopping in Paris, but she never stepped off the train. As Hannah’s childhood and closest friend, Claudia is called in as reinforcements, detective, and support in solving the mystery. Where had Hannah gone?
On her way to the country house to help Philip find his wife, Claudia stops in Paris to meet Alexandre. Here, the book takes a dip, a gentle foray into love between two people in their 60s, passion as it ripens and changes and stays the same. For readers of a certain age, this relationship, as unprincipled as it was (he was married – off and on over these years) will seem downright beautiful and above reproach. Their lovemaking is still passionate despite the accommodations they must make because of their ages. They still leave a trail of clothes on hotel room floors in their haste to get to the bed.
The story of their love affair is so full of calm understanding, comfort, love, friendship, and sex that I almost forgot about Hannah.
Any clues to her whereabouts were indistinguishable by me, but we learn a lot of Hannah’s character. She’s capricious and self-indulgent. She caters to her own whims, shows up late for appointments, or not at all; but she’s spirited and vivacious, and everyone in the book loves and forgives her.
I wished I could have met her to see what was so irresistible, or asked the author questions about Hannah and the people who loved her, but I had to be content with what Brackenbury gives us. That was enough to keep me intrigued and determined to ignore the niggling hints that there was something perhaps unforgivable in Hannah’s past – and maybe in her future.
About this time, the illusion of heaviness at the ends of Brackenbury’s sentences disappeared, perhaps because I was so entangled in the story.
Without Her blurs the boundaries between right and wrong, old and young, between love and acceptance. More than a love story, it’s food for thought. Maybe it should be required reading.
Without Her is available for purchase.
About Rosalind Brackenbury
Rosalind Brackenbury is the author of Becoming George Sand, Paris Sill Life, The Third Swimmer and The Lost Love Letters of Henri Fournier. A former writer-in-residence at the College of William and Mary, she has also served as poet laureate of Key West. Her 2016 novel, The Third Swimmer, was an INDIES Silver Winner in adult General Fiction.