Three by Ann Quin

Three by Ann Quin

Review by S. D. Stewart

Three displays a growth in complexity of both form and theme from Quin’s first published novel Berg, while also laying the stylistic groundwork for her third novel Passages. Here, a middle-aged married couple, Ruth and Leonard, reflect on their relationship with a woman S who came to live with them after having worked briefly for Leonard, a translator, and has since died, perhaps a suicide, perhaps not. S has had a deep effect on both the couple as a unit and as individuals. In order to illustrate this, Quin takes the formal inventiveness of Berg up a notch, joining third person narrative that melds dialogue and description into single paragraphs with audiotape transcriptions and journal entries from the three characters.

The present narrative of the couple Ruth and Leonard anchors the text, allowing for multiple digressions via the couple’s tandem and individual investigations into the documents S has left behind. Instead of burning off the mist of this mystery, though, these documents only thicken it further, offering up only vague hints in the staccato poetic prose employed by S in her audiotapes and her more straightforward, though no more revealing, journal entries. At the same time, diary entries written by Ruth and an audiorecording made by Leonard, happened upon and read/listened to without the other’s knowledge, illuminate the couple’s deepening divide, which lies hidden beneath the banal cloak of their constant day-to-day chatter. At the heart of this rift is a knot of sexual tension that Leonard persistently seeks to untie even as Ruth is pulling the ends tighter. Their individual surrogates—Ruth’s cat and Leonard’s orchids—each repel the other person, as if the two, perhaps subconsciously, each resent the beneficiary of the other’s repressed passion. However, throughout the book, it is the ghostly presence of S that most loudly signals the couple’s utter failure to meet on mutually pleasing sexual terms. Union with S could have been the culmination of a fantasy for both of them, or perhaps S may have just shown them what was possible when lives commingle to the point of full immersion. She herself clearly felt drawn to both of them in different ways, and seemed to struggle with how to cross their boundaries, both collective and individual, in order to fulfill her own desires, some of which are alluded to in her recordings and journals. The bisexual theme is clear, and in interviews Quin alluded to her own bisexual feelings, as well as her belief that all people are inherently bisexual. She also spoke of her fantasy of being with both another woman and a man. So these themes she explores in Three were certainly of personal significance to her.

While I found it a bit slow to get into, the book grew steadily more intriguing and I found myself wanting to reread parts of it in order to confirm suspicions or remind myself of prior allusions. As with Passages, it merits a complete reread in order to fully move through the text and capture all the signal markers. There are many secondary plot points I don’t touch on above. For example, there are certain scenes that crop up more than once in the various forms of recollection Quin uses. In one scene in particular, Leonard is attacked by a menacing group of men while he, Ruth, and S are performing one of their mime plays (another point of interest) in the back yard. These men and other trespassers reappear at different times as revelers in the yard and on the beach, at one point trying to attract S’s attention when she is out rowing. There is also the question of S’s suicide and if that is really what happened to her. Quin has strewn hints and possible red herrings throughout, taking readers to the brink of what I found to be a very satisfactory conclusion.

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