Review: THE BLANK WALL by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Thanks to Patricia Abbott for recommending this one. I really liked discovering this author (that I’d never even heard of let alone read before), especially in this Persephone Books edition. They really put the class back into publishing; it comes with a thick card bookmark to match the design of the endpaper. This edition was released in 2003 but the original was published in 1947.

THE BLANK WALL is, essentially, the story of Lucia Holley. She is a New Yorker but has rented a house outside the city while her husband is away at war. She lives with her ageing father, two teenage children and a lone servant. From the outside her life appears perfect, perhaps aside from the hardships associated with wartime, but from her perspective Lucia’s life is anything but perfect. And that’s even before her 17 year old daughter Bee hooks up with a much older, married gangster-type. She is socially awkward and feels like a failure as she compares herself unfavourably to the neighbours and other women she knows.

With domestic suspense being in vogue at the moment it’s a shame that Holding and authors like her aren’t receiving more of a resurgence. THE BLANK WALL is at least as good as any of the modern tales bearing the categorisation and a whole lot better than a most of them. It’s genuinely tense and suspenseful, really never letting up on the calamities befalling poor Lucia. Lucia is never one of those loveable characters that worms their way into a reader’s heart but I grew increasingly sympathetic towards her. Holding paints a picture of a woman overwhelmed by the gulf between the expectations everyone has of her and her ability, or lack thereof, to live up to those expectations. Though I can’t actually imagine the human being that could give Bee and David what they’re looking for in a mother; they are a pair of insufferable, patronising ingrates. At least that’s how I view them at my age. I did wonder how I might have viewed them when I was closer to their age than their mother’s.

Lucia alternates between displaying amazing strength and an almost debilitating sense of failure as she faces an unwanted dead body, being blackmailed and the deep embarrassment of not having enough money to protect her loved ones. She hides these terrors from everyone, especially her absent husband who she writes to every night without giving even a hint of what’s really going on in her life. She doesn’t want to worry him. Only Sybil, the housekeeper, has some idea of what’s really happening. Until Lucia meets the nice(ish) gangster. Martin Donnelly, who seems to fall under Lucia’s spell, is the only character in the book I never fully believed but perhaps that’s because I’ve seen too many mafia movies.

Although it’s 70 years old this year THE BLANK WALL does not feel dated in the way that some older books do. I’m sure many women, and to be fair a lot of men too, would sympathise with the feelings Lucia goes through when she is confronted by things outside her control and being unable to do all the things her loved ones need her to do. The depiction of a supposedly ‘normal’ woman quietly unravelling is totally compelling and feels very ‘now’.  A highly recommended read.

This design, based on 1940’s furnishing fabric, is used for the new edition’s endpapers and an enclosed bookmark.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher This edition Persephone Books 2003, original edition 1947
ISBN 1903155320
Length 231
Format paperback
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy I bought it

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8 Responses to Review: THE BLANK WALL by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

  1. rkottery says:

    Glad you enjoyed this one. The Innocent Mrs Duff is also well worth reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    This one does sound like a strong example of psychological suspense, among other things, Bernadette. And it sounds as though Holding also explores some of the realities of the society of her day, which is also tricky to do well if you’re not going to lose the main plot line. Glad you enjoyed this.


  3. mark seganish says:

    I discovered Holding when I read that Raymond Chandler had highly praised her. The Blank Wall was filmed twice as “The Reckless Moment” in 1949 and “The Deep End” in 2001. In the second version the daughter was replaced by a gay son, which made more sense to the modern audience.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Kathy D. says:

    Tilda Swinton? Yes. Will look for these movies.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. tracybham says:

    I have this book in a hardcover collection of suspense novels by women from the 40s and the 50s. I have not read it yet. Your review makes it sound very good.

    Liked by 1 person

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