Last January I read Ann Quin’s first novel, Berg, soon to appear in a new edition from And Other Stories whose Quin revival began the collection The Unmapped Country. It may have taken twelve months, but I began this year with her second novel, Three, from 1966 (as she only wrote four novels before committing suicide in 1973 there is no rush). Three, unsurprisingly, is the story of three characters, middle-aged couple Leon and Ruth, and their lodger, a young woman known only as S. As the novel begins, S is already dead, having set out to sea in a small boat alone and never returned, the suggestion being that she has killed herself:

“I mean we can’t really be sure could so easily have been an accident the note just a melodramatic touch.”

The scenes between Leon and Ruth, which make up much of the narrative, are presented mainly in dialogue in which each speaker’s contribution is largely unpunctuated and, though paragraphed, is not regularly paragraphed between speakers. This choice suggest the suffocating proximity of their relationship where each must devise their own escapes, conversation that is close-packed and claustrophobic, though superficially civil.

Quin captures the domestic tensions of the couple without any need for melodrama. Much of it is played out through the cat, Bobo, “the cat R adores, L ignores” according to S, whose journals and recordings also feature in the novel as Leon and Ruth experience them. This is evident from the beginning when Leon insists the cat is smelling and Ruth retorts it is probably his shoes. While Ruth constantly pets the cat, Leon does not hide his dislike:

“The cat brushed against his legs, he pushed him away, picked the hairs off his trousers… Fucking stinking animal she never liked you really either.”

We can only assume the ‘she’ is S, and it is frequently hinted that Leon and S were much closer than S and Ruth:

“How I hated it when you both went off on those so-called long tramps nearly driven crazy here all alone…”

This influences Leon and Ruth’s differing views of S: whereas Leon sees her as “less inhibited” for swimming naked in the sea, Ruth comments, “she was a bit of an exhibitionist,” and says of her dancing:

“I thought she looked obscene really the way her legs spread out.”

We also know from S’s observations that Ruth is prone to jealousy:

“If L should stray in any one direction for too long she asks for a cigarette, refuses all offers except his.”

And Ruth admits, “Didn’t I then immediately feel a kind of relief when she was dead.” It is perhaps this that makes her ask Leon, “Do you think she was in love with you?” Meanwhile she finds Leon’s sexual approaches irritating, complaining that, “You always have to get sexy in the bath,” and later:

“Ah don’t darling you’re hurting you’re bruising me you know how tender I am. She pulled back.”

These constant rejections might make one feel sympathy for Leon were it not that Ruth sees his advances as entirely selfish:

“He is concerned only with achieving his own orgasm and I refuse absolutely to be exploited in that way.”

This is demonstrated later when he rapes her, also raising further questions about how he may have treated S. In her journal S describes nights spent at a hotel with a man, “nights spent in shared fantasies”, who could, of course, be Leon, who we learn knew S before she came to live with them. Could he even be the father of the child she had to have aborted? This would certainly go some way to answering Ruth’s question, “What did she want of us?” and explaining S’s comment:

“Three months now of living with two people and not any nearer – nearer. Tactics flounder before even begun. There seems no answer.”

Reading Three, however, is not about solving this mystery. It provides a forensic examination of Leon and Ruth’s marriage which, though far from extraordinary, instils the reader with horror by the end of the novel. Some of the most acute observations of their relationship come from S, who describes it as “Existence bound by habit” and outlines their sparring with this wonderful image:

“Emotions handled, shifted about, dropped, picked up, but always attached as a child’s pair of gloves.”

Three is a disturbing, uncomfortable novel, not only in Ruth and Leon’s present, but in the broken prose and fractured memories of S’s journals. Sex is a powerful force, both enticing and dangerous; families hide their true faces just as the three characters do behind masks in the empty swimming pool they use as a theatre; distrust is everywhere in the air. It is another reminder of what an important writer we lost, one that is long due recognition in her own country.

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3 Responses to “Three”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    For some reason, I always get this writer muddled up with Anna Kavan – probably because of the similarities in their first names, and the sense that both were interested in pushing the boundaries of fiction in their day. (I love Kavan’s Ice, yet another book I’m contemplating buying again in the relatively new Penguin livery!) The Quin is probably too intense a read for me right now, but it does sound very striking.

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I wrote about this at mine ages back. It’s good, but very slippery. Disturbing and uncomfortable is right, but in a good way I think. Apparently her third and her fourth (and final) novels get steadily more experimental.

    This was mine (

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