A Melancholy Event by Dan Glaister -the story of an obsessive search for the past

A Melancholy Event by Dan Glaister

This is an unusual book, intensely dramatic and powerful. A girl, Stephanie, discovers some papers which tell the story of a duel that ended badly. This is a book that delves into a girl’s imagination, that deals with the power of the past to inspire decisions in the present, that explains the motivations of people. It is ambiguous; maybe it is a straight story of a girl desperate to make a mark, to influence events in her family. Or maybe it is an illustration of a life dominated by an obsession which is aided and abetted by others. It is, I think, a sad and strange book, which deals with death and the removal of hope. A boy with books which he stares at, a mother with no interest in a daughter, Stephanie meets people living grim lives, lives of catching hold of ideas, missing out. The setting of events at shadowy house, a confusing library, an outdoor space bleak in its loneliness, this is a book of place, an undefined time, and the inevitable drawing closer to a conclusion. Disturbing in its intensity, unique in its reaction to an old story of a melancholy event, revealing so much, it is a memorable book that I was interested to read and review. 

From the first line “Stephanie found the story that would end her life in a cardboard box in the attic.” It appears that she is not a great fan of reading, unlike her brother who has his “head lodged between the pages of a book”. Not that he seems to be enjoying what he reads. Stephanie’s mother dresses in such a conventional style that Stephanie used to confuse her with other women. Father has disappeared, seemingly taking with him the inspiration for their family life, possibly even the honour that Stephanie misses. When she reads of a duel that took place between two former friends a hundred years ago, of the way one man shot another before time, the pain of the blow, she feels a physical reaction. One element is the actual papers that bear the account, another is the locality which is so close to the house, another is her powerful visualisation of the scene. The decision to reenact the event is almost too much to bear, it is no surprise to the reader that Stephanie quickly determines to obtain the people, the objects and the place to make the vision of the duel a reality. 

I found this an insightful and disturbing book. While Stephanie’s powerful desire to recreate an historical event which she takes as personal is one issue, the seemingly silent acquiescence of the adults around her is another element. I wonder whether it is a sort of parable that adults are too slow to pick up on dangers, unwilling to believe that a girl will truly go so far in pursuit of even an obsession. This is a book which is detailed in some respects, yet left me with so many questions unanswered. I read this book quickly, propelled by its power and pace, disturbed by its message, and overwhelmed by the events it seemingly describes.