A Review of Nancy Baker’s A Terrible Beauty (Viking, 1996).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Nancy Baker plays with misdirection and ambiguities in her novel A Terrible Beauty. Her characters are not immediately morally good or bad, but straddle a grey line that allows them to dip into darkness and come out shadowy. Like many of her vampire stories, this one is not formulaic, but questions the boundaries of the vampire. She mirrors this modality in the image of her vampire protagonist/antagonist Sidonie, a woman whose own shape is changeable and whose morality is equally shifting and uncertain.
Baker pairs her starving vampire with a starving artist, trying to discover his own path, motivations, and self and trying to escape his own dark reality in the worlds his mind creates while awake; seeking to hide from the dark dreams of memory that spin tendrils through his mind and keep drawing him back to a family that can’t accept him. Matthew is the embodiment of the power of art for both delusion and revelation. But, his attempts to escape through drugs and alcohol keep bringing his dark memories into sharp focus and his paints begin to shape a reality that he has hidden from himself. Like most artists, it takes a friend looking at his art to discern the hidden meaning behind his paintings, the hidden depth of feeling that he is unaware of while painting like he is in a dream.
This is a novel about entrapment, about the confines of family and reputation that spin a web around a person, capturing their essence and keeping them from finding themselves outside of the threads of the past. And it takes Matthew’s physical entrapment and the revelation of the inevitability of his role as prey for a vampire for him to start to question himself, to pull away the confining net of the past and uncover what has made him who he is. He can only gain a separate identity and awareness by being truly trapped.
The image of the island, as it does in many narratives, serves for Baker as an image of isolation, but it is also one that is surrounded by water, a reflective surface and it mirrors back things lost to the depths. Matthew has a fear of water, and water represents the repressed memories and guilt that ride his soul.
Death, darkness, and seduction intertwine in A Terrible Beauty, luring the reader in with promises of sweet kisses before he or she notices the blood on their lips. Her novel is set in the North, without a specific image of nationality, and this Northern clime is the perfect setting for a vampire novel; the vampire reflecting the cold that sucks the life out of the body, the lurking dangers when the natural takes precedence over the facade of the civilised, and the perilous beauty of the untamed. The North is predatory. It is an escape that hunts us.
To find out more about Nancy Baker, you can visit her site at http://www.nancybaker.ca/