Tony and Susan by Austin Wright

I read Tony and Susan by Austin Wright last November and parts of it are still vivid in my mind, but a lot of it has faded away. I’d put a few markers in the book, which act as pointers to sections I found notable, and which have helped to refresh my memory.

It’s a novel within a novel. Susan receives a manuscript novel, Nocturnal Animals, from her ex-husband. This is the outer story, which is nowhere nearly as interesting or absorbing as the inner story, her husband’s fictional tale of a crime, an ambush on the highway that leads to murder. Each time Susan stopped reading I just wanted to get back to the story of Tony Hastings and his family. It made me nervous as I was reading it and even more nervous went we drove anywhere, because Tony, his wife Laura and their daughter Helen were travelling on an Interstate going to their summer cottage in Maine when two cars in front of them blocked the lanes and forced them off the road. This does happen in real life, and the description is tense and vivid enough to make me believe it. It is terrifying.

The rest of the inner story is about Tony trying to get justice/revenge for what subsequently happened. There are questions on the back cover about why Susan’s husband sent her the manuscript, but the book doesn’t resolve any of these questions, which was disappointing. But I found it compelling reading and strangely enjoyable, if a little drawn out.  It was strange because that is Susan’s reaction as she reads about Tony:

This book has her in its grip, she can say that truly. The long, slow plunge into the evil night and Tony trying to brace himself by being civilised. The notion that being civilised conceals a great weakness.

She puts the manuscript back in the box, and even that seems like violence, like putting coffins into the ground: images from the book moving out into the house. Fear and regret. (page 110)

This is what this book is about – fear and regret – and also revenge. And it’s also about writing:

Once she asked him why he wanted to write. Not why he wanted to be a writer but why he wanted to write. His answers differed from day to day. It’s food and drink, he said. You write because everything dies, to save what dies. You write because the world is an inarticulate mess, which you can’t see until you map it in words. Your eyes are dim and you write to put your glasses on. No, you write because you read, to remake for your own use the stories in your life. You write because your mind is a babble, you dig a track in the babble to find your way around it. No, you write because you are shelled up inside your skull. You send out probes to other people in their skulls and you wait for a reply. (page 134)

There are more passages I could quote, but I think this one says a lot – and is long enough, anyway!

Tony and Susan was originally published in 1993. The author, Austin Wright was a novelist and Professor of English at the University of Cinncinnati. He died in 2003 at the age of 80.

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books (1 July 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1848870221
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848870222
  • Source: I bought it
  • My rating 3.5/5