the setting is this:
a group of mostly well-off friends meet in london at the train station to embark on a trip to france together. through their thoughts it becomes apparent that they are not in fact close friends at all, however much they may smile sweetly at each other or feign delight at seeing one another. in the end, there is such a thick fog that no trains can leave the station, and the friends are put up in the station hotel. there is power play between the couples as well as between the women, and one particularly powerful character comes in late – max’s lover, amabel, who was not even supposed to come on this trip. she manages to track down the group of travelers at the hotel and pretends she is merely late. other than max, who originally extended the invitation to all of them (except to amabel) nobody knows she is not supposed to be here or even know about the trip. amabel is a seductress who is very much in love with herself and enjoys the power her body and her appearance give her over others. she is no different from the other characters in that she plays games – mind games – with those around her, but she does so much more cunningly and successfully than any of the others. as the group are trapped in the hotel, with thousands of people outside waiting for their trains in vain, they cannot escape their boredom or each other. during all this time, mrs.fellowes, who has fallen ill, is in a separate room, half dreaming, half awake.
evelyn, while talking to claire, in my view, captures the heart of the novel when she explains,
“I think that we are both afraid of […] is that parcel [your aunt] had and what was inside it” (503).
the pigeon’s death is relevant in that it mirrors the death of edward cumberland, “dead, so young” (391) although nobody’s quite sure how he died. his cousin, richard cumberland, also referred to as ’embassy richard’, is much more topic of discussion. a known party-crasher in high society, is at least on one occasion directly compared to a bird:
“If he was a bird,” [Max] said, “he would not last long” (417).
That is what it is to be rich, he thought, […] if you die then not as any bird tumbling dead from its branch down for the foxes, light and stiff, but here in bed, here inside, with doctors to tell you it is all right and with relations to ask if it hurts. (493)
in the end, what the traveling party are trying to avoid by their obsession with appearances and power play is their own insignificance, their own mortality. they are, each of them, in the end, much like like edward cumberland who is only remembered as someone else’s cousin, or, worse, that pigeon that flies into a wall, unnoticed by anyone but claire’s old aunt.
i enjoyed this novel much more than loving – there is less of an emphasis on dialogue, and that may be it, i don’t know. some passages almost read like they could have been penned (almost!) by virginia woolf. there is more exposition and explanation, more direct information on what is happening inside these characters.
i shan’t lie – it was the opening scene where the pigeon drops dead out of the sky to mrs.fellowes feet that drew me in immediately. the dead bird, a metaphorical body carried around publicly, wet, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, discarded once and then immediately retrieved, is symptomatic for the experience of these young people who ought to be having “the happiest time of our lives” (494). they are too young to be wise about life, and too old to feel complete in the immediate pleasure of party going, pretending, and playing. they are bored, and they are afraid. they can see themselves wrapped in brown paper, dripping, discarded in a trash can in a train station.