Spoiler Check: This post is about The Glamour by Christopher Priest and is packed to the gills with spoilers
There is something hideously unsettling about Christopher Priest’s works. He has a way of getting in under the reader’s defences and wreaking havoc. I first read his collection of short stories “Real-Time World” as a teenager and never quite recovered from one of the tales, “The Head and the Hand”, about a man who chops off one of his own fingers as the result of a dare and goes on to become a performance artist who mutilates himself in front of huge audiences.
More recently I read “The Glamour” which dates back to the mid 1980s although it was updated in the 90s. I read the book on Audible and assume I was listening to the revised version. There is much to say about the book but I initially found the final twist hard to make sense of. Apparently I am not alone, going by some of the discussions in on-line forums. I think I have more or less now understood it, but more on that in a moment.
For the most part, the book is easy to digest and written in a relaxed, deceptively understated style. It concerns a BBC cameraman, Richard Grey, who at the start of the story is convalescing in a West Country rest home having survived a terrorist car bomb. He has no memory of the weeks preceding the bombing and is beguiled when a young woman he has no recollection of shows up at the rest home and claims to have been his lover briefly during the period in question. The woman, Susan Kewley, is reluctant to explain why they broke up but mentions her attachment to another man, Niall, who seems to have some kind of hold over her.
The book is split into a series of parts and deliberately changes point of view and perspective. The first short chapter is narrated in the first person although the narrator is not explicitly identified. The next section is narrated in the third person by Richard, and there are clues to suggest Richard was also the “I” who narrated the first chapter.
Prompted by treatment under hypnosis, Richard starts to recall (as he thinks) the romance with Susan (“Sue”); how he met her during a holiday in France and how the influence of the unseen Niall led to the eventual breakdown of their relationship following an argument at her flat, once back in London, very shortly before the car bomb. There are hints that Richard’s memories of the time are at least partly his own mind playing tricks on him. To reinforce that, we then get an alternative account of the same events, as told by Sue, in which they had never travelled to France, having instead met in a London pub before going on a trip around England and Wales together.
In both accounts, Niall is unseen but a continuing threat to the relationship. To try to counter this, Sue reveals her big secret, that she has “The Glamour” which means she is naturally invisible to most people. Not optically invisible, rather it is a psychological invisibility, a form of delusion akin to how hypnotised subjects can be induced not to see or notice a person in the room. It is an extension of the idea that some people are naturally conspicuous whereas other tend not to be noticed. People with “The Glamour”, or “Glams”, are a very extreme case of the latter who so inherently escape everyone’s notice that they are effectively invisible. Sue described an underclass of invisible Glams who can steal what they need at will, sleep in other people’s houses and travel without paying fares, but cannot book medical or dental appointments so decline into early ill health.
Sue herself seems able to turn her invisibility or or off by an act of will hence her visibility to Richard and nearly normal lifestyle. Niall is so Glamorous he can never be seen, sometimes not even by Sue. Richard can also sometimes become invisible although he is not aware of it. Sue and Richard are haunted by the fear that Niall can follow them everywhere, unseen, that he knows what they are doing and is able to mess with their lives and relationship at will. There is a horrific scene, during Sue’s retelling, where she is raped by Niall while in bed with Richard, the latter oblivious to Sue’s predicament.
There are a number of themes explored in The Glamour: how much can we rely on our memories? Have we unconsciously made some of them up to fit what we believe or wish to be true? How true are we to ourselves? Do we change our behaviour to “play a role” so we can present ourselves to others the way we wish to be seen? And the psychological horror of the notion that there may be malicious, invisible people around us all the time, messing with our lives, with our minds, and against which we have no defence.
Throughout the book, Priest is playing tricks with the reader. We know we have at least one extremely unreliable narrator, just from the differences between Richard’s and Sue’s versions of events, and some suggestions of clues as to which might be the real account (e.g. a mysterious postcard sent to Sue from St Tropez). He is though just softening us up for the final killer punch, the confusing twist I referred to.
What it boils down to is that the Richard-Sue-Niall love triangle, and the fact of the Glamour, are essentially true but the story has been narrated all along by Niall. It was Niall who was the “I” at the start and again at the very end. The reader thought they had to choose between Richard and Sue as unreliable narrator, but now realise that there is just one voice, that of Niall, and there is no way to be certain how much we can rely on any of it. Niall uses his narrator’s voice to gloat about his power over other people, his ability to force Richard and Sue apart.
To some extent that last twist undermines the rest of the book. It was done mainly for shock value and detracts somewhat from the nicely poised doubts and uncertainties about what is and isn’t true. What the twist achieves is to drive home that the book is after all a horror story at its heart, as was the case with The Head and the Hand. The postcard was a misdirection, a red herring. The fact that a lot of readers are left bemused indicates that the twist was more clumsily handled than the author was trying for. Looking back at the book the background machinations, the set-ups are there to see. Despite those flaws, it is still a beguiling book and one to haunt the reader for years to come in true Christopher Priest style.