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Book review: The Maid

BY James Walton

10th Jan 2022 Book Reviews

Book review: The Maid

This month’s pick is a thriller that has set both the publishing and film industries talking

Molly Gray, the narrator of Nita Prose’s startlingly good debut novel, is a young woman who knows her place—and who rather likes it. For “approximately four years, thirteen weeks, and five days” she’s been working as a maid in the five-star Regency Grand hotel where she takes both pride and genuine pleasure in returning the guests’ rooms “to a state of perfection”.

As that very precise approximation indicates, Molly is on the autistic spectrum, not easily able to read social situations or understand metaphors. She does, mind you, know a dead body when she sees it—which she does one morning in Suite 410.

A business magnate by trade, the recently-deceased Mr Black was a regular guest, but not a well-liked one, given his hostility to more or less everybody. And that certainly included the trophy wife with whom he was often pictured in the society pages, where he was usually described as “a silver fox” (“though, to be clear,” Molly characteristically adds, “he is neither silver nor a fox”).

As you might imagine, Black hasn’t died of natural causes—and before long the police snap into action by following the not-unknown tactic of arresting the nearest oddball: i.e Molly. Much to her annoyance, this plays havoc with her room-cleaning schedules. But might it be that she knows more than she’s letting on?

"The Maid has already caused quite a stir in the books’ world, with six publishers bidding to have it and the film rights sold to Universal"

The Maid has already caused quite a stir in the books’ world, with six publishers bidding to have it and the film rights sold to Universal. Yet, however good the film might be, it will miss out on the novel’s real achievement.

True, the plot is neatly done—as are the below-stairs life of the hotel and Molly’s gradual and shocked realisation that not everybody is as they seem. Even so, what makes this such a thoroughly beguiling read is something that movies simply can’t do: the narrative voice.

In Prose’s expert hands, Molly’s account  of her experiences and inner feelings perfectly captures the mixture of bewilderment, comic pedantry and fundamental (if sometimes misplaced) kind-heartedness with which she regards the world. It’s also full of such offbeat charm that you will root for her all the way.

Reader's Digest Recommended Read: Murakami T: The T-Shirts I Love

You know you’ve got some serious status as a writer when you can publish a lavishly illustrated book about your own T-shirts. Haruki Murakami began producing fiction in the late 1970s, but it was only with the 1987 book Norwegian Wood that he really hit the big time.

A nostalgic tale of young love, it became a global bestseller and led to a level of adulation that few authors have ever had. In his native Japan, he was mobbed at airports. In America, his subsequent novels were given Harry Potter-style midnight launches in crowded bookstores. And with the appearance of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in the mid-Nineties, his star rose, if anything, even higher.

Indeed, one way of reading Murakami T is as a picture of what a successful writer’s life is like—which is to say pretty nice. Murakami hangs out in Hawaii, sees Bruce Springsteen in New York, watches iguanas in the Galapagos islands, buying (or being given) T-shirts wherever he goes.

The result is undeniably a somewhat eccentric book. But it’s also very likeable one. Having divided his shirts by theme—bands, cars, drink, animals and so on—Murakami provides short, chatty essays about how he came to have them.

He throws in various thoughts about whatever they depict, and ponders T-shirts more generally: which ones seem too boastful to wear (Porsche and BMW designs); and which, in his seventies, he now feels too old to be seen in (The Ramones).

At one flattering point, he writes that a T-shirt produced by The Economist magazine has “a very stylish message, as you might expect of something British”. The overall effect is not unlike sharing a conversation with a genial bloke in a bar.

Here he is, for example, discussing the crucial question of the best way to drink whisky…

“Do you like whiskey? Put me down as a fan. It’s not like I drink it every day, but if the situation arises, I have been known to raise a glass.

Especially late at night, when I’m alone and listening to music, whiskey seems the perfect accompaniment. Beer’s a little too watery, wine’s a bit too refined, a martini too pretentious, brandy too mellow. The only choice is to bring out a bottle of whiskey.

"You know you’ve got some serious status as a writer when you can publish a lavishly illustrated book about your own T-shirts"

I generally am an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type, but on the rare occasion that I do stay up late, it’s usually with a whiskey glass in hand. Listening to old familiar LPs on the turntable. For me, it’s got to be jazz. And not a CD. Old-school vinyl records fit the mood better.

If a bar has particularly tasty ice, I might have it on the rocks, but these days, when I drink at home, I usually have it Twice Up. It’s easy to make. Just pour the whiskey into a glass (I prefer more formal stemware), and add an equal amount of water (at room temperature). Swirl the glass to get the two to mix and you’re good to go. Couldn’t be simpler.

When I visited the island of Islay in Scotland, the locals insisted that this is the best way to drink whiskey, and ever since, that’s the way I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t want to sound preachy, but if you drink whiskey this way, you can enjoy it without losing any of its innate flavour.

The local water in Islay has a special aroma that complements its single-malt whiskey. If you drink the same whiskey with Japanese mineral water, the taste is slightly different. Call it the power inherent in a place or whatever, but it’s something that can’t be helped.

Maybe it goes without saying, but this simple Twice Up way of drinking works even better the higher the quality of the whiskey, and the more robust the flavour. I mean, you’re not about to take a 25-year-old Bowmore single malt and make a highball with it and chug it down, are you?

I also stayed on Jura, a tiny island next to Islay. They have a famous single-malt distillery there as well, and the local water is equally tasty, though with a different flavour than Islay’s. Drinking it mixed with the local Jura whiskey made for a one-of-a-kind flavour. I stayed at the distillery’s lodge, drank as much whiskey every day as I liked, enjoyed the local cuisine… Just spending a few days there made it feel like life was worth living.

I have quite a few T-shirts made by whiskey companies at home, though wearing a whiskey T and walking around in the morning seems a bit much… People might take me for some old drunk. Which is why these shirts are ones that, unfortunately, I seldom wear.”


Haruki Murakami

Murakami T: The T-Shirts I Love by Haruki Murakami is published by Harvill Secker.

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