Cover image for Pandora's box
Pandora's box
Thompson, Alice.
Personal Author:
First [U.S.] edition.
Publication Information:
Hopewell, N.J. : Ecco Press, 1999.

Physical Description:
148 pages ; 23 cm
General Note:
Originally published: London : Little, Brown, 1998.
Format :


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FICTION Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A fast-paced novel that tracks a rational-minded surgeon's attempt to unravel the mystery of his wife's disappearance.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Profoundly spooky, elliptical and dreamlike, this brief second novel from Scottish writer Thompson (Justine) may give readers long-term shivers. Plastic surgeon Noah Close awakens during a thunderstorm and hears somebody pounding on his front door. Rushing downstairs, he finds a figure in flames, which he extinguishes with his own body, and takes the victim to the private hospital where he specializes in the reconstruction of human bodies. After weeks of skin grafts and surgery, the still-unidentified woman emerges from her bandages perfectly healed, beautifulÄand perfectly mute. Uncomfortable with her silence, Noah is relieved when she can be discharged, but one day, he finds her in his spare bedroom at home. He falls in love with her, names her Pandora, and considers her his wife. Though she won't speak, has no known past and possesses only a small glass box, Pandora still fills Noah's life with bliss, until she receives mysterious letters that render her reclusive. When the letters stop, Pandora blossoms again; then Noah wakes up beside his wife to find her dead, mutilated and covered in blood. The body vanishes. Noah becomes a suspect, escapes from police custody and eventually makes his way to Las Vegas, where he joins forces with Venus Dodge, a psychic detective. Many questions go unanswered in this supernatural thriller, but the eerie spell cast by the sculpted, if mannered prose, the panoply of weird events, and the fantastical characters may let readers forget about practicalities as they slide with disturbing ease into Thompson's shadowy vision. (June) FYI: During the 1980s, Thompson played in the British pop group the Woodentops. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Award-winning writer Thompson's second novel (following Justine, LJ 4/1/98, which won the James Tait Memorial Prize for fiction) is an oddly creepy look at the human desire for perfectibility and control. Set in Nevada, the book begins with plastic surgeon Noah Close's discovery of a badly charred female body. Close's painstaking reconstruction of the woman he names Pandora, and his eventual romantic relationship with her, is the tableau upon which the novel is constructed. As Pandora evolves, we register her ethereal presence but do not know her. Then, when she vanishes, we are drawn into Close's search for her; like him, we attempt to understand things that may not be ours to know. Thompson's writing is spare, crisp, seductive; the story is bold yet enigmatic, scary yet somehow sweet. The mystery envelops, the plot thickens. Readers will be drawn into the horror of the story but ultimately completely reassured by its poignant, if conventional, conclusion.ÄEleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One One night Noah was dreaming when the sound of hammering at his door woke him up and he immediately forgot his dream. He put on his dressing-gown and barefoot walked down the stairs of his house into the darkness. The carpet was soft beneath his feet, like the fur of an animal. The glass cupola above the hallway was being hammered by a thunderstorm and at first he thought it was just the sound of the rain that had woken him. A flash of lightning crossed the glass above, cracking the sky in half and illuminating the darkness inside, but there was a hammering on the front door that was louder than the storm, so he opened it.     Flames were licking the edges of the sky in front of him and it took him a moment to realise that there was a fire burning on the doorstep of his home. It took him a further moment to make out the shape of a shadowy figure standing in the midst of the flames, making a star pattern with its limbs. Noah went into the flames to pull the figure out, without hesitating, but the flames were cool and did not burn him. The body he brought out was so charred he could not tell whether it was a man or a woman. He extinguished the flames with his own body.     The hospital stood on the top of the hill like a monastery and he drove the still breathing body, in his car, up the road that wound up like a snake from the town below. The rain lashed on to the windscreen and the lights from his headlamps were reflected in the flooded road. As Noah approached his destination, the whiteness of the clean-lined and rectangular hospital glimmered above him in the headlights, untouched by the storm that raged around it. He drove up the hospital's straight gravel path made of silver-grey shards of granite, past the flat lawn cut in a square on either side.     Leaping out of the car, Noah ran, as if straight through the glass of the glass doors that opened silently and discreetly before him, into the empty hospital corridor.     The mechanics of Casualty took over and he was not needed for the moment, except to say that there was a burnt woman in his car, that no, he did not know what the cause of the flames were or how the patient had got on to his doorstep; and he drove back down the hill, his car empty, listening to the sound of the windscreen wipers on the glass. He felt tired, as if he had risked too much.     He stayed awake that night unable to get the image of the burning woman out of his mind. The intensity of the flames flickered through his memory, her silhouette more like the shadow of someone real than someone real, within the flames. He could still hear the terrible silence, except for the beating of the flames, in the night air. He could find no metaphor for her. She was just an image imprinted on his retina, like the reflection of the outside world in the pupil of an eye. Dr Noah Close worked at that private hospital as a doctor, specialising in the reconstruction of human bodies. The hospital was usually a calm place and when Noah entered it the following morning, a sense of serenity came over him. Its organisation and complexity reminded him of the human body, but of an idealised body that never broke down, a body that was infallible. The smell of the hospital was bleached and anaesthetised. The scents of the body, of sweat or excreta had been emptied out. There was no hint of mortality here for there were very few deaths. People came here to improve on their bodies, not to leave them behind.     Everything was always silent in the hospital, except for the sound of metal clanging together like the ringing of bells in church. The corridors went on for miles, so polished that the walls and floors reflected Noah back. The wards were half full of patients silently waiting to be rebuilt.     A few minutes after Noah had arrived at the hospital, the consultant called him into her room, to discuss the patient he had brought in the night before.     `We still haven't managed to find out anything more about her, Noah. She hasn't regained consciousness and no one has reported her missing. To be frank, it's a miracle she's still alive. I've never seen anyone survive such extensive burns. Nor do we have any idea what actually caused the burns. The burns don't seem to have destroyed the skin tissue in the normal way. The surface of the skin has disappeared in patterns that are almost symmetrical.'     `And we have no biographical information about her at all?'     `No. So there's no photograph on which to base a reconstruction of her. The surgeon who took her on would have carte blanche .'     `I don't think I can do it.' He had understood what she was saying.     The consultant looked at Noah, surprised that he was refusing. She noticed that even though he appeared very calm and certain he was gripping his hands together.     `Why not, Noah?'     `You're offering her to me because you think the chances of her dying are high. Which they are. Her whole body requires massive reconstruction. She'd be a guinea pig. Even if she did survive, we'd be condemning her to a life of pain. I would be afraid of giving her a life that she might not want.'     `That's not the reason you don't want to do it. And you know it. This is a test of all your skills and resources as a surgeon. And you' re scared of failing.'     `It would be better to let her die,' he repeated.     After work he returned home only to sleep and dream. His home was decorated in the white and chrome minimalism of the hospital. His work was his life and because he dreamt in a place similar to the hospital, his work seemed to be his dreams too. He knew just before he fell asleep, in his heart, what he was frightened of, that this strange woman was his dream come true. The next day he told the consultant that he would take on the woman as his patient. She had already been shifted to a part of an empty hospital ward where the curtains around her were perpetually closed, like a bird's broken wings. Nurses and consultants over the next few weeks bustled in and out at regular intervals like the toy men and women in weather houses, but Dr Close who was attending another case, and at the same time waiting for her to recover sufficiently for him to start work on her, would not see her again until a month later.     During that month of waiting for her, he thought little of her, and she did not impinge on his waking life. He walked down the ward past the closed curtains around her bed without turning his head. He had helped heal burn victims of all ages, mended their skin, disguised their scars, but never one with burns of such magnitude. He had reserved her for the future.     At the end of the month the curtains were pulled back. She was wrapped up in bandages, the white soft cotton cocooning her raw limbs in criss-crosses across her body, a jigsaw of lines overlapping each other. She looked like an alien being. She lay absolutely still, spread-eagled out in the shape of a star. The view from her bed looked out on the smart driveway and tidy lawn but the tiny slits in the bandages would have limited her vision to the white ceiling above.     Because of her stillness, when Noah sat on the edge of the bed to make his first close examination, he thought she was still unconscious. However, he caught a glimpse of movement in her eyes, between the bandages, and realised the reason that she was not moving was because it hurt to move. The space between her limbs had become precious. He had grown accustomed to the power of fire and its legacy, but the pain of his patients was of a dimension he could not, saw no point in, imagining.     He carefully removed the bandage from her hand, which revealed a melt-down of tissue. He was unsurprised to find her skin still raw but was bewildered by the way the burns had marked her skin in odd spiral shapes, more like the prints of a huge godlike hand than random marks, as if the flames had had fingers which had held her tight. He could see right through the spirals to her veins and the intricate workings of the inside of her body, through to the lines of muscle and fragile bone. He asked her to move the fingers of her right hand which she did as if she were playing a run of notes quickly on a musical instrument. He watched the tendons stretch and relax. Some patches of skin on her wrist remained strangely perfect like patches of snow. He was struck by how soft the skin was, like a baby's, recently made. However, the ratio of unburnt skin to burnt was so small he could not really understand why she was still alive. The hospital had still not managed to make a positive identification. Noah concluded, because her vocal chords had remained miraculously unharmed, that her sustained silence was due to the profound emotional trauma she had experienced.     Noah tried talking to her, but she refused to reply. He tried to find out where she had come from, how she had appeared on his doorstep, but her eyes just stared resolutely up through her mask. However, the fact that she said nothing made it easier for him to concentrate, as it was what he could do with her body that interested him. Her body was his project. It was a challenge for him to work with such raw material, to edit, to create, to build upon.     He had to restore skin, using prostheses, inch by inch, regrafting a foot as if traversing a desert. Her body became a landscape over which he had to cross, but he saw it in terms of square inches. The limitations of the future lay within the circumference of his immediate world. He took on her body a moment at a time. He was remoulding her not with the touch of human flesh but with the caress of the knife, the prick of the needle -- medical science had become an act of love.     Noah worshipped the body, had studied all his young adult life its nerve endings, its intricate complexities, the way the brain fired up. Part of this worship involved the need to understand its workings, to be able to understand it through its mechanisms. The body was his faith. He was an atheist, but he understood why Christians ate the body of Christ and drank his blood. He understood the importance of flesh and bone.     Every day, he would bring her flowers for the vase that stood on the table beside her bed. He did not do this for her sake but because of his own need to alleviate the sense of absence he felt when he was working on her. During the day it was very bright in the room, that clinical brightness that reminded Noah not of the piercing light of the sun, but of the mysterious luminosity of the moon.     She lay still, wrapped in bandages apart from the section Noah was studying, as if unaware of his attentions. She was like a stone goddess being worshipped by a pagan, anointed and bathed, offered sacrifices, but always remaining impassive. Noah worked methodically, skilfully, but the healing process of her body staggered his belief. He had never seen anything like it. He uncovered her foot only a day after he had operated, and was shocked by the speed and success with which her undamaged skin had melted and merged into the grafted skin. The apparent line between the two had completely dissolved. It was as if the parts of the body he had touched had never been licked by the flames at all.     While operating on her foot, Noah had discovered both her feet had six toes. He had considered an amputation of the redundant toes, to align her balance, but had found the bone strangely resilient. He decided to leave the feet as they were.     As her skin healed she also began to move, her slight stirrings reminding him of the beginning of spring. First of all she moved her hands and feet and then her arm but her head remained perfectly still. When her right hand had absolutely healed he gave her a piece of paper and pen. Without moving her head from its position of staring at the ceiling, her blind hand quickly and expertly moved over the paper lying on her stomach. She handed him back a perfect representation of her right hand.     That night he sat on the edge of her bed and took her now healed soft white hand and held it in his own. The hospital had its own rhythms and, like a body, never shut down, even when apparently sleeping. In the soft light of the hospital at night, the bandages smoothed out her body like stone. The shadows showed up the faint lines between the rolls of bandage like the veins of marble.     `You are a gift from the gods,' he said to her sleeping body. Noah's look was very still until something struck his attention, then he looked as if what he had seen had brushed up against him softly and suddenly. His eyes were violet blue. His body had a heaviness about it, as if slightly melted down. Above all, his surface value was of ordinariness. He did not seem on the face of things, on the surface, particularly interesting. When it rained, however, the water caused the dark strands of his hair to stick to his face like question marks.     Noah was in love with the empirical world. The physicality of the world, the building blocks of cities, as well as the rhythms of the natural world, offered him constant pleasure. In spite of the obsession he had for his work, Noah was not unaware of the seasons changing outside the hospital and he appreciated the mechanics of the world as he did the mechanics of the body. He didn't need an imagination as the world was mysterious enough for him.     Even though Noah had a sense of wonder for reality, he was always certain that if he collected enough information he could get to the bottom of the wonder. Just as every time Noah built up the body, dealt in its physical realities, he felt in some way he might get to the bottom of the mystery of what it was to be human. His life ran in a straight line from beginning to end and he walked along it, unaware of the drop on either side.     In his bedroom, a photograph of the Hale-Bopp comet was pinned to his wall. Late at night, he would get into bed and continue reading from his collection of encyclopaedia, pleased that he had reached a new letter before falling asleep. The facts of the world were like jewels he collected. He did not bother to thread the facts together, he just piled them up like a magpie piled up pieces of silver foil in its nest. Noah had decided to leave the operations on the patient's face until last. For he knew that the face would prove the most challenging part of her body to regraft. While the rest of her body continued to heal wondrously quickly and perfectly, her head remained bandaged up. Her face had been so badly burnt that there was nothing of the original structure left. He would have to rebuild the bones themselves.     Noah started to draw diagrams and work out the measurements of the reconstruction. Using a textbook photograph of an idealised woman's face, he set out a face on paper of symmetrical proportions. He would give her a model face. He realised the overlying result would still look like a raw concertina of scars and blemishes but at least he could give her face's basic structure a proportion that bore some underlying semblance to perfection.     Reconstructing her face took many weeks of painstaking operations. A few weeks after surgery Noah bent down over his patient's head to unravel the bandages. Her eyes just flickered from between the swathing, as his hands expertly and slowly pulled off the fabric. He could not stop his heart beating more quickly than usual. The result would be a testament to all his powers.     But he could not believe his eyes when he saw what his hands were gradually revealing to him. Appearing beneath the bandages, inch by inch, was a beautiful young woman's face, a face so white and soft that the skin seemed as if it had never seen the light of day. This was not a face that had been so badly disfigured its features had been unrecognisable. It was a face that was the exact replica of the textbook photograph upon which Noah had based his structural measurements.     Her cool, pale, reflective eyes looked at him, in the same speculative trance with which she had stared at the ceiling all these months. She still hadn't uttered a word. What kind of woman was she? he thought. That night he dreamt of her decapitated head floating down a river, her mouth opening and shutting singing voicelessly.     The next morning he told the matron to fetch the patient some clothes and discharge her immediately. Noah wanted nothing more to do with this aberration of nature. Later that afternoon, when he walked past her bed, it was empty, the white sheet pulled tightly back over the grey blanket, the regulatory six inches, smooth and flat. Although he had dedicated himself intensively and over a period of time to only one patient, he did not miss her, as might have been expected. On the contrary, he was relieved that she had gone. At first, Noah had been pleased by the initial speed of her body's recovery, which he took as a reflection of his medical powers. It was only when her recovery ran against all Noah's notion of what was possible, that he began to feel disturbed.     He kept his own private fears to himself -- she had been his patient and no one else's, and he alone felt responsible for her. After all, it was his doorstep that she had landed on. He felt her recovery was all part of her inexplicable appearance outside his home, something peculiarly specific to him and he wanted to forget all about it. A few doctors had remarked to him on her uncanny recovery and then, as completely as she was healed, she was as completely forgotten. Noah returned to his work on other patients, shortening noses, enlarging breasts and using prostheses to replace amputated limbs. But it was noticed in the hospital that since the arrival and departure of the anonymous patient something about Noah had changed. It was difficult to pinpoint. Something to do with the way he walked, the way he talked. He was slightly more vehement, as a character slightly less controlled, but it was barely perceptible.     Noah did not expect to see her again. Nor did he wish to. He had the rest of his life to be getting on with. Noah's world was certain and complete. His new patients slotted into this world like pieces into a jigsaw. Noah lived in his house on his own and was protective of his space, so he couldn't understand why, one morning when he walked into his dining-room, he became overwhelmed by the sensation that someone had just left the room. As he was not superstitious and unused to a feeling based on an irrational belief he quickly forgot the impression that had seemed so real at the time.     A few days later, opening the door to go to work, he looked down to see that a present, exquisitely wrapped in paper as sheer as ice and tied with satin bows, was sitting on his doorstep. He ripped open the paper to find, nestling inside a tiny cardboard box and wrapped in cotton wool, a little glass nightingale. That evening, he put the glass bird on the fire and watched it melt and flare-up and split open.     More than a week later, after a very exhausting day at the hospital, Noah was walking up the path to his front door when he saw, through the ground-floor window, someone stand up from the table where he or she had been sitting and walk slowly out of the dining-room. He just saw the dark outline of a figure and could not tell whether it was a man or a woman. Trembling, he quickly unlocked the front door and, turning on the lights, searched the house but found no one. It was exactly a month after Noah had discharged the patient from the hospital that he woke early in the morning to hear a sound which he could not place. Lying awake in bed, listening hard, he managed to place the resonance -- it was the strain of a harp. The composition of the music was not of a type he had heard before, for the music did not have an obvious melodic line nor even a recognisable rhythm. Nor could he place it in time.     At first the noise annoyed him by keeping him awake, so, in order to stop up his ears, he put his pillow over his head. But to his surprise, he could still hear the harp clearly, the music seeming to reach into his room, through the crevices, on air currents, rather than through solid walls, until, every time he fell asleep again, it slipped back into his dreams.     In desperation, he rose, put on his dressing-gown and went out on to the landing. The music seemed to be coming from the spare bedroom and he followed the music through into the room. He was faced with the back of a woman sitting on a chair. She was playing a harp. He could only see the back of her long golden hair as her hands manipulated the strings.     Part of him wanted to shout What in god's name are you doing in my house? but another part of him wanted to approach her and touch her arm to see if she were real. Before he could do anything at all, the woman, who had obviously heard him enter the room, stopped playing and turned round to smile at him. He did not feel so much scared as tentative, wondering why this was happening to him, why she had insisted on coming into his life again after he had already healed her once. What was it about him that she could not leave alone?     `What are you doing here?' he asked her, gently. He could not help noticing how milky white her skin was, how disturbingly perfect.     But still she would not use her voice.     She took out a piece of paper from her pocket and gave it to him. On it she had written Don't you realise how much you need me?     She stood up and walked towards him and embraced him and he buried his head in her shoulders. He could smell all of her, the smell of hope and possibility, the smell of the future. She had come up to meet the rapture inside of him. He wanted to wring the rapture out of his own accord and offer it to her as sacrifice. She came into his life and filled it with bliss. He could hardly believe what had happened. She did not need to change the severe geometry of his house or alter the blankness of the walls. Her presence was enough to transform his clinical space into a palace. He kept on putting out his hand to hold her arm.     `You'll never leave me. You'll never leave me.     And she would shake her head, mouth never. (Continues...) Copyright © 1998 Alice Thompson. All rights reserved.