Cover image for The hunters : two novellas
The hunters : two novellas
Messud, Claire, 1966-
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Simple tale
First Harvest edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Harcourt, 2002.

Physical Description:
191 pages ; 21 cm
General Note:
"A Harvest book."

Includes Reading group guide (p. [183]-191).
A simple tale -- Hunters.
Format :


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"A Simple Tale" is the moving account of Maria Poniatowski, an aging Ukrainian woman who was taken by the Germans for slave labor and eventually relocated to Canada as a displaced person. She struggles to provide her son Radek with every opportunity, but his eventual success increases the gulf between him and his mother. What of the past is she to preserve, and how to avoid letting the weight of that past burden the present? Maria's story is about the moments of connection and isolation that are common to us all.
"The Hunters," the second novella, is narrated by an American academic spending a summer in London who grows obsessed by the neighbors downstairs. Ridley Wandor, a plump and insipid caretaker of the elderly, lives with her ever-unseen mother and a horde of pet rabbits she calls "the hunters." While the narrator researches a book about death, all of Ridley Wandor's patients are dying. Loneliness breeds an active imagination. Is having such an imagination always destructive? Or can it be strong enough to create a new reality?
Far-flung settings and universal themes give a sweeping appeal to Claire Messud's work.

Author Notes

Claire Messud was born in Greenwich, Connecticut. She grew up in the United States, Australia, and Canada. She returned to the states when she was a teenager. She did undergraduate and graduate studies at Yale University and Cambridge University.

Messud's debut novel, "When The World Was Steady" (1995), was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. "The Emperor's Children" was a New York Times Bestseller and was longlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize. Her most recent novel, "The Burning Girl" was published in 2017 by W. W. Norton.

She has taught creative writing at Amherst College, Kenyon College, University of Maryland, Yale University, in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers in North Carolina, in the Graduate Writing program at The Johns Hopkins University, and at Harvard University. Messud also taught at the Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She is on the editorial board of the literary magazine The Common, based at Amherst College.

The American Academy of Arts and Letters has recognized Messud's talent with both an Addison Metcalf Award and a Strauss Living Award. She is s a recipient of Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Two novellas told in two distinctly different voices by the author of the highly regarded The Last Life (1999) add up to one compelling reading experience. In "A Simple Tale," Messud portrays Maria Poniatowski, a Ukrainian teenager interred in Nazi work camps who escapes, falls in love with a fellow displaced person in a postwar refugee camp, and immigrates to Canada. Hers truly is a deceptively simple story, for in describing the routines and rituals, as well as the mundane and miraculous events that comprise Maria's daily existence, Messud uncovers hidden complexities. "The Hunters," by contrast, is a neo-Victorian mystery, if only in the mind of Messud's nameless, genderless narrator, an American professor on sabbatical in London who becomes obsessed with an odd young woman living downstairs. Dark and foreboding with a Poelike quality, "The Hunters" follows a sinuous scenario: the young woman appears to be both perpetrator and victim of a murder. Compact yet compelling, Messud's novellas leave you wanting more. --Carol Haggas

Publisher's Weekly Review

These two short novels have nothing in common except for providing the pleasure of seeing a writer of enormous skill and stylistic grace excel in crafting two very different fictions. "A Simple Tale" traces the life of Maria Poniatowski, a Toronto cleaning woman whose last client has become incapacitated with age and must soon enter a nursing home. Her deterioration marks the end of an era for the 70ish Maria, who reflects on a "simple life" that is soon revealed to consist of a series of horrifying disruptions: her transfer as a teenager from her village in the Ukraine to a series of Nazi labor camps; her arrival in Canada as a displaced person after the war; her son's marriage to the wrong woman; her husband's death. Messud (When the World Was Steady; The Last Life) builds a powerful and resonant story out of the simplest and seemingly most ordinary of domestic details: Maria's teatime with her elderly client, her plastic furniture-covers, a painting of a tropical seascape. "The Hunters" is a world away from Maria Poniatowski's Toronto set in London and narrated by an American academic who has taken to spying on her two downstairs neighbors, a mother and daughter who raise rabbits. "The hunters" is what the daughter, a "suet of a woman," calls the rabbits, adding, "Although they're more like `the hunted,' in this world, wouldn't you say?" Just as a simple life proves more complex and contradictory than one would imagine, so the reversal of hunter and hunted here provides unexpected suspense and plot surprises. These two fine and remarkable novellas, each a modest tour de force, are sure to advance Messud's critical standing and to broaden her readership. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The reader gets two for the price of one in this volume of novellas. The first piece, "A Simple Tale," is the story of Maria Poniatowski. Maria was born in the Ukraine and survived World War II in German slave labor camps. Put in a displaced persons camp at the end of the war, she meets her husband, Lev, and together they decide to relocate to Canada to start a new life and raise their young son, Radek. Maria struggles to find her place in the world, first as a cleaning woman, then as a widow. A gap forms between her and Ron, as her son now calls himself, because Maria disproves of his wife, who in Maria's words is not a nice girl. In the second piece, "The Hunters," a nameless English professor is researching death during a dreary summer in London. Alone and depressed, the narrator eliminates most human contact, until the downstairs neighbor, Ridley Wandor, knocks on the apartment door. The narrator becomes enthralled with Ridley, a home health aide, and her tales of a sick mother whom no one ever sees, patients who die with alarming frequency, and a horde of pet rabbits. Both novellas illustrate the frustration of human relations, loneliness, and the veracity of personal histories. Messud's (The Last Life) short novels are well written, intense examinations of isolation that will appeal to readers of literary fiction. Recommended for larger collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/01.] Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 1 When Maria Poniatowski let herself into Mrs. Ellington's apartment at 7:55 a.m. precisely (she was always five minutes early; she timed her walk that way), on the third Tuesday of August in 1993, and saw, straightaway, the trail of blood smeared along the wall from the front hall towards the bedroom, she knew that this was the end. She had come every Tuesday morning-vacations and holidays excepted, and excepting also the still-painful six months in 1991 when Mrs. Ellington had banished her in an inexplicable fit of pique-for forty-six years. She had come, first, to the house on Laurel Heights, and then, when Mrs. Ellington had decamped to the apartment on Manley Avenue in 1977, Maria had come to her there, without missing a beat. And all, thought Maria, with a sudden flush of tears, for the old woman-she was very old now, ninety-two in fact-to be butchered, unsuspecting, in her home. It was too awful. One read about such occurrences in the newspapers (although Maria, not reading English very well, and so rarely did), or one heard about them on the television. But one did not expect them ever to befall the people that one knew. That's what Maria told herself as she tiptoed along the buff-colored broadloom towards Mrs. Ellington's bedroom. But in fact she was far more surprised to find Mrs. Ellington snoring softly in her four-poster, propped up by three pillows, her rose satin bed jacket bloodstained but neatly buttoned-far more surprised than she would have been to discover a mangled corpse. Mrs. Ellington's eyes, the milky blue eyes that could no longer see, fluttered open as Maria drew near, and strove, in vain, to focus. "Is that you? Is that you, Maria?" she asked, her high, brittle voice tinged with panic. "It's me, Mrs. Ellington," Maria reassured her. "What's been happening here, Mrs. Ellington?" But Mrs. Ellington, having established the identity of her visitor, slipped swiftly into ill humor. "Dammit," she muttered. "What time is it? That bloody clock. I've overslept. It must be eight. I'll get your coffee, Maria, just hold your horses. For heaven's sake, you might give me a minute . . ." The old woman, her fluffed hair pressed flat at the side of her head, her ravaged hands fumbling with the blankets, hauled herself up and swung her feet to the floor. The bed was high-it was Mrs. Ellington's marriage bed-and Mrs. Ellington was small: her feet dangled a few inches above the carpet, sweeping, like divining rods, in search of her slippers. Maria bent and slid the pink mules one at a time over Mrs. Ellington's scaly insteps. "I'll get your dressing gown, Mrs. Ellington. No hurry. Take your time." "Every bloody Tuesday," muttered Mrs. Ellington. "I hope the half-and-half is still good," she said more loudly, "because if it's not, you'll just have to have milk." "Don't worry, Mrs. Ellington. It's a beautiful day outside." Mrs. Ellington, stumbling past Maria towards the bathroom, merely grunted.When they were, at last, in their usual places in the breakfast nook, their usual coffee (Maria's with half-and-half) on the table before them, the sun streaming in so brightly that Mrs. Ellington's blind eyes blinked, Maria raised the subject of the blood on the wall. At first, Mrs. Ellington did not seem to understand what Maria was talking about. She pursed her lips (over all her own teeth; she was very proud of her teeth) and shook her head. But then she said, "My finger. I cut my finger making dinner. It was the broccoli. I suppose that's it." She held up her left hand to the side of her head, where a sliver of peripheral vision remained to her, and peered at it in grave concentration. "Dammit, I don't know. It's all a blur, Maria. Will you look at it for me?" Maria took the arthritic digits between her own hands: their forms were gnarled, and the worn skin was shiny, but Mrs. Ellington's hand was soft and faintly tremulous, like a palpitating bird, in Maria's grasp. On Mrs. Ellington's forefinger there was a long, streaked scab. The cut was quite deep: Maria could tell that if she were to give the finger a sharp squeeze, it would start, again, to bleed. "This is no good, Mrs. Ellington. How can you manage this way? It's so hard. You need help." "Aren't you my help?" Maria went, without replying, to fetch disinfectant and a cotton ball. She sighed. She would have to speak to Mrs. Ellington's daughter. But Judith lived in California, and Maria didn't make long distance calls. "When is Judith coming?" she asked Mrs. Ellington as she daubed at the finger. "Or Simon? Or Madeleine? Or Kate?"-these were Judith's three children, full-grown themselves, and scattered like chaff across the continent. "To Toronto?" Mrs. Ellington grimaced, either at the prospect of her descendants gathering or in pain at the stinging of her hand, or both. "Judith said after Labor Day, but I don't know how long after." "You'll speak to her tonight?" Judith called Mrs. Ellington daily. "I suppose. If she remembers." "Of course she remembers." Maria took a deep breath. "Maybe you tell her to call me, ya? I need to talk with her." "Not about me, you don't," snapped Mrs. Ellington, blinking furiously. "No, no. Just about things." Judith was often between them. Maria had known Judith since the latter was fifteen years old. She had witnessed, over the years, many altercations between Mrs. Ellington and her only child, and she had long ago given up trying to take sides. But when Mrs. Ellington-whose general temper had, in recent years, taken a powerful turn for the worse, as if her good humor had evaporated with her eyesight-had summarily dismissed Maria from her employ with an unprecedented shriek over two years previously, it was Judith who had served as a mediator. She had initially apologized on her mother's behalf, had calmed the old woman sufficiently for Mrs. Ellington to apologize herself, and had facilitated Maria's re-entry into the Ellington home. "She can't manage without you, Maria, no matter what she pretends. She's completely lost. I know it's a lot to ask. I know how impossible she is. But if you could find it in your heart-" And Maria, after six months of empty Tuesdays, almost seventy herself and with no interest in finding a new Tuesday job; after six months in which she had used her newly free time to plant her garden, to paint her kitchen, to re-paper her hall, only then to sit and survey her domestic perfection with irritation and ennui, had capitulated. She had had only two households left on her roster, Mrs. Ellington and Jack McDonald and his wife: she'd worked for Jack's parents until they died, and had cleaved, quite naturally, to their son, although she found Elspeth McDonald's smoking displeasing and could not stand their lumbering Labrador, Sport. So that without Mrs. Ellington, Maria had been lonely. She had missed her fractious employer, and the calm rituals of her workday on Manley Avenue: the leisurely coffee, the chattering radio that Mrs. Ellington played constantly, the swift rhythms of vacuuming and dusting, the changing of the sheets. She had missed the particular smells, of Mrs. Ellington's favorite furniture polish, of her bath salts, and the intimate scents of her faintly musty cupboards; and she had missed their shared lunches, after the work was done, the slow, talk-filled afternoon meal of sandwiches (white bread, crusts trimmed, Bick's yum-yum pickles always in a cut glass dish between them at the table) and Fig Newtons and tea. She'd missed the way Mrs. Ellington's voice would rise when she said, "Cup of tea, Maria?" asking politely each time, although Maria had never once in all those years said no; and she missed even the sound of her own voice saying, "Yes please, Mrs. Ellington," and the pleasure of waiting, with her hands in her lap, for that satisfying moment when Mrs. Ellington, so imperious, poured the boiling tea from the flowered pot into her, Maria's, waiting cup. In short, Mrs. Ellington's apartment was as much a part of Maria's quotidian life as Sunday morning mass, and she returned because her own kitchen bored her, and her house, on Tuesdays, seemed in its shadowy quiet to wish her gone. But then, that August morning, sitting with Mrs. Ellington in the little breakfast nook, with the blood still streaked along the wall in the hallway, Maria felt suddenly that everything was different. All the familiar objects were in their rightful places-the Noah's Ark platter on the wall, the doilies centered neatly beneath the fruit bowl and the tea tray-but Maria was visited again by the choked sensation that she had suffered when she had first opened the apartment door: this was the end. It had been the same with Bert McDonald, Jack's father, not long after his wife Gail had passed. But Jack had been there; even Elspeth, cigarette in hand, had been there. They had seen for themselves. They had not had to be told. And it wasn't that Mr. McDonald had been so very old; it had been, above all, that he drank. Jack and Elspeth had hustled him into a home with barely any protest on his part, and had visited him there, as Maria had visited him there, every week for four years until he died. Copyright 2001by Claire Messud, published by Harcourt, Inc. All rights reserved. Excerpted from The Hunters by Claire Messud All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.