100 Novels, or Here I Go a-Spiraling


The image of a spiral staircase keeps recurring in my reading, in particular as a metaphor for spiritual journey. Last month, I read The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong, which literally uses the image as a metaphor for her spiritual journey.

Currently, of course, I’m reading The Bone People by Keri Hulme, in which the protagonist Kerewin Holmes lives in a tower with a spiral staircase.

Armstrong found her inspiration in T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” in which Eliot’s speaker climbs a metaphorical spiral staircase, and faces things he doesn’t necessarily want to face at each bend of the spiritual road. Neither did Armstrong for that matter.

Eliot makes the image concrete here: “At the first turning of the second stair/ I turned and saw below/ the same shape twisted on the banister/ Under the vapour in the fetid air/ Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears/ The deceitful face of hope and despair.”

I wonder if Hulme was inspired by Eliot’s poem. Climbing the spiral staircase in Kerewin’s tower is a consistent image in The Bone People, and catches Kerewin in moments of hope and despair. It seems to hide a symbolic mystery–besides the staircase, spirals appear elsewhere, even on her cups and glasses, in nature–and that mystery seems to be acted out with the co-antagonists (or what passes for antagonists; though Kerewin battles herself as well) Joe and Simon Gillayley. The child Simon is being played up as a big mystery, and as I’m approaching the climax of the novel, as the action seems to be receding, I keep expecting that mystery to reveal itself.

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