A pregnant woman living with her boyfriend in a seemingly idyllic community called Miden opens the door one day to a young girl. The girl comes into her home, is offered a cup of tea and accuses the woman’s boyfriend – the girl’s university professor – of having raped her. As they wait for the community to gather evidence and assess the case, the woman and her boyfriend confront their respective anxieties and desires. Meanwhile, Miden starts to look a lot less utopian than before.
Veronica Raimo’s The Girl at the Door is a nuanced examination of the politics of power in sexual relationships, and a novel that refuses to offer easy answers. The narrative is split into first-person fragments labelled ‘Him’ and ‘Her’, presenting the voices of the accused boyfriend and his pregnant girlfriend, both of whom remain nameless. The first we hear from ‘Him’ is ‘I saved her knickers for months’ – not a great first impression. Soon we also learn from his girlfriend that in bed he likes to ‘play the part of the strict and perverted professor. He would slap my arse, punish me.’ And yet the narrative complicates the reader’s desire to apportion blame when we learn that the man’s relationship with the student was an extended one and that both of them made declarations of love. His girlfriend, meanwhile, admits to being turned on by their student–professor role play.
Both the accused and his girlfriend are immigrants to Miden from a country affected by a devastating economic crash, ‘a country you could only leave’. Miden, on the other hand, is ranked first in the world for quality of life, human rights, professional satisfaction and gender equality. There are – technically – no poor people there. The concept of failure is unthinkable. At first, it seems that the only drawback to life in Miden is its undrinkable wine, but as the couple navigate the legal and social consequences of the rape accusation the community reveals its flaws. We learn that everyone uses local goods, not out of environmental concern but because imported goods ‘make the inhabitants feel destabilised by the unknown’. Politically incorrect humour has been eradicated, but only because appearances are everything in Miden. Once the professor has been forced to take leave from his job, he realises that he and his girlfriend have turned their house into ‘a fortress against Miden’s sinister glare’.
The girlfriend is disproportionately affected by that glare. As she enters the final months of pregnancy, suffering from insomnia and clearly having mixed feelings about motherhood, she becomes increasingly aware of the scrutiny of her neighbours. Her depression deepens, despite the fact that there are officially no unhappy people in Miden. And although she narrates half the novel, we never really learn how the girlfriend feels about the rape accusation. (We learn nothing, either, about the victim herself, who is given no voice after the initial scene.) In Stash Luczkiw’s English translation, the woman’s detached, emotionless voice is subtly elided with that of her boyfriend through the omission of tags like ‘he said’ and ‘she said’.
While The Girl at the Door is most obviously a book about the abuse of power in relationships, it is also a window onto an ailing, post-crisis generation. Accustomed to low wages and precarious working conditions in their home country, this millennial couple (they are both in their thirties) have learned to think of themselves as assets competing in a punishing market: the girlfriend yearns to be ‘a perfect laboratory creature, measuring [her]self against the other creatures, win or lose’. Although Miden allows her to achieve important life goals – living abroad, cohabitation, parenthood – she somehow feels too fulfilled, which is another way of saying she does not feel fulfilled at all. She has internalised the idea that the only way to live in the world is to generate constant returns. The community of Miden, with its back-to-nature ethos and much-vaunted social welfare system, appears to represent the antithesis of capitalist individualism, but it turns out to be just the other side of the same coin, breeding anxiety, loneliness and competition among its inhabitants. A meditation on the sheer loneliness of contemporary society, Raimo’s novel is undoubtedly a story for our times.