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May 2014 – Suzanne Rindell

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

From The Guardian:

New York, 1924. Rose Baker is a plain, prudish young typist in a scuzzy police precinct on the Lower East Side. An orphan raised by nuns, she is tolerated for her efficiency rather than liked. Which suits Rose fine, because she doesn’t like many people – not her colleagues in the typing pool and certainly not the “affected” Helen, with whom she shares a room in a drab boarding house. But then a new typist arrives: exotic, immaculately dressed Odalie, her bob a glossy helmet of polished enamel; her breezy, alluring manner giving rise to all sorts of rumours. Is she a failed actor? A gangster’s plant seeking “the lowdown on the bootlegging racket”?


The men love her, naturally. “Damned nice girl,” says the lieutenant detective. Rose affects lofty detachment, but can’t deny Odalie’s impact. The woman was, she concedes, “the dark epicentre of something we didn’t quite understand yet, the place where hot and cold mixed dangerously”. (This sort of observation – dramatic yet vague – is typical of Rose. Or is it typical of Suzanne Rindell?)


Mutual suspicion yields to an all‑consuming friendship when Odalie turns the full beam of her attention on Rose. Suddenly the pair are inseparable, and we learn that Rose has been in this situation before: she left the nunnery in disgrace after becoming “entangled” with a young novice. Odalie educates Rose in decadence, taking her to speakeasies where drunk flappers play the piano with their feet. She even suggests Rose move into the swanky hotel suite Odalie calls home – an offer Rose is thrilled to accept.

By this point Rose’s unreliability as a narrator is clear; as is the fact that Bad Things are going to happen. Not only are we seeing Odalie through the prism of her obsession, but Rose is writing her account in an asylum under the supervision of a psychiatrist who believes that “telling things in their accurate sequence is good for healing the mind”. The problem is, Rose can’t do linearity. She tends towards egoistic impressionism, a habit Rindell has fun with in a scene where Odalie introduces Rose to her arty friends, only for Rose to be appalled by their love of The Waste Land: “If I recall correctly, the poet was called Eliot Something-Or-Another and the poem itself was all a bunch of jibberish, the ravings of an utter lunatic.”

British publication of The Other Typist has been timed to exploit Gatsby mania, and Odalie is certainly a wily gatecrasher of a gilded milieu. In fact, the similarities are superficial. Rindell is more interested in evoking Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, with its rambling narrator, copious foreshadowing and tormented concern with the fluid nature of identity. Indeed, Rindell pays explicit homage in an epilogue which, like the end of The Good Soldier, features the use of a suddenly produced penknife.

The Other Typist is clever, addictive entertainment. Plotted with panache, it alludes playfully to genre bedfellows such as The Talented Mr Ripley and Notes on a Scandal without being obvious. Yes, Rindell’s prose can be ungainly and prolix, but I think that’s deliberate: Rose’s prose would be ungainly and prolix.

It’s likely that Rindell, a New Yorker studying for an Eng Lit PhD, is familiar with Ford’s advice to would-be novelists: “You will seek to exasperate so that you may better enchant … You will give passages of dullness, so that your bright effects may seem more bright.” There are places where The Other Typist doesn’t quite cohere, but for all its flaws it knows how to enchant.