The Unsuitable, the striking debut novel by Molly Pohlig, presents one of the most idiosyncratic protagonists ever to take up residence in our heads. If you are thinking that this must be too strong a statement, you have not yet met Iseult Wince.
Miss Iseult Wince is a pallid woman who walks with “(e)ach foot lifted too high and set down too precisely” so that “you would be forgiven for looking above her head to see whether she had strings or peeking around her back expecting a rotating handle.” Not to mention that she remains engulfed in the voluminous black crepe of Victorian mourning a full 28-years after her mother’s death.
Iseult Wince is a 28-year-old woman living in a dreary Victorian mansion with a cook and a housemaid and a father whose goal in life is to marry her off and get her out of his house. He hosts a series of formal dinners with eligible young men and their parents, during which Iseult, high collar hiding a nasty scar, is presented as suitable for marriage.
The success of such events is imperiled when Iseult, finding the candidates suitable only for her ‘list of unsuitables’, becomes faint and erratic at the table. Still, these dinners don’t go entirely off the rails until she begins to have conversations, turning into heated arguments, with her mother. More generally, ongoing and contentious debates between Iseult and her dead mother occur often in this dark household.
You may well ask, then, why the list of the mansion’s inhabitants does not include a mother. This question is indeed the crux of the novel.
We are told that her mother died in childbirth when Iseult’s collarbone broke. It punctured her skin, causing her mother to bleed-out. Yet her mother still lives. How can this be? She died, and yet – she lives within the scar on Iseult’s neck where her collarbone had once protruded. And this is an angry scar because, in order to silence her mother’s insults and exhortations which stream in her head without respite or punctuation, Iseult has found that penetrating her scar with straight pins and sewing needles and even embroidery scissors works quite well to quell the din, if only briefly.
While not gory, there’s barely a scene without at least a bloody trickle and although she felt pain, the cessation of her mother’s badgering brings pleasure. She fears that the alternative, perhaps too late to avoid, is madness.
With Iseult and her father at the end of their respective ropes, a match seems at long last about to be made. A new gentleman appears at table with his parents, and while he is entirely personable he is also, alas, entirely silver. He suffers from a medical condition that has this effect on both his skin and his eyes. Iseult is put off by his appearance, but she knows that her father is poised to force this process to its intended end.
Pohlig is adept at fleshing out, so to speak, an unforgettably odd character. Iseult lives in complete ignorance of the ways of the world and, more worrisome to her, the ways of marriage. She has no one to talk with but the maid. She is under great pressure, both external and internal, exerted by an acerbic and distant father and a wildly volatile, in-dwelling mother. At least that’s how this awkward protagonist views her predicament.
Pohlig’s tale is designed to be claustrophobic. Iseult is found mostly in her stuffy, darkened room, often taking to her bed or, all skin-and-bones, stewing in her hot bath, recovering from and ruminating about some alarming turn of events. The author has a talent for close detail with very tight focus, coupled with the internal claustrophobia that accompanies a head filled with an intrusive, insulting presence giving relentless maddening and contradictory advice and commands.
There are a few broader, less constricted set pieces and they are memorable –- a relative’s accident in the father’s steel mill; a trauma during the dinner party, with both her and the silver man’s relatives in attendance, where she is finally set to begrudge her father and agree to the match.
Reading The Unsuitable, one is unsure how to categorize Pohlig’s clever novel. Is this a dark comedy of Victorian mores and patriarchy run amok? Is it a feminist tale about a forced wedding of a woman without agency? Is it a tale of suspense as to whether Iseult will succumb to the planned match? Or a gothic tale of family secrets and of possession built around a core of self-harm and insanity? Or is the novel a straight-up Victorian horror story, turning Shelley’s Frankenstein on its head with the all-too-real monster now on the inside?
Whatever The Unsuitable may be, it will have you on pins and needles to the final sentence.