This is a Hungarian novel from 1987, and in many ways it feels completely fresh and 30 years older than it actually is. That’s a good thing. The novel is about a novelist who in a time of specific need hires an older cleaning woman. This woman comes with a set of peculiarities, firstly that she demands some conditions on the employment such as choosing the rate and possibly withholding her own employment. The novelist soon finds that the tradeoffs between the work being done and quirks of the cleaning woman, Emerence, are more than adequate.
The novel is a marathon in scope, focusing on 20 years of the relationship between the novelist and her husband and Emerence, but because it’s written from this longview, with a few various glimpses from the far end of things, at times it feels like everything in the story is about to breakdown or speed up. And this is an interesting technique because there’s no specific set of action that the narrator focuses on, but at the same time, this isn’t about the slow development of the relationship either. It’s a weird middle ground that allows the nature of the relationship to be clear, to see the boundaries and parameters, to learn and know more about the two principal figures, but also not to be a plot driven novel. That said, the opening vignette of the novel tells us in the narrator’s own words that she’s killed Emerence through some apersonal means.
The novel focuses heavily (the title) on the closed door of Emerence’s flat, through which the narrator and the cleaning woman negotiate the various conditions of their interactions. Emerence is extremely private so the door plays a symbolic role in the novel without hiding a desperate or mysterious secret. It’s the direct representation of her privacy (read by the narrator as her wall).
The novel is about class differences, generational differences, cultural difference (ie the narrator is a novelist while Emerence is a woman who abhors fabrication and fancy), and personality differences. Though Emerence is quirky, this is not a book about charming differences, but neither is it a depressing book. Instead, I think it’s similar in style and tone to the Elena Ferrante novels.