“Think of being hated that much, by a man that warped. Like some infection. All around you.”
Auriol isn’t quite sure how she ended up married to Ivor Hailes. Not that it matters very much; after the loss of her fiance, she doesn’t expect to fall in love again. Auriol does long for companionship, however, and Ivor will do just as well as any other man. Even better, really. Her new husband is handsome, wealthy, and brilliant, with exquisite taste in everything. Marriage to him should be easy. At least, it should be.
Instead, Auriol finds herself bound to Ivor–not by love, but by the dreadful secret they share. The only way she can escape is by revealing this secret to the world…but how far will Ivor go to keep that from happening?
A Case in Nullity is essentially the story of one unpleasant person falling victim to someone who may be more than merely unpleasant. Yet the writing can be so vague that at times it is challenging to determine exactly what is happening. Things muddle along in a dull and smudgy fashion until, every so often, Evelyn Berckman lays out a shocking truth in the starkest possible terms, leading up to a devastating climax. Only in these moments does the book live up to its terrible and fascinating promise. “No one will spare you,” Auriol’s lawyer warns her, “nor must you hope to be spared.” He is absolutely correct.
As the book jacket states, A Case in Nullity is the story of “divorce based on unusual grounds.” Auriol’s journey through the bureaucracy of 1960s English divorce law is nearly as torturous as the treatment she receives from her husband. She is terrified of how Ivor might respond if she seeks a divorce on the “unusual grounds,” but the law does not necessarily consider emotional abuse sufficient reason to grant a divorce. “You don’t know him,” she tells her attorney, when asked if she’s suggested her husband see a doctor. “You don’t know him.”
“I can’t do anything, I can’t say anything, I can’t have an idea or a friend that he doesn’t—somehow—shame it, make it rubbish. He makes me rubbish! He can make me something that isn’t, something that doesn’t exist. And he enjoys it, you can see him enjoying it. And then you ask me”—aware that her voice had got away from her in an unpleasant degree, she could do nothing about it—”you ask me whether I’ve suggested his seeing a doctor! You don’t know him!” she shrilled the refrain with climactic violence, as if it must illumine everything. “You don’t know him!”
Despite her ordeal, however, at times it can be difficult to sympathize with Auriol; in her own way, she’s every bit as cold and superior as Ivor. It’s not an accident that they originally bonded by making fun of all the other guests at a party. And, while the reason for the divorce may be unusual, the specter of two unhappy people picking over what little remains of their marriage is all too commonplace.
And quietly, all of it done so quietly. Destruction need not be a noisy shattering thing, it could be as deathly quiet as this. She remembered a river starting to flood the valley where they holidayed once; just before the wholesale evacuation of the area, she had gone out once more and seen the water coming up soundlessly, with hardly a ripple in the surface; silent annihilation, utterly silent.
It’s not surprising that the prickly Auriol has few friends. To her dismay, she finds that she cannot always lean on them in her time of trouble because they, too, are vulnerable to Ivor’s attacks. (At times, Auriol has a great deal in common with her estranged husband, as she is always surprised when the people in her life don’t fall neatly into the roles she’s assigned them.) Her colleague Tom M’Kell is sympathetic to her plight, but unwilling to risk being named as her lover in a divorce suit. Auriol’s best friend Maggie, the liveliest and most endearing figure in the book, realizes how easily Ivor could use her masculine appearance against her. She knows what people whisper about her behind her back; furthermore, she knows that if they ever start saying it out loud, her life is over. Will Auriol be left to fend for herself, or will her friends risk their own security in order to help her?
By the end of the book, I disliked Auriol nearly as heartily as Ivor. Berckman has one last twist in store, however, an emotionally savage climax that makes the reader view the story in an entirely new light even as it brings Auriol’s own problematic attitudes to the surface. It is a long, devastating sequence that is meant to serve as the last word on the Hailes’ marriage. One almost gets the sense that Berckman wrote the whole rest of the book simply so she could include this chapter. The view it presents is one that is amazingly progressive in one sense, but regressive in others; this ending is so astonishing to encounter today that I cannot imagine its effect in 1967. As Auriol was warned, no one is spared.
The power of the final chapter, coming after I had already decided how I felt about A Case in Nullity, leaves me confused. It is so cathartic and unexpected, in part because the narrative that precedes it is so unfulfilling. At its heart, A Case in Nullity is a story about frustration. Living in limbo, never getting what you want, wears down the reader nearly as much as it does the characters.
The suspense builds well, as Auriol’s situation becomes increasingly desperate.
Yet it becomes clear in the closing pages that Berckman’s real interest is in the effect of the events of the story on her people.
A Case in Nullity (also published as A Hidden Malice) is out of print with a few used copies available.