This novel was author Muriel Spark’s favorite of her own works. It is short — a mere 107 pages — but suspenseful, dark and twisted. The NYT called it a “spiny and treacherous masterpiece.” What makes it all the more horrifying is that the reader knows from the beginning what is going to happen. Lise, the young woman going on holiday, is going to be murdered. We know how it happens but we don’t know who does it or exactly how Lise gets herself into this sorry position until it happens. And it is quite the shocking twist when it does.
The story follows Lise over the course of about a day and a half, from just before her trip, when she is preparing for holiday, until her death. Spark has a genius for creating, slowly and teasingly over the pages, a deep sense of doom and madness in Lise. She is a young single working woman, but we can see from the first pages that she is troubled. When her boss suggests she take off work early to prepare for her holiday, looking at her with “frightened eyeglasses,” Lise laughs hysterically and then cries. In a dress shop, she becomes inexplicably incensed when the salesgirl notes that the dress Lise has picked is made from a new stain-resistant fabric. Lise’s apartment is clean and stark and constructed from pinewood — almost like a coffin. Spark makes fleeting reference to a past illness that lasted several months. Was it mental illness? As the trip draws nearer, Lise’s odd behaviors do not abate. She chooses a garish and vulgar travel outfit, makes unusual comments and outbursts at the airport, and randomly chooses to follow and sit next to a businessman on her flight. The man becomes so unsettled by her, he gets up to sit elsewhere, causing Lise to become more obsessed with him. Meanwhile, she is totally oblivious to the stranger danger of the odd man who has chosen to sit next to her. When Lise reaches her destination, which is somewhere “in the south” (perhaps Italy), her reckless behaviors continue. She befriends an older woman on holiday and spends an afternoon shopping with her and talking about the boyfriend she is meeting. The reader is left unsure if Lise really has a plan to meet someone or if this is another delusion. As day turns to night, Lise finds herself in darker and more dangerous situations and the reader is on the edge of her seat wondering, “Is this it?”
Spark has an unsettling (and yet delicious) way of reminding the reader in each chapter about what is coming. Details like this regarding Lise’s physical appearance give one a shudder:
Her nose is short and wider than it will look in the likeness constructed partly by the method of identikit, partly by actual photography, soon to be published in the newspapers of four languages.
Spark is also fond of telling us what characters who have met Lise will remember in their police reports later.
…she can see him looking at the retreating car, probably noting the number. Which in fact he is doing, so that, on the afternoon of the following day, when he has been shown the body, he says, ‘Yes, that’s her. I recognize the face.’
When Lise’s death finally occurs, it is a shock despite that fact that Spark had been preparing us for it all along. It’s dark. It’s mad. And the fact that Spark could craft such a disturbing and mesmerizing story in so few pages makes The Driver’s Seat a masterpiece indeed.