Excerpt from By Blood by Ellen Ullman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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By Blood

A Novel

by Ellen Ullman

By Blood
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2012, 384 pages
    Dec 2012, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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I did not cause her any harm. This was a great victory for me. At the end of it, I was a changed man. I am indebted to her; it was she who changed me, although I never learned her name.

My involvement with the young woman in question began several years ago, in the late summer of 1974, while I was on leave from the university. I sought to secure for myself a small office in the downtown business district of San Francisco, where I intended to prepare a series of lectures about The Eumenides - The Kindly Ones - the third play in Aeschylus's great trilogy. A limited budget brought me to the edge of a rough, depressed neighborhood. And my first sighting of the prospective office building - eight begrimed gargoyles crouched beneath the parapet, their eyes eaten away by time - nearly caused me to retrace my steps.

Yet there was no question of my turning back. Immediately upon my arrival in San Francisco, a month earlier, a great gloom had descended upon me. I had arranged my leave in great haste; I knew no one in the area. And it must have been this isolation that had engendered in me a particularly obdurate spell of the nervous condition to which I had been subject since boyhood. Although I was then a grown man of fifty years, the illness, as ever, cast me back into the dark emotions of my preadolescence, as if I remained unchanged the desperate boy of twelve I had been. Indeed, the very purpose of the office was to act as a counterweight to this most recent spell, to get me dressed and out of the house, to force me to walk on public streets among people, to immerse myself, however anonymously, in the general hum of society; and in this way, perhaps, sustain the gestures of normal life.

It was therefore imperative that I do battle with my trepidations. I suppressed my fears of the neighborhood and my distress at the building's dreary mien. We were in the midst of the Great Stagflation, I reminded myself. The whole city (indeed the entire country) had a blasted, exhausted air. Why should the building before me not be similarly afflicted? I therefore turned my gaze from the eyeless gargoyles, told myself there was no reason to be unnerved by the shuttered bar on the ground floor (whose sign creaked in San Francisco's seemingly perpetual wind). Somewhat emboldened by these mental devices, I took the final steps to the entryway.

I opened the door to a flash of white: a lobby clad entirely in brilliant marble. So clean and smooth was this marble that one had the sudden impression of having entered a foreign landscape, a snowy whiteout, where depth perception was faulty. Through the glare I seemed to see three cherubs floating above the elevators, their eyes of black onyx, which, as I watched in fright, appeared to be moving. It took some moments to understand what hung before me: elevator floor indicators, in the form of bronze cherubs, their eyes circling to watch the floor numbers as the cars rose and fell.

To the right of the elevators was a stairway, above it a sign directing visitors to the manager's office on the mezzanine. I climbed this short flight - its marble steps concave from years of wear - then I followed the manager into the elevator and rode with him up to the eighth floor (the cherubim ogling us, I imagined). He led me along hallways lined with great slabs of marble wainscoting, each four feet wide and as tall as an average man of the nineteenth century. Finally we stood before a door of tenderly varnished fruitwood, its fittings - knob, back plate, hinges, lock, mail slot - all oxidized to a burnt golden patina.

The room he showed me was very small. The desk, settee, and bookcase it contained were battered. The transom above the door had been painted shut. But I had already decided, on the strength of the building's interior materials - clearly chosen to withstand the insult of time - that this would be my office. So with the manager's agreement to restore the transom to working order, I signed a one-year lease, to commence in three days, the first of August. And then throughout the first weeks of my tenancy, while I struggled to regain my footing and begin my project, I was calmed by the currents of dark, cool air that flowed through the transom (the sort of mysterious air that seems to remain undisturbed for decades in the deep interiors of old buildings), and by the sight of the aged Hotel Palace across the way, where I could, in certain lights, see the doings of guests not prudent enough to close their shades.

From By Blood by Ellen Ullman. Copyright 2012 Ellen Ullman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux LLC. All rights reserved.

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