BOOK REVIEW: Mary Ventura And The Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath

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How brilliant it is to get to review a book about a train journey, whilst on the train journey. Though I do hope my journey’s ending isn’t as unsettling as the one in Mary Ventura and the 9th Kingdom. 

As I type, I notice with mounting horror that the person next to me is repeatedly picking his nose, taking only a break to tend to his crotch,  I guess my trip also contains its fair share of unpleasantness. 

So, just like Mary and her new friend do at the beginning of their train journey, I walk through a few carriages “ planting her feet firmly, one after the other, on the swaying aisle of the seeping train” and  find an empty seat in a different carriage.

Sylvia Plath was an American writer and poet who’s life was cut short at the age of thirty when she committed suicide. Leaving behind two young boys and a blossoming career. She had been clinically depressed all her adult life and this hadn’t been her first attempt and ending her life but it would be the last. 

She wrote the 9th Kingdom in 1952, aged 20, when she was a student at Smith. She submitted it to Mademoiselle Magazine but it was rejected. As a short story, it takes a while to get going, there is a lot of detail and adjectives, and the opening would have benefited some tightening. 

Mary Ventura – a young woman roughly the age Plath was when writing the story, is to travel to a destination initially undisclosed, only mentioned as “North”. Her parents take her to the station and settle her into the train before leaving. She is reluctant and nervous at first, but soon starts relaxing thanks to the older woman sitting next to her, who having travelled on that train before, shows her around, and invites her for a beverage.

“May I take your order? queried the black waiter in the white tailored suit, the pencil poised in his hand above a tablet of paper. Mary had not even seen him approach. He had brought ice water for each of them . […] The order came, the coffee steaming in a glazed green pottery up and the ginger ale, shot through with small silver bubbles, in a tall glass with a red cherry at the bottom.”

This ongoing scene-settling, is a very long diving board of what is to come, and provides us with numerous details, especially visual ones, with an emphasis on colours. As the journey goes on, one might notice the changing colour a thematic element that Plath uses with guile, as the train darkens toward its final destination. The dominance of red and black, eradicating the beautiful green of the dress the older woman is knitting, or the bright orange from the setting sun.

If it takes a few pages for the story to start, the accumulation of details describing a plush, comfortable journey lures the reader into thinking this is a regular bit of travelling, not this strange, alarming journey towards the 9th Kingdom that Mary decides to escape from. 

Halfway though the story, the tone and the atmosphere abruptly change, becoming unsettling, unnerving – for me it was when the lady asked Mary:

“But tell me, have you noticed, just as you sit here, anything at all unusual about the other people on the train?” 

This, followed straight after by Mary witnessing the  reluctance of one of the passengers to get off the train, pleading.

“ Not yet. Please not yet, this isn’t my stop. Give me a little longer. “

The train journey is seemingly an allegory of a life’s ending and the 9th Kingdom, death, supported by statements such as: “It will be an easy trip. Everyone has to leave sometime. Everyone has to go sooner or later.” And: “Remember you pay for it. You pay for all of it in the end.

However, in light of Plath’s suicide, it is ensure whether the 9th Kingdom that Mary decides to escape from is actually a representation of life or death. 

“That is the one trick left. The assertion of the will remaining. I thought that, too, was frozen. There is a chance now.” 

And it is unclear whether that the will that Plath shows within the story, is the desire to end her life or to avoid her death.

Well worth a read. 

Mary Ventura And The Ninth Kingdom is published by Faber & Faber for more information about their Faber Stories and 90th Anniversary click here.


Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was an American poet, novelist, and short-story writer. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, she studied at Smith College before receiving acclaim as a poet and writer. She married fellow poet Ted Hughes in 1956, and they lived together in the United States and then in England. They had two children, Frieda and Nicholas, before separating in 1962.

Plath was clinically depressed for most of her adult life, and was treated multiple times with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). She died by suicide in 1963.

Reviewed by Barbara F. Jones




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