W.D. Wetherell’s aptly named novel The Writing on the Wall presents an answer to the often-voiced cliché that wonders what walls would say if they could talk. The walls in this novel speak through the printed words upon them, and while they tell different stories, each testifies to the importance of individual life. Living people comprise the sweeping saga of history, and in this unique novel, their stories matter because their message transcends time.
The novel begins as the main character, Vera, retreats to a friend’s cabin in a bucolic area. Vera strips the house’s wallpaper as a favor to her friend who allows her to stay there. Vera discovers handwriting on the wall--not just a few scribbled words but the beginning of a story that is gradually revealed as Vera strips more wallpaper. Despite the horror-like setting, this novel lacks monsters or literal evil; however, Vera and the reader are shown the dark nature of humanity by the words written on the wall. These tales relate cruel actions propagated by everyday people, and the realization of mankind’s violent nature is a subtle, and true, sort of horror.
The story is revealed to Vera as it is to the reader in the parallel structure of a “frame story.” Vera and her re-wallpapering of the cabin now stand the outside the story, while the reader is captivated by the narrative unfolding on the wall of the house’s original owner, Beth, which occurred some ninety years previous. Beth’s story consumes Vera—and the reader—for approximately sixty pages until it finishes, and the reader returns to the present day just as Vera finishes de-wallpapering the room and reading the story. Vera moves to the next room and discovers that a previous tenant who also read Beth’s story wrote on a different wall. The new words introduce Dottie’s story, which again plays out as Vera peels off the wallpaper. Dottie’s story occurs in the Sixties, placing her time in the cabin about halfway between Beth’s occupancy and Vera’s in the present day.
The strong female narratives contrast the presentation of male characters, which is especially harsh. The novel’s men are at turns brutish, cruel and manipulative. Even male characters ostensibly classified as “good” often possess suspect qualities, such as laziness and stupidity. Interacting with such men reinforces the strength of the women telling these stories, and Wetherell illustrates the resilient qualities of women by presenting strong female characters who suffer but persevere. Wetherell praises women without focusing overtly on their sexuality, as many male writers do.
When Vera decides to tell her story, readers may be disappointed. Since Vera is the primary character, her narrative should be the strongest, but her story lacks the interest of the previous stories written on the wall. Beth and Dottie’s narratives, perhaps because they occur in the past, hold a certain type of nostalgic intrigue that Vera’s story—happening in the modern day—does not possess. The two previous stories leave readers eager to know what happens; Vera’s story seems boring in comparison. One possible cause may be Wetherell’s insertion of some not-so-subtle political messages about present-day government. These references are preachy and seemingly an outlet for Wetherell’s political beliefs, but regardless of political persuasion, this hurts the literary presentation by rendering Vera’s story clichéd. Until the novel’s concluding chapters, the stories are skillfully written and poignant. As the book finishes, readers are left with the impression that they are listening to a political debate or watching a news broadcast as opposed to reading a novel.
A bond unites the three female residents of the house, a bond is formed not only by occupancy but also because all three women are exposed to the destructive, aggressive and despicable side of humanity. Beth, Dottie, and finally Vera all indirectly experience war during their lifetime, and their exposure to events, while unpleasant, also makes them stronger. The Writing on the Wall is an accurate portrayal of how, despite the progression of time, humanity fails (and is ever unlikely) to transcend the aggressive tendencies that consume us. This is not an inspiring message, but the story helps one cope with such bleakness by reminding that, although individual experience is unique, similarities in our joys and hardships engender positive feelings like empathy and love. Such emotions make life, and the tribulations that go with it, more bearable.