Review by Tess Tabak
A newly discovered short story by Sylvia Plath is cause for celebration. “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” follows a young girl as she discovers her train is bound for a mysterious destination. The train ride starts as a seemingly normal but dreary metaphor for 1950s life – everyone onboard is crisp and proper, not talking to each other, and Mary feels isolated despite being surrounded by people. Though the cause for the train ride is never revealed, we can guess that she’s heading off to college.
However, as the piece goes on, it’s clear there’s something more sinister at play. We learn that the “Ninth Kingdom” will be the final stop, and once the train reaches its destination there will be no returning.
The piece is raw compared to the work Plath would go on to write (such as her classic, The Bell Jar), but a crude Plath story is still riveting. I read this piece in one sitting. “Mary Ventura” will be of special interest to Plath’s fans. You can see the source of her later writings in it – a girl watching in grim awareness as everyone else is numb to the world, offered a ray of hope at the end. She describes the world in lush detail, yet still manages to convey a sense of dread. “Mrs. Ventura touched a handkerchief to her painted red mouth, started to say something, stopped. There was, after all, nothing left to say.”
I can see why the piece was rejected from Mademoiselle back in the 50s – the story is a little naive, mostly build up – it lacks the hard edges of experience. It’s a little too easy, narratively speaking, for Mary to escape the horrors waiting for her in the Ninth Kingdom. However, the story is a fascinating look at Plath’s mental state in the months before her first suicide attempt. The train can be read as a metaphor for the “to be or not to be” question: she doesn’t know what’s waiting for her outside, but she knows that the agony of seeing what fate awaits her on the train, and when it will come, is killing her. However, despite the anguished state Plath was in when she wrote it, “Mary Ventura” ends on a surprisingly hopeful note.
Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom will be published January 22 from Harper Perennial.
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.