Until recently, I’ve only ever thought of Truman Capote as the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Frankly, even Breakfast at Tiffany’s seems to belong less to him and more to Audrey Hepburn who immortalised Holly Golightly on screen. Even when you are reading the book, it’s impossible to keep her persona out of it. However, Other Voices, Other Rooms belongs entirely to Capote.
This semi-autobiographical novel has its roots in Capote’s childhood spent in Alabama. Capote recreates his thirteen year old self as Joel Knox, the protagonist of this story. Joel lost his mother and was being taken care of by his aunt and her family until one day, a letter arrives from his father, whom he has never seen or heard of before. The letter invites Joel to Skully’s Landing, where his father now lives with his second wife. Joel arrives at Skully’s Landing, a crumbling and isolated, old mansion which is nothing like he imagined it would be. He meets his stepmother Amy, a morose and whining woman and Cousin Randolph, a tragic and dramatic figure. But no one will tell him anything about his father who is supposedly ill.
While the spotlight stays firmly on Joel at all times, there are other interesting characters that inhabit this strange world he now finds himself in. There’s Jesus Fever, a centenarian, mule driver and his granddaughter Zoo who has a strange obsession with snow. There’s also Idabel, a sullen and tomboyish girl and Joel’s only friend. Capote based the character of Idabel on his childhood friend Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee modelled the character of Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird on Truman Capote).
Other Voices, Other Rooms raked in a lot of controversy for this photograph of Capote on the book’s back cover. It was termed suggestive and debauched although on the face of it there isn’t anything remotely sexual. This is the mood that runs through the whole book. There aren’t really any sex scenes, foul language or violence but there is always something unsettling and suggestive, though it’s never articulated. Capote’s real triumph as a story teller is in the atmospherics he is able to create with so few, well chosen words. One really senses the decay of the Landing and the eeriness of its surroundings.
Capote’s debut effort is a coming-of-age story like no other. It’s also about desolation and loneliness. Every character in the book is isolated, cut off from all the others and fighting to be heard. Other Voices, Other Rooms is brooding and haunting, quite an experience. Definitely read it.