First published in the UK in 1993; published by Minerva on April 25, 1994
Edith lives in a building that is getting old, hasn't been cared for, and is falling apart. The roof leaks, the plumbing doesn't work, repairs are never made. The building could be a metaphor for Edith's life: she hasn't taken care of herself, sacrificing her happiness to care for a mother who constantly criticized her, who complained that Edith didn't keep up her appearance and had lost her chance at finding a husband. Now that her mother is in a nursing home, Edith is alone and run down. Her wealthy brother, always favored by her mother, is indifferent to her; most of the other tenants in the building are a mystery to her. When the building's ownership changes hands, strange things begin to happen: a dangerous looking man with a vicious dog moves into an unoccupied apartment; workers come and take out rotting windows without replacing them. Bureaucratic building inspectors are usually impossible to reach; when they respond, they describe a remedial process that will drag on for years. The situation progresses from bad to worse.
The Tenancy, while unrelentingly depressing, is beautifully written. Figes perfectly captures the sense of malaise that infects people who are struggling against forces beyond their control. She portrays a small community of isolated people and their different approaches to adversity: some withdraw, some try to help each other, some abandon hope. Figes writes without bitterness but she offers no false hope in her story of people worn down by their environment, by their past, and by an uncaring society. With true economy of language, Figes sketches out the important moments in Edith's life, bringing her fully to life, albeit a dismal life. Fortunately, this is a short novel; it might be too depressing to handle if it went on for much longer. It isn't a novel for readers who want happy (or at least hopeful) endings. But it paints a striking picture of helplessness in gorgeous language, and it inspires thought about the fear society instills in those it neglects.