Friday, November 10, 2023

Reading group: New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani

Doug's suggestion, this novel by acclaimed linguist and novelist Diego Marani was received as a 'masterpiece' in his native Italy, and in its English translation (by Judith Landry), published by the small UK press Dedalus, it has provoked high praise as a brilliant - even 'genius' - study of the way that language and memory shape us and give us our sense of our place in the world.

The premise of the novel, indicated in the book's back-cover blurb, is that a man, found unconscious with a head injury on Trieste harbour in 1943, wakes from his coma having lost all memory and language and any sense whatever of his own identity.

However, the novel does not begin with this intriguing scenario, but with a Prologue written some years later in the words of Petri Friari, a Finnish doctor working in Hamburg's city hospital. This Prologue conveys a number of facts that float in mystery, presented in the following order. First, Friari states that in 1946 - ie at the end of the Second World War - he found a manuscript in a trunk in the military hospital in Helsinki, 'together with a sailor's jacket, a handkerchief with the letters S.K. embroidered on it, three letters, a volume of the Kalevala [the national epic of Finland] and an empty bottle of koskenkorva [a Finnish vodka]'. The manuscript, he tells us, is written in a 'spare, indeed broken and often ungrammatical Finnish, in a school notebook where pages of prose alternate with lists of verbs and exercises in Finnish grammar', and including headlines and cuttings from newspapers. He knows the facts behind this manuscript, Friari then tells us, and the story it is unsuccessfully trying to tell. He has therefore, he tells us, reconstructed its story in a 'more orthodox' form, filling in the gaps it leaves with interjections of his own. He now reveals that having fled Finland as a young man, he had returned to look for the author of this manuscript, but found only the objects enumerated above. His motive for reconstructing the manuscript, he says, is to honour and memorialise a man who, through 'a cruel misunderstanding' on Friari's part, had been 'unintentionally driven towards a fate that was not his own'. Friari hopes also to 'reconstruct my own story, my own identity, through other eyes'. However, the Prologue ends on a pessimistic note: having once briefly felt he could be reconciled with his own country, Friari now feels exiled once more by the (unidentified) tragic events of which he indicates he, Friari, was the agent, and he concludes: 'perhaps Massimiliano Brodar is merely an instrument of my damnation.' 

What follows is the story of the author of the manuscript in the author's 'own' words ventriloquised by Friari, occasionally interrupted, as has been promised, by interjections of Friari's own. It begins as the author emerges from a coma to the indistinct sight of Dr Friari watching him. It is 1943. He is on a German hospital ship in Trieste harbour where he has been taken by some of its sailors after they found him on Trieste harbour. In the collar of the jacket he was wearing is a label bearing the Finnish name, Sampo Karjalainen, and in its pocket a handkerchief with the initials S K. Friari, exiled from Finland in his youth after his father was taken political prisoner and put to death, yet harbouring a lifelong longing for its culture and language, thus takes a special interest in the patient, caring for him constantly. As he very slowly recovers, Friari sets passionately about the task of re-teaching him Finnish, clearly relishing that re-involvement with his own native tongue. However, Sampo, as he must know himself - although the name has no familiarity for him - fails to recover his memory or any sense of his identity. Finally, Friari manages to secure a place for him on a journey to a military hospital in Helsinki, in the hope that once back in his own country, Sampo will begin to remember things and know who he is. Yet in Helsinki Sampo struggles. He works hard at the language, as the school exercise book will show, but the language fails to nourish him, he fails to feel he belongs in it, that it is part of him. The army pastor takes him under his wing, and Sampo attempts to absorb the Finnish lore with which the pastor is obsessed, and with which he constantly regales him. But the pastor's obsession sinks into a kind solipsistic madness and he leaves for the front and is very soon killed; Sampo is thus abandoned and goes on feeling anchorless. A young female military nurse becomes attached to him, but he is unable properly to relate to her - he has no concrete identity with which to relate - and he cannot even see the point of answering the three letters she sends when she is posted to the front.  

One day he is sitting on the harbour and a German-made warship heaves into view. On its side is written the name it received after it was fairly recently requisitioned into the Finnish navy: Sampo Karjalainen. It is suddenly clear: the name he has come to think is his own, the name attached to the jacket in which he was found, is simply that of a ship (with which, he will assume, he was once associated, though he has no memory of it). The minimal identity he has managed to develop crumbles away. In despair, and because he must indeed be Finnish, he decides to join up and fight for Finland.

At this point, Friari tells us, 'Sampo''s manuscript ends. Friari now tells us that a War Office file carries the information that private Sampo Karjalainen 'fell in the battle of Ihantala'. He now knows who 'Sampo' really was, he tells us, and that the reason for his journey to Helsinki, made as soon as the war ended, was to tell him, though of course it was too late. In an Epilogue, Friari explains. The man found unconscious on the dock at Trieste was the victim of a German secret agent, Stefan Klein, a man with therefore the same initials and who had been serving on the ship Sampo Karjalainen. Klein had clearly attacked him in order to lay hands on an Italian uniform and equip himself to infiltrate enemy forces. 'Sampo' had in fact been Italian, not Finnish, born indeed in Trieste itself and serving in the Italian army. His real name, printed in the leave permit found in the lining of the jacket Klein was wearing when he was shot dead by the partisans, was Massimiliano Brodar. The novel ends on a note of remorse and deep sadness as Friari reflects on his mistake and 'arrogant' assumption, made through his 'blind attachment to his country', and his sense that now he can never after all atone for what happened to his father.

All of us in our reading group were fascinated by the theme of language and identity, and the insights about this provided by this linguist author. Without language, the mind of the recently injured 'Sampo' is 'a ship whose moorings had been shattered by a storm. I could see the landing stage bobbing not far off... A subtle veil, like a form of hypnosis, was shielding me from the colours of reality.' Imagining that the language he is teaching him is his native tongue, Friari puts his finger on the way our native language locates us in time, in our past and thus our identity: 'Think of each word as though it were a magic charm which might open the door to memory'. Mistakenly tutored (as we will finally understand) in the wrong language, in Helsinki 'Sampo' has the 'distinct impression that I was running headlong down the wrong road. In the innermost recesses of my consciousness I was plagued by the feeling that, within my brain, another brain was beating, buried alive'. 

We did all however find the book something of a difficult read, and it seemed to all of us a lot longer than it is in terms of pages. John said to agreement that the book is written in a formal, almost old-fashioned style, which makes for ponderousness, with much telling rather than showing - although there are some lyrical descriptions - and others noted that it was repetitive. Everyone found the long disquisitions by the army pastor on the epic Kalevala somewhat wearing, and couldn't see the point of their portrayal in such detail and at such length. A main comment was that although there were ostensibly two characters narrating, there was no variation in the voices. This was of course excused by the fact that Friari is taking it upon himself to reconstruct and re-tell 'Sampo's' story for him, but this does make for a monotony of tone, and Friari's is something of a formal voice. (In fact, as I think Clare pointed out, Friari is imposing his own voice on 'Sampo', and thus committing an act of colonisation.) The only real indication of a change of narrator when it occurs is a shift to italics in the typography whenever Friari makes an intervention (and since these italicised sections sometimes last for several pages, they are less physically easy to read).

There were aspects of the structure that left me unsatisfied, which is why I have laid out the events above in the sequence in which they occur in the novel. In fact, the 'plot' is to some extent given away at the beginning: we know right from the start that the author of the manuscript is probably dead; we know that Friari feels responsible through having made some fatal mistake, and we are even twice within the Prologue given the author's name, Massimiliano Brodar - indeed it is given the prominence of being the final two words of the Prologue. However, that short Prologue sets up so many mysteries, and provides so many facts in such a short space and at a point when readers are still trying to orientate themselves in the situation, that the connection of that name with the writer of the manuscript slipped me and others by, or at least quickly fell away from our consciousness. And indeed the discovery by Friari of the real name seems to be presented in the novel as something of a 'reveal'. (Whether a consciousness of the fact that 'Sampo' is really Italian would have added to or detracted from the tension of the events I find hard in retrospect to judge.) There is another structural confusion: in the Prologue Friari refers to the document that will follow - his recreation of 'Sampo''s story - as having been written in the past: 'It was many years before I could bring myself to offer these pages to the public', he says, and tells how he was helped in his reconstruction by the nurse who became involved with 'Sampo' . Yet in Friari's final intervention, which reads as a continuation of the same running commentary, he is still in Helsinki, having only just found the trunk with its contents and discovered that he is too late to find 'Sampo'. I also found it hard to grasp Friari's need to 'atone' with regard to his country (at one point he talks of his father having been unjustly murdered, yet at another of needing to atone for his father's 'crime'), or of his sense that, having failed 'Sampo', he has forfeited the right or ability to atone: I felt a lack of resolution for this on a psychological, or maybe a cultural, level. 

We all agreed that it was a very sad book, and although we had not found it an easy read, Ann said to the agreement of others that she was glad she had read it.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Monday, September 18, 2023

Reading group: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Prior to this discussion, I and my writing friends had absolutely loved and admired this Booker-shortlisted novella. Set in the 80s in small-town Ireland, it concerns one of the notorious Magdalene laundries, those Irish institutions run by the Catholic Church, in which 'fallen women' - unmarried girls getting pregnant, or just being flirtatious or 'too' pretty - were, until as recently as 1996, incarcerated and treated with cruelty and even violence. As far as we were concerned, the book is beautifully written and extremely moving. I expected a similar reaction from the reading group.

Everyone in the reading group did agree that it was extremely well written if somewhat conventional in style, and, as Clare (who had suggested the book) said, vivid in its depiction of the small-town community and its culture of secrecy and constraint. All appeared, like me and my writing colleagues, to have read it in a sitting. However, I was surprised that everyone in the group beside me and John had some quibble or other, sometimes quite radical.

The novella centres on the figure of Bill Furlong, the town's coal merchant, and chiefly takes his third-person viewpoint. Brought up in the big house of a Protestant widow after her unmarried maid became pregnant with him, Furlong is now married and focussed on providing for and nurturing the talents of his five daughters who attend the Catholic school, 'the only good school in town', and take music lessons at the convent next door to the school. He has never found out who his father was, but supposes that it must have been one of the many middle-class visitors to the big house.

Christmas is approaching, and there are large orders of coal, and Furlong must make a delivery to the convent. The nuns at the convent run a laundry - well used and appreciated by the town's businesses and hospital - as well as what is understood to be a training school for young women. Little is known about the latter - at least in Furlong's understanding - and various rumours surround it, some saying it is a place for girls of low character to be punished and reformed, others that it is a mother-and-baby home for 'common' girls and that the nuns make good money out of having their babies adopted.

Furlong hasn't in the past liked to believe any of those rumours, and indeed has shown little interest, but one evening in the recent past he arrived too early with a coal delivery, and with no one to meet him, wandered into a garden and a chapel, where he encountered clearly browbeaten girls on their knees scrubbing. One girl dared to stand and begged him to take her to the river, where she could end her life, and when he refused, to take her home with him. The shocked Furlong refused once more, before they were interrupted by one of the nuns. Leaving, he noted things that one might associate with a prison: a padlock on an outside door, the way the nun locked the door behind her just to come out to pay him, and jagged glass embedded in the inner garden wall. At home, Eileen, his wife, told him to drop it, forget it, think of their own girls. Furlong couldn't see what their own girls have to do with it, although he did wonder, What if one of their own were in such trouble?

As Christmas approaches Furlong is feeling a vague existential unease, but he is a practical man, not having been given to speculation or making connections, and can't pinpoint the cause of his feeling. He takes his load to the convent, rising before dawn. He unbolts the coalhouse door and finds a young girl crouched inside, barefoot and weak and coal-blackened, the excrement on the floor showing that she has been there for longer than just one night. He takes her, stumbling, to the convent door, and as they wait there she asks him if he'll ask the nuns about her baby who has been taken away from her. The Mother Superior exclaims at the girl's foolishness in getting herself trapped in the coalhouse while 'playing', and insists Furlong comes in for a cup of tea.

Furlong's mother is long dead - she died when he was a teenager - but the farmhand Ned, on whom he relied as he grew, is still living at the big house, and Furlong, having heard he isn't well, decides to pay him a Christmas visit. He finds Ned isn't there, but in hospital, and the girl who answers the door assumes he is a relative of Ned's, saying she can see the family likeness. And a light is suddenly shone on the matter of Furlong's paternity.

Christmas Eve arrives. When Furlong goes to pay for his mens' Christmas dinner at the local cafe, the female cafe owner makes clear she knows about what she calls his 'run-in' with the Mother Superior, and warns him that the nuns 'have a finger in every pie'. He should watch what he says about what goes on up there, she says, as he could damage his daughters' chances at the school.

His work for the year done, he wanders through the town. He thinks of the extent of Mrs Wilson's kindness in saving his mother from the convent, so much greater, we are now to understand, when the father was none of her of circle but her farmhand. He thinks of how he refused the girl who asked him to take her to the river, and how he failed to ask about the coalhouse girl's baby as she had asked him to, and 'how he'd gone on, like a hypocrite, to Mass'. He keeps walking and goes on up to the convent, passing through the open gates to the coalhouse. He pulls back the bolt, and, as he clearly suspects, the same barefoot girl is imprisoned once more inside.

The book ends as Furlong is walking with her back through the town towards home, people staring or avoiding them. Ahead of him is all the trouble for his family that this will cause, but Furlong has done the thing that, if he hadn't, he would have regretted for the rest of his life.

Introducing the book, Clare said that she felt that Furlong had been used as a device in order to write about the Magdalene laundries. This statement left me taken aback, since the focus of the novella is not the Magdalene laundries as a subject in itself, but Furlong's psychological journey in relation to them. Later, Doug or Mark, or both, would say they felt unsatisfied that the novella ends where it does, that the real interest would be the consequences of Furlong's arriving home with the girl from the convent. Doug did agree however when I said that the interest of the novella was not so much what happens, but Furlong's psychological and moral progression (from lack of interest and identification with the goings-on in the laundry, to an understanding of his own early situation and the need to pay back the kindness that was done to him and his mother). Doug said he wasn't sure he found it convincing that Furlong, a practical, non-thinking man, would understand so quickly over his cup of tea with the Mother Superior that she was lying about the girl in the coalhouse, or that it was in character that he should consequently make a wilful point of hanging on when she tries to get rid of him. Or indeed that he would return to the convent to rescue the girl. Again, however, Doug agreed when I said that what alerts Furlong on the first occasion is a realisation that the Mother Superior, in asking significantly about his daughters' studies at the school and the convent, is making a veiled threat (to prevent him from talking about the coalhouse incident), and that it is the revelation about Ned and the consequent extent of the kindness that had been done his mother that prompts his final action.

Thinking back now, it occurs to me that the problem was that our group is very used to discussing novels (we don't do short stories), but this very short novella, written by an author who has only ever written in the two short prose fiction forms (short stories and novellas), uses very much a short-story mode, that is, the mode of glancing implication. It is never actually spelled out that Furlong has either of these revelations. The most that is replicated of Furlong's realisation about Ned is 'It took a stranger to come out with things'. This narrative mode of implication, it seems to me, is very potent in conveying the atmosphere and tenor of a society where things are indeed not stated, where secrecy and blind-eye turning are the norm, and truths thus easily buried. To Furlong, the implications of his own past having been buried, the connections are not obvious, but arrive subtly, 'stoking his mind'.

Someone said they felt Furlong was a bit of a cypher, not fully developed, which shocked me, since the substance of the book is basically Furlong's psyche, and Mark said that he felt the most underdeveloped character was Furlong's wife Eileen. I can only think that such criticisms come from a desire for the more objective, detailed and wide-ranging character depiction novels can provide, but which in my view is not the province of the shorter form. This novella too is internal; everything is filtered through Furlong's interiority, and Eileen appears only as she does in Furlong's thoughts.

Someone said, 'But this is only one person!'' (being rescued from the convent), implying, I think, that the book didn't address the real (and real-life) problem of so many young women and their babies being virtually disappeared. This left me dumbfounded, as, as far as I am concerned, the force of fiction is indeed that it can address the universal via the emotional impact of the particular, which to me this novella does indeed do.

Someone wondered why the author had chosen a male protagonist (presumably for such a female-orientated subject), until the rest of the group decided that a woman would never have been in a position to do what Furlong did. Ann said she found the novel anachronistic. It is set in the 80s, she said, but felt like the 50s (it was noted that semi-rural Ireland in the 80s was indeed like the 50s: witness the fact that the Magdalene laundries closed only in 1996), yet there is a reference to crows picking at takeaway pizza boxes: pizza takeaways would not have arrived in Ireland by the 80s. As a result, she said, she lost all faith in the book and didn't want to go on reading. Clare added that Furlong was anachronistically feminist in that when the Mother Superior suggests he must be disappointed that none of his children is male, he stands up for women. At the time of the discussion I found myself convinced by this, but having looked again at what he actually says - 'Sure didn't I take my own mother's name' and 'What have I against girls...? My own mother was a girl once' - I'd say that this is based in his realisation of what is going on in the convent, and how narrowly he and his mother escaped that fate. The burgeoning feminism implied seems to me a legitimate and believable response to his realisation. Sexism was of course dominant in the 80s, but it does not seem to me unbelievable that such extraordinary circumstance could prompt a man's developing feminist consciousness, even in small-town Ireland at that time. It seems to me that, rather than simply using a male character to facilitate a plot, as was suggested, the author's project is specifically to chart this growing male consciousness, and that this is indeed the novella's dynamic strength.

Finally, Doug said to my shock that he was surprised that the book had won all the prizes it had.

On the evening of our discussion I was suffering with shingles and was feeling pretty low, but I don't think it was just that that left me feeling a bit helpless to argue. Rather, I think, it was sheer surprise at these criticisms of a book that I - and John - had found frankly stunning.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Reading group: Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Another discussion I need to cast my mind way back to.

In general as a group we discuss contemporary novels, but Ann suggested that it might be interesting to read a children's classic for a change, and we plumped for Alice in Wonderland.

I think all of us had seen the Disney film, and all except Mark had read the book as children. I had the Ward Lock copy my mother bought me when I was five, unillustrated apart from a colour frontispiece depicting the Mad Hatter's tea party, and defaced with my own five-year-old drawings and scrawlings. Ann had an old inherited copy with the famous Tenniel illustrations (one of which above), but she had also bought the Annotated Alice, so was able to talk about the background to the book and the circumstances of its writing. It was written in 1865 for the children of the Dean of Oxford by the Oxford mathematician and logician Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, who originally illustrated the book himself. 

The first thing we said was that we were surprised to find there were events in the book we hadn't remembered. Neither Ann nor I had at all remembered the Lobster Quadrille  (in which all the sea creatures dance on the shore), and I think maybe Clare hadn't either. I hadn't remembered the puppy that appears from nowhere and which Alice chases into the wood, and I hadn't really remembered the incident when her neck grows so long her head emerges over the tops of the trees. We wondered if this were due to the influence of the film, but couldn't really say. 

The book, we realised on this reading, is a stunningly prescient portrayal of the workings of the dreaming mind, pre-dating Freud. The surreal plot, famously, operates by dream logic (the whole thing is Alice's dream), with characters including Alice herself morphing or, like the Cheshire Cat, disappearing and reappearing. There is a riff on the subject of time, which is of course distorted in dreams - at the Mad Hatter's tea party it is always six o'clock, and his watch shows the day of the month but not the time.  Characters operate madly inverted or false logic: according to the Pigeon, the fact that serpents eat eggs and that Alice has tasted eggs proves she's a serpent, and the Frog-Footman sitting on the outside of the door he is manning tells her there's no point in her knocking and being expected to be admitted, as he isn't inside to let her in. There is punning and play on word association, leading to confusion: 

'Mine is a long a sad tale!'' said the Mouse, turning to Alice and sighing.

'It is a long tail, certainly,'' said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse's tail.

The Mock Turtle tells Alice that when he was little they went to school in the sea and that they called their master, an old Turtle, Tortoise:

'Why did you call him Tortoise if he wasn't one?' Alice asked.

'We called him Tortoise because he taught us,'' said the Mock Turtle a little angrily; 'really you are very dull!'

There is a concrete poem with diminishing typography, taking the shape of a mouse's tail, and there are tongue-in-cheek parodies of Victorian nursery rhymes: "Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!/How I wonder what you're at!"

Throughout, Alice challenges the false logic of the characters, and the book amounts (among other things) to a take-down of the sentimentality with which Victorian children were regarded, and the irrational strictures placed on them. 'Why is a raven like a writing desk?'' asks the Mad Hatter, and Alice is supposed to answer when there isn't in fact any answer. "I think you might do something better with your time,'' Alice chides him, "than wasting it in riddles that have no answer." As Ann commented, Alice is a very feisty female protagonist, unusual in Victorian books for children.

Mark, who had never read the book but only seen the film, was very impressed by the book's verbal cleverness and liked it very much. John and Doug, however, were I'm afraid left cold by it, John saying that he knew it so well he could hardly judge it, but found it rather flat compared to the vividness of the film. (He read my unillustrated copy.). He wasn't as impressed as Mark by the verbal play, saying that it was only the same as that he would make with our own children - at which he was reminded that this is of course a book written, in similar circumstances, for three particular children.  However, it has of course subsequently become part of the mental landscapes of generations of children worldwide, and has entered our language - we talk of 'going down a rabbit hole' and of people grinning like a Cheshire Cat - its name even taken for a neurological disorder*, so acute is it in its psychology.

*Alice in wonderland syndrome, a disorder of distorted perception and altered body image.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Reading group: The Girls by Emma Cline

Warning: plot spoilers.

Once again I have been too busy to keep up with the reports of our reading group discussions, and have catching up to do, and now I have to really wrench my brain to remember what was said in our earlier discussions, particularly this, the earliest, which took place as far back as June. 

Mark suggested this American novel about a young girl who becomes involved with a cult based on the real-life Manson group who in 1968 murdered guests, including the film star Sharon Tate, at the home of film director Roman Polanski. A best-seller, due no doubt in no small measure to its sensational subject matter, the book is also rightly highly praised for its vivid, evocative and fluid prose style, and we did indeed all find it a compelling read.

Evie, the first-person narrator, looks back in the 80s to the summer of 1968 when, aged fourteen and living with her divorced and preoccupied mother, bored in the summer holidays and whiling away the time before she is sent to boarding school, she encounters a group of girls belonging to the cult, and is soon drawn into their circle.

The novel opens in stunning prose, with the image of the girls moving through the park, and their effect on everyone around them:

These long-haired girls seemed to glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile... All their cheap rings like a second set of knuckles. They were messing with an uneasy threshold, prettiness and ugliness at the same time, and a ripple of awareness followed them through the park.

Evie is soon stealing from her absent mother's purse for the group and making daily visits to their ranch, and it isn't long before she moves in. The novel charts brilliantly Evie's progression from enchantment with the group and its lifestyle and cod philosophy of community and sharing to disillusion and the realisation that the charismatic Manson figure, Russell, is a controlling, indeed vicious and ultimately petulant narcissist who holds everyone in the group in his power. Slower but more devastating is her realisation that Susan, the girl with whom she is most fascinated and begins by hero-worshipping, is vulnerable and utterly trapped by Russell.

This is a debut novel and Emma Cline is a young author, and everyone in our group expressed admiration that she was able to capture so well the atmosphere and ethos of the 60s.

The main, and potent, message of the book is the lack of power of young girls in our society. It is their lack of power in the real world that leads to their involvement in a cult apparently offering a more equitable way of life, and it is of course their supreme lack of power within that group that will lead to their following Russell's instructions to carry out his revenge murders. In the end, Evie is not present at the murders, which is why now, in the 80s, unlike the other female cult members she is free - although psychologically scarred for life - and, at the time she is remembering it all, she is staying at a friends' house in his absence. The friend's son and his girlfriend turn up and it becomes clear to Evie that the girlfriend is just as lacking in power in relation to the son, indeed subservient to him, as any girl would have been back in 1968. Things have not changed.

In our discussion, I said that for me the book hadn't answered a fundamental question: while they were clearly in Russell's thrall, how could the girls have brought themselves to carry out the murders? Others said, Well, psychologists couldn't find out from the girls themselves in the real life case, but I felt it was the job of the novelist to work the psychology. In fact, looking back at the novel now, I see that Cline does provide an explicit explanation. Evie thinks back to the times she was abused as a young girl, and the sheer hatred it raised in her. It is indeed the powerlessness, she thinks, that would fuel the violence: 'The hatred that vibrated beneath the surface of my girl's face... Of course my hand would anticipate the weight of a knife.'

We weren't unstinting in our praise. Just about everybody felt that, after the vivid and enthralling beginning, the book took a long time to get going again as it established the situation that primes Evie for her rebellion: the sterility and boredom of her middle-class life with an unhappy mother, and the events that lead up to her best friend ending their friendship and leaving her at a loose end and lonely. I felt that this section of the novel, though so very well written and ringing very true, felt too familiar, that I'd read too many similar portrayals of American middle-class teenagehood. I also said there were a couple of longueurs: the descriptions of life with Evie's father and stepmother after her mother finds out what
she's been up to and sends her away (and from which she escapes back to the ranch), and of life in the boarding school after she is finally severed from the cult. Others agreed. I also said that although I was very taken by the prose as a whole, the use of strings of short verbless sentences, though mostly vivid in effect, seemed after a while to turn into a tic bordering on affectation, and as far as I remember some people agreed.

And that is all I can remember of our discussion, which in fact is a lot more than I expected to be able to.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Sunday, May 07, 2023

Reading group: One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard

Warning: some plot spoil.

Two people had recently recommended this book to me, and the group took up my suggestion that we read it. Set in the north-Welsh quarry town of Bethesda in the mid 1910s and portraying, apparently through the eyes of a young boy, the terrible hardships experienced by the population, it was first published, in Welsh, in 1961. Earlier work by Prichard's contemporary Caradog Evans had been disliked in Wales for similarly revealing the hardships and corruptions of rural Welsh life, but One Moonlit Night was apparently warmly received and very popular in Wales. However, an English translation did not appear until 1995, receiving a boost in 2014 when the English-language Welsh Arts Review, in a move to celebrate Welsh literature and help to create a Welsh canon, offered 25 books for public vote, and One Moonlit Night was the winner.

We were all certainly attracted to read the book the moment we saw the arresting beginning:

I'll go and ask Huw's Mam if he can come out to play. Can Huw come out to play, O Queen of the Black Lake? No, he can't, he's in bed and that's where you should be, you little monkey, instead of going around causing a riot at this time of night. Where were you two yesterday making mischief and driving village folk out of their minds?

However, although everyone was very interested to have read it, we did have problems with it.

Commentators, including Jan Morris in an Afterword to the Canongate edition, have expressed the view that this is a work beyond rational analysis, suggesting that this is indeed its appeal. However, I find it hard to read novels without looking for a meaningful pattern, and (as we have discussed before), I think most of the group feel the same. We were all captivated by the voice of the narrator, and riveted by the agonising, grotesque and yet sometimes touching world portrayed, but, since we do indeed read in this way, there was a lot that at the time of our discussion we found confusing and indeed unexplained or unexplainable. However, having looked at the book again more closely in order to write this, it seems to me that there is a rationally intended structure which can be ascertained via rational analysis, and that in fact the book makes much more sense than we felt at the time or than others have allowed. 

Both Jan Morris and Niall Griffiths in a Foreword to the same edition, as well as other reviewers, have taken the book as being told, in Jan Morris's words, 'by a single, unnamed voice'. However Jan Morris does go on to say that it's not quite so simple, since 'although the voice is that of a young boy, sometimes it evidently speaks with the experience of a grown man' (my italics) and she notes that 'three times in the course of the book it is superseded by vatic pronouncements' which she sees as 'of no explicable origin, as though some deus ex machina has intervened.'

This too was how everyone at the meeting, including me, had read the book, and as a result we found the book confusing, and, for me, lacking. (The others were generally more positive than me, since they found fascinating the extent of the hardship with which I - Welsh-born and spending a good deal of time in a north-Welsh ex-quarry village, the history of which I have researched for my own writing - was already familiar.)

I said that I had indeed appreciated the book as an antidote to previous unrealistic romantic representations of rural Wales, but I did have some serious problems with it. Firstly, while I loved the voice with its energetic colloquialism, I had found no discernable story arc or narrative progression, which ultimately made me impatient and a little bored. For a very long time the village and its inhabitants seemed simply to be set out as a tableau, as the boy - who lives with a mother widowed by a quarry accident and thus poverty-stricken and dependent on the parish - first roams the village with his friend encountering its damaged, corrupt and unhappy population, and then walks alone remembering incidents from the past. Secondly - as a result, I thought, of this apparent lack of narrative progression - I became very confused about what happened when, and having lost grasp of the sequence of events, to some extent I also lost interest. Thirdly, I felt there was a obvious error of structure concerning the 'vatic pronouncements'. The first, a four-page lament of archaic poetic language, comes as a shock after the colloquialism of the previous chapters:

I am the Queen of Snowdon, the Bride of the Beautiful One. I lie upon my ascension, eternally expectant, forever great with child and awaiting the hour of his delivery. / My thighs embrace the swirling mists and my breasts caress the low-lying clouds... Though hast enslaved me...

We all felt quite confounded by this. Who or what is the Queen of Snowdon? Who or what is the Beautiful One? What is being referred to by that word 'ascension'? None of us knew, and most said they had skipped these sections, Mark even suggesting that Prichard, who was frequently successful in national eisteddfods, had simply taken the opportunity to insert some of his poetry. It is only later in the book that we will learn the answer to these questions: The narrator relates a walking trip over the mountain with his mother to visit farming relatives; from their fields there is a view of Snowdon in which the slope (presumably the 'ascension') takes the shape of a reclining pregnant woman (forever trapped in place by the mountain itself - the 'Beautiful One'). Without knowing this beforehand, however, we could make nothing of the section in question, which, for readers not steeped in such local lore, makes for a structural error. In any case, there was still a fundamental unanswered question: where does the voice come from? Is it, as Jan Morris suggests, and as it seemed to us, that of some deus ex machina, and why is it there?

Fourthly, a point with which everyone in the group strongly agreed: at the end of the book it appears that the narrator has committed an act which seemed simply entirely unaccountable and unbelievable in the light of what we have experienced of his character, which, as Jan Morris says, is 'engaging ... innocently ready for fun and harmless mischief but precociously tender in his sympathies'. The only explanation is that of madness, on which there is a great stress in this book. Many of the characters, including eventually - and crucially - the boy's mother, with whom he has an especially close relationship, are driven 'mad' by their circumstances, and there are constant references, as in the very first paragraph, quoted above, to people going 'out of their minds'. In the space of the first short chapter and a short afternoon, the boy narrator and his friend Huw encounter a catalogue of damage: the sexual abuse of a class mate, Little Jini Pen Cae, by their beer-stoked schoolteacher, a flasher, epilepsy, domestic violence, the body of a man brought home from the asylum, a woman who, evicted from her house, has shut herself in the coalhouse and is crying like a cat, the dropping down dead of an overworked horse, two men having a fist fight outside the pub, adultery and incest. The chapter ends with this heart-breaking casualness:

And that's all that happened. We weren't anywhere except walking about and I didn't know till this morning ... that Moi's Uncle Owen [the perpetrator of domestic violence and incest] had hanged himself in the toilet and that they'd taken Little Jini Pen Cae and Catrin Jane from Lower Lane to the Asylum.

Later there will be the tragic shunning by the parson of an unmarried mother (the female adulterer); grief as young men of the village disappear off to war and are killed; a marriage foundering on the husband's absence at sea and the wife consequently left dependent on the parish; a dramatic suicide, witnessed by the narrator himself, and in the school toilets of all places; and finally the mental disintegration of the narrator's own mother. 

What sends people 'out of their minds' - an apparent everyday fact of their lives - is, as in that first paragraph, very much at issue. The young boy answers Huw's mother: 

What village folk out of their minds? It's not us that's driving them out of their minds, it's them that are going out of their minds themselves.

 At one point in the latter part of the novel the two young boys seriously discuss the issue. Huw asks:

...I wonder why Will Ellis Porter [the epilepsy sufferer] killed himself?

He'd gone out of his mind, for sure, I said.

Why do people go out of their minds, d'you think?

They lose control of themselves, you know.

 What makes them lose control?

Oh, all kinds of things. Just like you and me get mad sometimes, except they go madder.

They go on to propose various causes, such as Will Ellis Porter's epilepsy, and the drunkenness of others. The real cause, of course, implied though never stated outright in this novel, is the oppression of religion and the conditions imposed by the chiefly English quarry owners - the latter perhaps one reason for the slow uptake of this book in England.

The moon, featured of course in the title, is traditionally associated with madness. At the end of the first chapter the young boy is in bed but can't sleep for the light of the full moon and gets up and watches as the clouds race across it, and it runs as an image throughout the book.

However, to explain the narrator's action as one of madness seemed to all of us a stretch, and I suggested, to the agreement of others, that the problem was that the chirpiness and seeming objectivity (if naivety) of the boy's voice seems to set him apart from everything he observes, at least up to the point that, at the age of ten, he loses his mother to the asylum, and there is no subsequent narrative portrayal of any mental disintegration before his seemingly uncharacteristic act. At the start there seems to be a clear implication that the so-called madness of the people of this village is caused by the social circumstances: the 'madness' of the woman who has shut herself screaming in the coalhouse can be seen as grief and protest at being evicted because she can't pay her rent; little Jini Pen Cae is carted off to the asylum after being sexually abused by the schoolmaster. But when the narrator himself flips so uncharacteristically into what can only be seen as an act of madness, the book seems simply to tip towards the madness it had seemed previously to critique. 

The young boy's voice and character lead Jan Morris to find this a 'sweet-natured' book, which she feels explains its greater popularity than the work of Caradog Evans. Niall Griffiths in his Foreword compares the characters to the 'oddballs' of Dylan Thomas's Under Milkwood and sees some of their antics as 'hugely funny in a League of Gentlemen kind of way'. My own feeling, I told the group, was much more uncomfortable: I felt that the depiction of the characters on the one hand and the high-flown poetic interjections on the other made the book in danger of reinforcing two opposing Welsh stereotypes: the quaintly primitive and the poetically fanciful.

Reading towards the end of the novel before our discussion, I began to realise that as the narrator walks and relates, he is indeed now older - though it wasn't clear to me how much older - and, as a result of the persistent sameness of the voice, this came as a surprise. My main experience of the novel was indeed the 'mistiness' of which Jan Morris writes: 'Sometimes he is one age, sometimes another, and it is both as a boy and as a man that he recalls the tragic circumstances of his childhood... How much is real in the narrative, and how much is hallucinatory we never discover.' We wondered similarly: is he really mad? Did he really commit the act he says he did? Or did he imagine it - and does that in itself indicate madness? At the end of the book, Jan Morris says: old he is, whether he is free or incarcerated, whether he is mad or sane, just about to enter an abyss or recently escaped from one - all these questions are left so mistily unresolved that we wonder whether the author himself ... ever knew the answers.

In other words, she is ready to believe that the author was not in control of his material, but forgives this for 'the sweet pity of it all.'

Having read that Afterword, and settling to write about the novel and our discussion here, I looked more closely and analytically for the points in the novel where these apparent confusions arise. The first chapter consists chiefly of an address to Huw's mother describing what the two boys had got up to the day before. This appears to place us, and the narrator as he speaks, in the time-level of the following day. However, there is already something disorientating, as indicated perhaps by Jan Morris stating, wrongly, that 'where the two were yesterday is to be the ostensible plot of the book', and that 'as the boy wanders the town that day he remembers the events of his life' (my italics). In fact, it is in the 'now' of the following day that the reminiscences begin. Apparently in response to Huw's mother's refusal to let Huw go out to play with him, the narrator begins the next chapter with:

Alright, I'll go for a stroll up Post Lane as far as Stables Bridge to see if I can see Moi [a third boy, their friend].

As he walks up Post Lane, he sees a poster that reminds him of another in the past, prompting the first reminiscence. Yet if we assume that this second day is our framing narrative time level we immediately come up against inconsistencies, which I have to say that on my first reading I didn't notice specifically beyond a slight sense of disorientation. In Chapter One, the boy speaker is living with his mother but here, on the second page of Chapter Two, he refers to her in the past tense: 'Dew, Mam had a good voice.' In Chapter One his mother has 'gone to do the washing at the Vicarage', but in Chapter Two, apparently still walking to look for Moi, he sees the light on in the Vicarage and thinks: 'I used to like going to the Vicarage after school to help Mam with the washing all those years ago.' (my italics.) It is Azariah Jenkins who occupies the Vicarage now, he says, who was preceded by the parson Hughes, who was preceded in turn by the Canon. Later in the book, and on the walk, we will learn that once the Canon died his mother stopped doing the washing at the Vicarage. This places the incidents of the first chapter in the time of the Canon, and thus way in the past, and the only conclusion is that the framing narrative time-level is many years later and the framing consciousness that of the narrator when he is grown. Yet it is hard as one reads to register this, since  at the end of Chapter Two he says:

No point bothering to go over Stables Bridge, even though it is moonlight. There's no sign of Moi and there's no light on in the house

bringing the present-tense voice back to the day after the encounter with Huw's mother. Later we will learn that as a child the narrator, afraid of spirits, always whistled when he went past Stables Bridge, and here he does indeed do that:

I'd better whistle as I pass Stables Bridge, and I'd better keep to Post Lane.

And keep to Post Lane he does, as the entire narrative of reminiscences then takes place over that one walk and, according to the title, on the one moonlit night, along Post Lane.

However, taking this night as that night in childhood is just not possible. Most of what the narrator remembers took place later - the death of Moi from TB, the narrator's mother's descent into madness, his leaving school at the age of fourteen, and his attempt, after his final act, to leave and avoid having to go to work in the quarry. Towards the end of the novel there are hints that a long time has passed. 'This is Robin David's Field,' begins Chapter 10, 'the one on the right here that runs all the way down to the Riverbank.' He recalls incidents that happened there, a near-drowning, a circus and a football match played against an away team. These are described in the lively voice with which the novel began, yet the chapter ends with a sudden change of pace, and a dying fall: 'There's no one playing football on Robin David's field now. Only cattle grazing.' At the end of the book, and the end of Post Lane, the narrator reaches Black Lake. He says. 'Streuth, Black Lake at last. Someone must have pulled this wall down, cos I used to have to climb on top of it to see Black Lake, and now it only comes up to my knees.' It is easy, however, to fail to grasp these shifts, as the overall voice hasn't changed: the narrator appears to continue to speak with the voice of the young boy.

In the course of the novel we learn a lot about the character of Emyr, Little Owen the Coal's Big Brother - more, it struck me when I came to look at the novel again, than I had realised first time round. Emyr is the man whose body has been brought home from the asylum in Chapter One. His mother invites the boys in to view the body, and, although they seem to take much of the grotesquery around them for granted, they are somewhat unnerved by the sight of him. Emyr, the narrator's reminiscences will reveal, is strangely socially maladjusted, rushing indoors if he sees the boys passing the house; he has been seen wearing women's clothes. He sometimes goes missing, and on one of these occasions was found trying to hang himself. One night the boys follow a search party looking for him. To begin with, this is just a bit of an adventure for them, but when they witness him shuffling along Post Lane like a woman, there is something about it that makes them want to hide behind a wall and then go home without telling the search party. Emyr will later be found on his knees in the mud beside Black Lake at the end of Post Lane, his shoes off, and crying for his mother. The boys talk next day about the fact that Emyr was known to interfere, like the schoolmaster, with little girls, and that while he was missing in the night, Little Jini Pen Cae was missing too and next morning was found lying asleep in the wood. It is after this that Emyr is taken to the asylum.

It was on my second look at the book that the significance of Emyr's walk to the Black Lake struck me. As he talks to us, the narrator is in fact following in his footsteps. When he gets to the corner where the boys hid to watch Emyr pass, he says to himself:

Good God, watch yourself in case there are any little devils behind that bank round the corner, watching you and thinking you're going out of your mind (my italics).

He speculates then about what Emyr was seeing as he walked, and, as he too walks, he sees the same view. He wonders if Emyr could hear the Voice - that is, the voice of The Holy Ghost which the narrator's mother told him people heard during the Welsh Christian Revival when she was young. And then - I realised on my second reading - that, although it's not at all immediately clear, since several reminiscences and three chapters intervene, he hears the Voice for himself.

Is this the Voice, I wonder? Or is it just the wind blowing through Adwy'r Nant?

And what he hears is not simply the conventional voice of the Holy Ghost, but a Celtic lament, the lament of Snowdon, of the land and its people 'squirm[ing] beneath the boot of the oppressor.' This is no deus ex machina after all: it comes from the mind of the narrator. And it is a mind oppressed and deranged: the narrator is paralleling Emyr, not simply in his walk along Post Lane, but in his mental disintegration. At Black Lake, like Emyr, he gets down onto his knees and takes off his shoes. His mental breakdown becomes apparent: looking down at the lake he says,

They might be all down there, for all I know. Huw and Moi and Em and Gran and Ceri and everybody. Ah, a wonderful thing it would be if I saw Mam coming up out of the lake now and shouting: Come here you little monkey. Been up to mischief with that old Huw again.

And like, Emyr, he calls on his mother.

Just prior to this, in a kind of rushed ending to his reminiscences, we have learnt that the final act he made as a fourteen-year-old before trying and failing to leave the town involved Little Jini Pen Cae, just as did Emyr's before he was incarcerated in the asylum. Once the parallels are mapped, it is hard to ignore the implication: we are listening to someone who has been incarcerated, who indeed, due to the nature of that act, is likely still to be incarcerated, and making those parallels for himself, so that the 'present' walk up Post Lane is taking place in his own fevered brain.

This would explain those 'misty' slips between time levels: they are the confusions of a disordered mind. I am sure, having looked closely at the novel, that they are consciously calculated by the author to link the young boy of the beginning to his grim fate of disintegration. (I think our group did have some intuition of this, as both Ann and Doug and I said that we hadn't found the set-piece episodes, such as a boxing match, as funny as other commentators have.) After all, the imagery of madness and confusion is in fact planted at the end of the first chapter. As the boy looks out from his bedroom window:

...the moon was zooming through the sky over Pen Foel Garnedd. / No, you silly fool, I said to myself, it's the clouds that are moving, not the moon... 

And that address that begins the novel, 'O Queen of the Black Lake', made apparently to Huw's Mam and apparently with quaint boyish cheekiness,  is in fact the internal cry of an agonised protagonist who will kneel shoeless by the lake and once more hear the Voice. It is now the voice of the Queen of the Black Lake, and her pronouncements are  interspersed by snippets of his mother's voice - Pass me that pot from under the bed . The lament has turned darker: 'My kingdom is the grievous waters that lie beyond the ultimate sorrow'. 

The structure, therefore, is not formless after all as I thought, and the overall voice, rather than simply that of a naive young boy as it has been taken, is a highly sophisticated one, a complex of voices taking place within the memory and imagination of the grown and mentally disturbed protagonist. A clue to this is perhaps the fact that no speech marks are used for the dialogue: the speeches are not meant as replications of what was actually once said, but they are voices remembered and alchemised within the narrator's head. 

'It was a moonlit night just like tonight,' he says of the night the boys saw Emyr shuffling up Post Lane. But although there seem to be several moonlit nights slipping at times one into another - that night of the search for Emyr, the night after the day the two young boys roam the town together, the following night when the narrator goes looking for Moi after being turned away by Huw's mother, and another night long afterwards - they are all encompassed, as the title indicates, by the one moonlit night on which he remembers and imagines it all.

The problem is that all of this is not immediately obvious: there are not enough clues for readers to know how to read this novel and separate the narrator's confusions and loss of control from the intention and control of the author. And even if we see it, there is still I think a problem of credibility. The dominance and persistence throughout of the light, lively and sympathetic voice of a young boy may be meant as an illustration of infantilisation through oppression, but, along with the lack of any portrayal of mental breakdown between the incarceration of the narrator's mother and his terrible act at the age of fourteen, it makes it is hard to believe in the act. Nevertheless, in spite of our lack of grasp of it all, Ann said firmly that she was very glad to have read it, and everyone in the room agreed.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Monday, April 24, 2023

Reading group: What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

Here's the last of my three belated reading group reports:

Doug suggested this short novel which comes garlanded with huge praise and has won several prizes One day the unnamed American male narrator, cruising in the bathrooms of the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, comes across the compelling hustler Mitka, and there follows a tale of unrequited sexual obsession, of overwhelming desire met by hard-headed manipulation, all told in the incantatory prose which has earned the book such admiration.

Unfortunately, our group was not so captivated. Doug began with a slightly  apologetic air (presumably for having suggested the book), immediately referring to the narrator as 'self-pitying', and almost everyone else nodded in agreement. I wouldn't call the narrator self-pitying, but I did agree that the emotion that came over was not so much the narrator's obsession with Mitka as the narrator's obsession with himself. It was in fact hard to see what is attractive about Mitka: he's thoroughly amoral and self-centred, and is clearly using the narrator's obsession with him to get what he can; we are treated to physical descriptions of him and of their sexual encounters, but these seem plainly, even sometimes mechanistically told: there is little imagistic or metaphorical element in these descriptions to create any emotional dimension the reader can share. Yet the prose otherwise rings with a deep emptiness of yearning, and the overall focus is the narrator's own more general emotional state. 

While there was an initial tendency in the group to dismiss the novel for this, people became more positive as we turned our attention to the second of the three parts, which begins when the narrator's English class at the American College is interrupted by news from home. This prompts an agonised avalanche of memories of a rejecting, homophobic background: the scenes are horrifying and deeply moving, and I for one was in tears as I read. It's clear from now on that what is propelling the narrator's yearnings and his emotional entrapment in a destructive relationship, and perhaps accounting for any self-obsession, is huge, unquenchable grief.

There is no doubt for me that the prose of this book is brilliant, so I was a bit shocked when Mark complained about its long sentences and lack of paragraphing - there can be pages and pages unbroken by paragraphs. Clare and I hotly objected that this formally encodes the unrelenting obsessiveness of the narrator's mentality, allowing the reader to read in such a way that draws them in to share that mentality. Mark stuck to his guns, pointing out that in Lolita, for instance, another book about sexual obsession, there are paragraphs and sentences of decent length. We said that that was because the sensibility of the narrator in that book is cool and calculated (for most of the book): the prose of any first-person narrator - the language, rhythm and cadence created by those technical structures of paragraphing and punctuation - necessarily reflects their mentality. Mark however insisted that this book was unnecessarily too difficult a read.

There does seem to be a current prejudice against long sentences, possibly affected by the culture of soundbites, but this book I'd say is a great illustration of the power of long sentences. Take this sentence at the very beginning of this book:

Even as I descended the stairs I heard his voice, which like the rest of him was too large for those subterranean rooms, spilling out of them as if to climb back into the bright afternoon that, though it was mid-October, had nothing autumnal about it; the grapes that hung from vines throughout the city burst warm in one's mouth.

There might be a temptation here, for the sake of immediate clarity and ease of reading, to separate this into two sentences, ending the first after the word 'afternoon' and making the description of the afternoon a separate sentence. But the fact that the author does not do this creates a special alchemy: because he doesn't, the October afternoon becomes more closely linked with Mitka, and its apparent promise (its warmth) yet its deceptiveness with him. And there is a clear sexual note to that final image of the grapes bursting in the mouth, linked to the earlier sentence and Mitka by a semicolon, rather than separated with a full stop.

Having begun the meeting on a somewhat negative note, most of the room ended up vigorously defending this book for its wonderful prose.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Reading Group: A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

In February we met at Clare's to discuss this book of her suggestion. It is one of several novels by Barry about the McNultys and the Dunnes inspired by tales of his own Irish family history, and this book is a sequel to the prize-winning Days Without End. The earlier book features Thomas McNulty and John Cole, who meet in America as exiled young men and form a loving relationship while working as cross-dressing entertainers, but then join the US Army and are caught up in the violence of the Indian Wars and the American Civil War. A Thousand Moons takes place when they are much older, after the end of the civil war, but when the defeated confederates are agitating again. It is related by Winona, the young Native American woman the two men adopted as a child after the desecration of her tribe, the Lakota, in which they took part, and who has been brought up and educated by them tenderly and thoughtfully in a loving home. Caught between that old world of nature and the seasons and the world of structures and words (she works as a clerk for the local lawyer), Winona is both lost and saved - 'They both gave me the wound and healed it, which is a hard fact in its way' and has thus the power to tell her own story in a prose that is both imbued with lyrical depictions of nature and straightforwardly colloquial.

Such paradoxes are at the heart of Barry's fiction, and what he is interested in are the complex subtleties and  fluidity of human nature and identity. His ability to ventriloquise a young Native American woman is a supreme case in point, though right at the start of the novel the colonisation of such an approach is acknowledged. 'I am Winona,' she begins the novel by saying, and then goes on to explain that this is not her original name, which was Ojinjintka (meaning 'rose'): the two men couldn't pronounce it, so they called her by her the name of her sister who was killed, Winona. In this way the men have culturally colonised her, but the naming is a remnant and thus acknowledgement of the genocide in which they took part and for which the way they have cared for her is an atonement.

Their household, composed of an ageing homosexual male couple, a young Native American woman and two freed black slaves, Rosalee and her brother Tennyson, is a microcosm of the blended, accepting society against which the factional world around them is set. That factional world soon encroaches: Winona is raped, possibly by Jas, the young white man who wants to marry her (in spite of social disapproval - 'I was just the cinders of an Indian fire in the eyes of the town'), and as the consequences of this unfold, Tennyson is attacked and left brain-damaged. Dressed as a boy for self-protection, Winona sets out on an aborted mission to avenge him, but in the process meets and falls in love with another young Native American woman. Eventually, Jas is found murdered and the innocent Winona is charged and sentenced to death, and the question of how this will end for her makes the final pages thrillingly tense. 

Like others in the group, I couldn't put this book down, and for me it was less for the plot than for Barry's wonderfully lyrical and astute prose, his empathy and insight into all of the characters. Even the most violent characters have their humane moments, providing a moving and unsettling portrayal of the complexity of human cruelty. As for the plot, we found the final revelation, like that in Barry's The Secret Scripture, manipulated and unconvincing, but again this did not spoil our overall admiration. There was only one dissenter: Ann, who surprised the rest of us by saying she hadn't engaged with the book at all, that she wouldn't have finished it if she hadn't had to for the meeting, and that she found it 'wordy'.

I did have one other caveat. The basic message of the book is that love conquers all. Much as I loved the book, and that message, in the light of Tommy Orange's There There which we read previously and which portrays the ongoing legacy of devastation in the lives of Native Americans to this day, I couldn't escape an uncomfortable feeling that to create this one (probably unusual) instance of atonement and redemption made the book potentially unrealistic, even possibly sentimental, and self-justifying. 

We ended with a discussion about the issue of cultural appropriation in fiction raised by this novel. We strongly felt that if it's done well, with respect and empathy, it is acceptable to step into the shoes of others whose experience is outside one's own. After all, the moral potential of fiction lies in its power as an act of empathy (which this book most supremely is). Speaking as someone who has written plays, I would also point out that it would be impossible for a playwright to write simply from their own experience and identity - a playwright just has to put themself in other people's shoes (and minds and emotions). And, as someone commented, if we stuck to our own experience in writing, historical novels couldn't be allowed: Hilary Mantel, after all, wasn't personally at the Tudor court, and her novels set there would have to be cancelled.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Reading group: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

Continuing family matters and catching up with my novel-in-progress after almost two months of illness have gone on keeping me from other things, including the reports of our reading group discussions. I am pleased to say that I have now got to the end of the first, handwritten draft of my novel (I always do the first draft by hand), and now I have a bit of a breather in which to let the whole thing settle in my mind before typing the next (I hope final) draft. This means that at last I can turn to those reports, though I'm afraid that after all this time my memory of the discussions will not be the most detailed, and the reports will therefore probably be brief.

At the end of January we met at Mark's to discuss this new novel by Elizabeth Strout, suggested by Ann. We had all very much liked My Name is Lucy Barton, another concerning the same first-person protagonist (Lucy Barton), and were therefore keen to read this. (In fact Oh William! is the third in the series, which most of us hadn't realised when we chose the book, although it didn't in fact matter that we hadn't read the second.) We were by no means disappointed; in fact we liked and admired this novel even more: we were full of unanimous praise.

In this book, Laura Barton recounts how, while grieving the death of her second husband, she becomes involved in a crisis being experienced by William, her first husband. William's current wife leaves him at the same time that, through family history research, he uncovers an alarming and unsuspected, indeed unlikely-seeming truth about his own mother. This prompts him to feel the need to travel back to Maine, from where his mother came, and Lucy agrees to accompany him. Over the course of these events we are treated to Lucy's reminiscences and meditations, and while little happens in the present time level - although it all leads to a revelation that turns much on its head - the history of Lucy's relationships with both husbands, with her daughters and with William's mother unfolds. And while Lucy's own difficult origins are presented more glancingly than in the previous books, they still movingly underpin the whole novel.

Once again, the thing that most struck us was the way that the plain, easy prose manages to convey huge complexities of emotion and of relationships, to deeply moving effect. The whole experience of reading the book is of being spoken to intimately by someone revealing their deepest reminiscences and thoughts in a conversational, sometimes casually stream-of consciousness manner: 

I think I have mentioned the business about my father because as I was packing for Maine, I thought of William's father...

And another quote: 

I think I have to mention this, although I have said I would not talk about David [her second husband], but I think you should know...

And another: 

I have written about [my own mother] and I really do not want to write anything else about her. But I understand one might need to know a few things for this story.

 However, in spite of this almost rambling, naive-seeming style, the novel is in fact very tightly structured, and the final revelation pulls everything together, bringing all the previously planted clues and indictors into a focussed pattern.

The whole thing seemed so emotionally truthful that some of us felt sure that it must be autobiographical, and this seems to be corroborated by the fact that towards the end there is a discussion between Lucy and another character about the two preceding real-life novels - which in the novel are written by Lucy Barton - and whether she will include the character in her next. However, Clare was sure that it was not autobiographical, and a glance at Elizabeth Strout's biography shows that she did not share the deprived and poverty-stricken background of Lucy's that provides the basic pulse of these novels. Ann made a very interesting and astute suggestion, which was that it is autobiographical in that Lucy Barton is an alter ego for the author. I must say that as a writer that really struck a chord for me: autobiography need not necessarily be characterised by verifiable facts, but can operate on an emotional and psychological level.

In any case, the whole thing seemed extremely real to all of us, and although Mark did then start cavilling about the ending, which he found somehow artificial, no one else agreed with him, and we were very glad to have read the book.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here