Thursday, August 13, 2009

Reading group: Changes of Address by Lee Langley

Ann suggested this 1987 novel which she'd enjoyed years ago, narrated by the adult Maggie who is looking back on a late-thirties and early-forties childhood in which she was dragged around India by a scandalous mother exiled and self-exiled from the British colonial community into which Maggie had been born.

Having read it again for the group, Ann said that she was interested in the different things one can take from a novel at different times in our lives. If I'm remembering correctly, she said that the first time she read it, when she was very young, she liked it for the vivid way that the community was depicted, and the echoes it provided of her own expatriate childhood. This time she appreciated that and the portrayal of the mother as she declines into poverty and squalor, but what really struck her was the fact that the novel was about memory, and how far we can trust our memory, as narrator Maggie wonders whether certain memories are her own or have been imposed by her mother. Ann was particularly struck by the narratorial technique of alternating between the first-person past-tense retrospective narration in which these doubts are raised and a historic-present mode of narration grounded in the sensual experience of Maggie the child yet paradoxically cast in the alienating third person illustrating, Ann thought, the mother's alienation from what she calls 'The Child'. Ann also very much appreciated the exploration of the notion of home for expatriates - the idea that there is never just one 'home' and yet nowhere is really 'home' - as did Clare who also spent her childhood abroad, and I who spent my childhood moving around Britain.

I too very much appreciated the theme of the dubiousness of memory - not least because it's the theme of an (as yet unpublished novel) I've written. I was also struck by the double-narration technique, but wasn't quite sure that it worked, or that its purpose was clear. I couldn't help thinking that the third-person narration indicated a certain alienation of the narrator from herself, or at least from her childhood self, either conscious or unconscious on the part of the author, and I wasn't sure what to make of this. Sometimes the narrative slips from one mode to another in mid-section or even -paragraph, and I felt that this indicated a certain lack of authorial clarity of purpose. Indeed, I found that sometimes at such moments and others there was an uncertainty of rhythm and tone. This links perhaps to my main doubt about the book, which was that it read as a memoir rather than as a novel, lacking the kind of shaping that a novel requires. The whole narrative is incredibly linear in the most fundamental way: events occur and characters appear in sequence, each in turn presented vividly, sometimes portentously so that you take them as symbolic or prefiguring future developments, yet then they drop away to be forgotten and overtaken by new, similarly vivid yet transient characters and events, and (while everyone agreed that the book was a very easy read) the narrative has a particularly static feel.

John strongly thought the same, and others agreed. The one dissenter was Trevor, who said that that static quality was what characterized the life the girl was being forced to lead (a life on the move but repetitive, motored only by the selfish mother's repetitive series of sexual liaisons: there's a consequent sense of arrest, exacerbated by the mother's public and sometimes even private underestimation of Maggie's age in order to minimize her own - a factor which makes the adult Maggie uncertain of her own age at various moments when she looks back). In any case, Trevor said, children don't shape their experience: it is to them a linear series of events, none more significant than others.

I'm not sure I agree with that last, but didn't say so because even granting it I didn't agree that that meant that the novel needed to lack shape. John thought that too: he said that a great novelist would find some way of replicating that childhood experience, yet also manage to select and point up for significance. For instance, he said, there was the moment that the child Maggie walks into a mirror. That seemed so symbolic at the time of reading it, yet it is never really used symbolically and indeed the novel appears to replicate the child Maggie's lack of awareness of its symbolic potential. Trevor stuck to his guns that that was acceptable as a replication of her experience, but I said actually it wasn't, precisely because the author provides herself with a narratorial shaping device, ie the retrospective consciousness of Maggie as an adult narrator.

In the light of such apparent authorial uncertainties, the narrator's uncertainties about what she remembers come to be seen as potentially rather those of the author, and the more we discussed the book the more sure we felt that the material was intensely autobiographical and incompletely processed. There is one thing that Maggie is certain about, and that is that her mother treated her inexcusably badly (and as a teenager at the end of the remembered story she cuts herself off from her mother, never to meet her again). This is indeed the one-dimensional way that the novel presents the mother, and I said I found it somewhat odd that, having been a mother herself (something which she makes much of, having vowed to be a different kind of mother), the middle-aged Maggie hasn't come to any understanding of her own mother's position at the time. Only at the very end, prompted by the memory of a remark by the man her mother finally settles down with, does it occur to the narrator Maggie to wonder if maybe her mother wasn't quite the baddie she's always thought her, but a more complex character. I said that the way this felt to me was that this was a thought which had occurred newly to the author, that it was the process of writing the story that had brought her to this conclusion, and that what she really needed to have done then was to go back and redraft the novel taking the notion into account: this may have resolved many of the uncertainties and provided a far more complex character in the mother and a consequently richer story.

Ann said, Well maybe she couldn't, and everyone felt that that must be the truth: that that very cutting off from the mother (if, as it seems, the novel is autobiographical) would make emotional resolution very difficult. John noted that there was a certain avoidance of exploration of emotion in the novel, and while this could be regarded as representing the mores of the time, we felt it ran deeper: for instance, in the scene where for the first time Maggie fights back when her mother tries to beat her, there's a retreat in perspective and tone: To anyone watching, it might look funny: this slow, silent combat, a tableau-vivant - 'The Gladiators' - as the child hangs like a mongoose on the throat of a threshing snake, slowly dragging the woman's head backwards (that coyly jovial tableau-vivant - 'The Gladiators') which indicates an authorial holding-back.

Trevor insisted (repeatedly) that no one could ever come to terms with having had such a mother and I think he was saying that this justified the novel. Also, in spite of his previous comments, he insisted now that it was simply not possible ever to replicate the psychology of a child in writing, because one always comes to it with an adult consciousness (which I don't agree with either), so I'm not quite sure I've got the gist of what he was saying overall.

It was also noted that the India around the characters and the tense political situation of the time were only vaguely indicated in the novel, and while again this could be said to be a function of the self-obsession and isolation of the British characters, there is an unutilized opportunity to deal with them via the adult narrator. There is in fact some perfunctory retrospective comment by the narrator, a kind of wondering realization that momentous things were happening around them of which as a child she had been unaware, but this disjunction is not woven into the fabric of the remembered story in any satisfactory novelistic way.

There was some general talk about the difficulty of writing about experiences close to you, and an acknowledgement of the fact that if you change details like setting etc you can distance your own experience and make it easier to process in writing. That, I said, is what's so cathartic about writing, and we all then agreed that there was something painful about this novel and it didn't feel like catharsis at all.

Then Doug said it was 'a bit girly' - only partly ironically, which made us all hoot with laughter, and then some people went home but some of us stayed and Clare got some more drink, pink fizz, out of the fridge and I am afraid to say I got quite drunk.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

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