Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Patrick Melrose novels, by Edward St. Aubyn

Edward St. Aubyn is the antidote to the BBC depiction of the British aristocracy. Still sighing and swooning after watching your Brideshead Revisited DVDs for the tenth time? The Patrick Melrose novels will snap you out of it.

I first heard of Edward St. Aubyn when Guardian writer Mariella Frostrup interviewed him for her 'Books and Authors' podcast. If his accent hadn't convinced me of his place in the English social hierarchy, his remark about his family owning its estate in Cornwall since the Norman Conquest did the trick. As he talked about his highly autobiographical fiction, riddled with incest, psychological violence and substance abuse, though, he began to sound more like a contemporary Edward Gibbon, documenting the decline and fall of the British Empire. When he read an excerpt, it struck me that he shared Gibbon's droll sense of humour that made the psychological carnage so much more bearable.

Recording family and childhood tragedy with humour is fraught with risk -- get it wrong, and you sound bitterly sarcastic or frivolous and superficial.  Edward St. Aubyn got it right: his wit never trivialises his characters' suffering -- it adds some levity to a tale that might well otherwise be relentlessly black.

In Never Mind, we experience one day in the life of five year-old Patrick.  This is our first introduction to his mother, Eleanor.  (Patrick had been conceived when her husband, David, raped her on a staircase.)
Eleanor Melrose stormed her way up the shallow steps from the kitchen to the drive. Had she walked more slowly, she might have tottered, stopped, and sat down in despair on the low wall that ran along the side of the steps. She felt defiantly sick in a way she dared not challenge with food and had already aggravated with a cigarette. She had brushed her teeth after vomiting but the bilious taste was still in her mouth. She had brushed her teeth before vomiting as well, never able to utterly crush the optimistic streak in her nature...
She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath. All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth. 
Eleanor is the daughter of a wealthy American industrialist; she tries to recall what attracted her to her dreadful husband and concludes that it was a quality that sets British aristocrats apart from the rest of the world.
When she had first met David twelve years ago, she had been fascinated by his looks. The expression that men feel entitled to wear when they stare out of a cold English drawing room onto their own land had grown stubborn over five centuries and perfected itself in David’s face. It was never quite clear to Eleanor why the English thought it was so distinguished to have done nothing for a long time in the same place, but David left her in no doubt that they did...  He was also descended from Charles II through a prostitute.
Eleanor concedes that David was not born a sadist -- he'd been moulded into one by his father.
There had been a time when she admired the way that David became a doctor. When he had told his father of his intention, General Melrose had immediately cut off his annuity, preferring to use the money to rear pheasants. Shooting men and animals were the occupations of a gentleman, tending their wounds the business of middle-class quacks. That was the General’s view, and he was able to enjoy more shooting as a consequence of holding it. General Melrose did not find it difficult to treat his son coldly. The first time he had taken an interest in him was when David left Eton, and his father asked him what he wanted to do. David stammered, ‘I’m afraid I don’t know, sir,’ not daring to admit that he wanted to compose music. It had not escaped the General’s attention that his son fooled about on the piano, and he rightly judged that a career in the army would put a curb on this effeminate impulse. ‘Better join the army,’ he said, offering his son a cigar with awkward camaraderie. 
David, however, had given up his career when he married a wealthy wife, choosing to devote all his energy to making her life a living hell.
He had stopped his medical practice soon after their marriage. At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded. 
David Melrose is an angry, cruel man, always on the lookout for victims. Unfortunately for them, Eleanor and Patrick are the most highly available ones. Just before lunch, David feels a rush of rage overcoming him, and he bellows for Patrick to report to his bedroom, to be punished for some unknown (at least to Patrick) wrong.  St. Aubyn treats the sexual molestation of five year-old Patrick with tremendous skill -- the child essentially has an out-of-body experience, transporting himself into a gecko he watches on the wall as his father abuses him. As for David, he feels perhaps a small pang of guilt, but it doesn't interfere with his hearty lunch, and he justifies his actions as a routine part of his approach to child-rearing.
David’s methods of education rested on the claim that childhood was a romantic myth which he was too clear-sighted to encourage. Children were weak and ignorant miniature adults who should be given every incentive to correct their weakness and their ignorance. Like King Chaka, the great Zulu warrior, who made his troops stamp thorn bushes into the ground in order to harden their feet, a training some of them may well have resented at the time, he was determined to harden the calluses of disappointment and develop the skill of detachment in his son. After all, what else did he have to offer him? 
In the late afternoon, guests begin to arrive at the estate for dinner, retiring to guest rooms to rest, bathe and dress. David's friend Nicholas is one of the few who can keep up with his acerbic wit, having shared the same privileged upbringing and education. Nicholas' latest squeeze is a bit of a rough girl, but Bridget is shrewd in her own way.  The two of them wander in and out of the subsequent novels, but not together. After spending a few minutes on a page with David and Nicholas, Bridget feels like a breath of fresh air, just a wee bit cloudy with pot smoke.
Bridget looked critically at Nicholas’s body as he clambered to his feet. He had got a lot fatter in the past year. Maybe older men were not the answer. Twenty-three years was a big difference and at twenty, Bridget had not yet caught the marriage fever that tormented the older Watson-Scott sisters as they galloped towards the thirtieth year of their scatterbrained lives. All Nicholas’s friends were such wrinklies and some of them were a real yawn. You couldn’t exactly drop acid with Nicholas. Well, you could; in fact, she had, but it wasn’t the same as with Barry. Nicholas didn’t have the right music, the right clothes, the right attitude. She felt quite bad about Barry, but a girl had to keep her options open. The thing about Nicholas was that he really was rich and beautiful and he was a baronet, which was nice and sort of Jane Austeny.

At the beginning of the second novel, Bad News, the adult Patrick receives word of his father's death. That's the good news. The bad news becomes evident as he packs for the trip to New York to collect his father's ashes, checking to be sure he's remembered all the right stuff -- Qaaludes, cocaine, sleeping pills -- all the while thinking if or when he might score some good heroin.  As  often as he tells himself that he won't do it, won't touch the heroin this time, it becomes clear that it's taken ownership of him.
No, he mustn't think about it, or indeed about anything, and especially not about heroin, because heroin was the only thing that really worked, the only thing that stopped him scampering around in a hamster's wheel of unanswerable questions. Heroin was the cavalry. Heroin was the missing chair leg, made with such precision that it matched every splinter of the break. Heroin landed purring at the base of his skull, and wrapped itself darkly around his nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favourite cushion. It was as soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon, or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm. The way other people felt about love, he felt about heroin, and he felt about love the way other people felt about heroin: that it was a dangerous and incomprehensible waste of time. What could he say to Debbie? "Although you know that my hatred for my father, and my love for drugs, are the most important relationships in my life, I want you to know that you come in third."
Patrick rings up his trusted NY dealer, a French man named Pierre. No answer. He goes out and scores from his street dealer, Chilly Willy, who, alas, cannot also provide a clean syringe. Chilly's girlfriend grudgingly hands over a used one, warning that the needle is really too big, but it's all she's got. The scene in which Patrick tries to get the drug into his vein -- and misses -- is both a stomach-churning image and a testament to his incredible need. At last he reaches Pierre and sets an appointment to buy some better stuff.
"You score off the street!" barked Pierre disapprovingly."You fucking crazy!"
"But you were asleep."
"You shoot with tap water?"
"Yes," admitted Patrick guiltily.
"You crazy," glared Pierre."Come in here, I show you." He walked through to his grimy and narrow kitchen. Opening the door of the big old-fashioned fridge, he took out a large jar of water. "This is tap water," said Pierre ominously, holding up the jar. "I leave it one month and look!" He pointed to a diffuse brown sediment at the bottom of the jar."Rust," he said, "it's a fucking killer! I have one friend who shoot with tap water and the rust get in his bloodstream and his heart -- " Pierre chopped the air with his hand and said, "Tak: it stop."
"That's appalling," murmured Patrick, wondering when they were going to do business.
Pierre also sells cocaine, which Patrick likes to inject before the heroin.
Unlike Pierre he preferred to take coke on its own until the tension and fear were unbearable, then he would send in the Praetorian Guard of heroin to save the day from insanity and defeat.
I have never used either heroin or cocaine and have no intention of doing so, but I've long felt that "Just say NO to drugs" is a simplistic and ineffectual approach. Many people I talked to in Malaysia viewed drug abuse and addiction as a moral failure, blind to the reasons people turn to narcotics and stimulants.  I would like to assign all these folks to read Bad News.  I've yet to find anyone who can relate the wonders and the horrors of heroin better than Edward St. Aubyn.
Taking no risks, he stuck the spike into a thick vein in the back of his hand. The smell of cocaine assailed him and he felt his nerves stretching like piano wires. The heroin followed in a soft rain of felt hammers playing up his spine and rumbling into his skull. He groaned contentedly and scratched his nose. It was so pleasurable, so fucking pleasurable. How could he ever give up? It was love. It was coming home. It was Ithaca, the end of all his storm-tossed wanderings. He dropped the syringe into the top drawer, staggered across the room, and sprawled on the bed. Peace at last. The mingling lashes of half-closed eyes, the slow reluctant flutter of folding wings; his body pounded by felt hammers, pulses dancing like sand on a drum; love and poison evacuating his breath in a long slow exhalation, fading into a privacy he could never quite remember, nor for a moment forget. His thoughts shimmered like a hesitating stream, gathering into pools of discrete and vivid imagery. He pictured his feet walking through a damp London square, his shoes sealing wet leaves darkly to the pavement. In the square, the heat from a heap of smouldering leaves syruped the air, and billows of yellow smoke skewed the sunlight like a broken wheel, its spokes scattered among the balding plane trees. The lawn was littered with dead branches, and from the railings he watched the sad and acrid ceremony, his eyes irritated by the smoke.

In the aptly titled third novel, Some Hope, Patrick seems to have kicked his drug habit, and as he did in the first two books, St. Aubyn focuses on one episode. This time it's a lavish birthday party, which is gathering the nobility, the aristocracy, and the affluent from all over England.  While en route to the country estate with his friend, Johnny, Patrick discloses for the first time the abuse his father meted out during his childhood. Johnny listens and responds sympathetically, but when he starts to mingle with the party guests, Patrick realises that he cannot demonise his father entirely. At least not in these social circles.
"Do you know, it's a funny thing," he went on in a more serious tone, "hardly a day passes without my thinking of your father."
"Same here," said Patrick,"but I've got a good excuse."
"So have I," said Bunny."He helped me at a time when I was in an extremely wobbly state."
"He helped to put me into an extremely wobbly state," said Patrick.
"I know a lot of people found him difficult," admitted Bunny, "and he may have been at his most difficult with his children -- people usually are -- but I saw another side of his personality. After Lucy died, at a time when I really couldn't cope at all, he took care of me and stopped me drinking myself to death, listened with enormous intelligence to hours of black despair, and never used what I told him against me."
"The fact that you mention his not using anything you said against you is sinister enough."
"You can say what you like," said Bunny bluntly, "but your father probably saved my life." He made an inaudible excuse and moved away abruptly...
Even when he had gone to New York to collect his ashes, Patrick had not been completely convinced by the simple solution of loathing his father. Bunny's loyalty to David made Patrick realize that his real difficulty might be in acknowledging the same feelings in himself. What had there been to admire about his father? ... All of David's virtues and talents had been double-edged, but however vile he had been he had not been deluded, most of the time, and had accepted with some stoicism his well-deserved suffering. It was not admiration that would reconcile him to his father, or even the famously stubborn love of children for their parents, able to survive far worse fates than Patrick's...
Simplification was dangerous and would later take its revenge. Only when he could hold in balance his hatred and his stunted love, looking on his father with neither pity nor terror but as another human being who had not handled his personality especially well; only when he could live with the ambivalence of never forgiving his father for his crimes but allowing himself to be touched by the unhappiness that had produced them as well as the unhappiness they had produced, could he be released, perhaps, into a new life that would enable him to live instead of merely surviving. He might even enjoy himself. Patrick grunted nervously. Enjoy himself?
In the same reflective mood, Patrick considers his mother, Eleanor, who was completely unequipped to deal with her husband's cruelty, never mind protecting their son from his depradations.
It would probably be better if women arrested in their own childhood didn't have children with tormented misogynist homosexual paedophiles, but nothing was perfect in this sublunary world, thought Patrick, glancing up devoutly at the moon which was of course hidden, like the rest of the sky during an English winter, by a low swab of dirty cloud. His mother was really a good person, but like almost everybody she had found her compass spinning in the magnetic field of intimacy.
Some Hope, however, is not consumed with Patrick's contemplation of his hellish childhood. St. Aubyn has gathered all the great and the good to this one over-the-top party so that he, like Waugh and Wilde before him, can poke fun at them.  In a bold bit of lèse-majesté, he even brings Princess Margaret to the table and mocks both her hauteur and the toadying of the other guests. Patrick's friend Johnny is unruffled, which in turn irks "PM".
"And who are you?" she asked Johnny in the most gracious possible manner. "Johnny Hall," said Johnny, extending a hand. The republican omission of ma'am, and the thrusting and unacceptable invitation to a handshake, were enough to convince the Princess that Johnny was a man of no importance. "It must be funny having the same name as so many other people," she speculated. "I suppose there are hundreds of John Halls up and down the country."
"It teaches one to look for distinction elsewhere and not to rely on an accident of birth," said Johnny casually.
"That's where people go wrong," said the Princess, compressing her lips, "there is no accident in birth." She swept on before Johnny had a chance to reply...
"Jesus," sighed Anne, surveying the room, "what a grim bunch. Do you think they keep them in the deep freeze at Central Casting and thaw them out for big occasions?"
"If only," said Patrick. "Unfortunately I think they own most of the country."

As the evening wears down, however, Patrick realises that the storied stiff upper lip of the British aristocracy is not simply a testament to great inner strength but also to a developed callousness that is passed on to subsequent generations.  Patrick's father, David, had suffered and survived, and so, Patrick tells a friend, he simply continued in the traditional belief that a brutal upbringing would only improve his son.
"What impresses me more than the repulsive superstition that I should turn the other cheek, is the intense unhappiness my father lived with. I ran across a diary his mother wrote during the First World War. After pages of gossip and a long passage about how marvellously they'd managed to keep up the standards at some large country house, defying the Kaiser with the perfection of their cucumber sandwiches, there are two short sentences: 'Geoffrey wounded again', about her husband in the trenches, and 'David has rickets', about her son at his prep school. Presumably he was not just suffering from malnutrition, but being assaulted by paedophiliac schoolmasters and beaten by older boys. This very traditional combination of maternal coldness and official perversion helped to make him the splendid man he turned into, but to forgive someone, one would have to be convinced that they'd made some effort to change the disastrous course that genetics, class, or upbringing proposed for them."

The fourth novel in the series, Mother's Milk, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2006. In it, we return to the child's point of view, but this time it's Patrick's first son, Robert.  Patrick's wife, Mary, has devoted herself entirely to motherhood, giving all her attention to their sons, Robert and the younger Thomas, leaving Patrick feeling neglected. Patrick, however, has his own maternal concerns: His own mother has decided to will the lovely French house in which Patrick grew up to a new-age foundation that will be run by a shifty Irish conman named Seamus. While Patrick rages, Robert finds the whole affair bewildering.
He loved it down here at his grandmother's house. His family only came once a year, but they had been every year since he was born. Her house was a Transpersonal Foundation. He didn't really know what that was, and nobody else seemed to know either, even Seamus Dourke, who ran it. "Your grandmother is a wonderful woman," he had told Robert, looking at him with his dim twinkly eyes. "She's helped a lot of people to connect."
"With what?" asked Robert.
"With the other reality."
Sometimes he didn't ask grown-ups what they meant because he thought it would make him seem stupid; sometimes it was because he knew they were being stupid. This time it was both.
Eleanor, Patrick's mother, is increasingly susceptible to Seamus' schemes as her mind slips away and her speech fails her (as it always had).  Patrick, Mary and the boys come to visit her in the nursing home, and as they drive home, Robert is the silent witness in the back seat to his father's tumultuous feelings.
"I thought Eleanor did very well," said his mother. "I was very moved when she said that she was brave."
"What can drive a man mad is being forced to have the emotion which he is forbidden to have at the same time," said his father. "My mother's treachery forced me to be angry, but then her illness forced me to feel pity instead. Now her recklessness makes me angry again but her bravery is supposed to smother my anger with admiration. Well, I'm a simple sort of a fellow, and the fact is that I remain fucking angry," he shouted, banging the steering wheel.
On a family trip to visit Eleanor's wealthy relatives in the United States, Patrick's anger at his mother bubbles through at every turn. Unlike his own father, Patrick doesn't take out his rage directly on his sons, but his bitterness still splatters them.
"I liked the Park," said Robert.
"The Park's nice," his father conceded,"but the rest of the country is just people in huge cars wondering what to eat next. When we hire a car you'll see that it's really a mobile dining room, with little tables all over the place and cup holders. It's a nation of hungry children with real guns. If you're not blown up by a bomb, you're blown up by a Vesuvio pizza. It's absolutely terrifying."
"Please stop,"   said Robert.
As he sees the wealth enjoyed and stewarded by his mother's family in America while Eleanor is passing her own inheritance to a dodgy charity is more than Patrick can bear.
Beyond the wood they passed a hangar where huge fans, consuming enough electricity to run a small village, kept agapanthus warm in the winter. Next to the hangar was a hen house somewhat larger than Patrick's London flat, and so strangely undefiled that he couldn't help wondering if these were genetically modified hens which had been crossed with cucumbers to stop them from defecating. Beth walked over the fresh sawdust, under the red heat lamps, and discovered three speckled brown eggs in the laying boxes. Every plate of scrambled eggs must cost her several thousand dollars. The truth was that he hated the very rich, especially since he was never going to be one of them.
Of course the wealthy in the United States have their own woes -- perhaps slightly different than those stinging their British counterparts. Patrick's wife, Mary, tries to locate his cousin Sally at one of her many residences.
When she rang Sally there was no answer in Long Island. Eventually she found her in New York. "We had to come back to the city because our water tank burst and flooded the apartment downstairs. Our neighbours are suing us, so we're suing the plumbers who only put the tank in last year. The plumbers are suing the tank company for defective design. And the residents are suing the building, even though they're all on vacation, because the water was cut off for two days instead of two hours, which caused them a lot of mental stress in Tuscany and Nantucket."
"Gosh," said Mary. "What's wrong with mopping up and getting a new water tank?"
"That is so English," said Sally, delighted by Mary's quaint stoicism.

And then, At Last -- the fifth and final novel, in which Eleanor has died, and the usual suspects gather for her funeral.  Nicholas, the snide family friend whom we first met in Bad News, turns up.  He reminisces with Nancy, Eleanor's sister, as she recalls her own mother's property acquisition skills.

"But you can't pretend that your mother was a fan of the common man. Didn't she buy the entire village street that ran along the boundary wall of the Pavillon Colombe, in order to demolish it and expand the garden? How many houses was that?"
"Twenty-seven," said Nancy, cheering up. "They weren't all demolished. Some of them were turned into exactly the right kind of ruin to go with the house. There were follies and grottos, and Mummy had a replica made of the main house, only fifty times smaller. We used to have tea there, it was like something out of Alice in Wonderland." Nancy's face clouded over. "There was a horrible old man who refused to sell, although Mummy offered him far too much for his poky little house, and so there was an inward bulge following the line of the old wall, if you see what I'm saying."
"Every paradise demands a serpent," said Nicholas.

Nancy herself married well and carried on in the lifestyle to which she'd become accustomed.  To which, in fact, she couldn't seem to do without.
When the Crash came, lawyers flew in from America to ask the Craigs to rack their brains for something they could do without. They thought and thought. They obviously couldn't sell Sunninghill Park. They had to go on entertaining their friends. It would be too cruel and too inconvenient to sack any of the servants. They couldn't do without the house in Bruton Street for overnight stays in London. They needed two Rolls-Royces and two chauffeurs because Daddy was incorrigibly punctual and Mummy was incorrigibly late. In the end they sacrificed one of the six newspapers that each guest received with their breakfast. The lawyers relented. The pools of Jonson money were too deep to pretend there was a crisis; they were not stock-market speculators, they were industrialists and owners of great blocks of urban America. People would always need hardened fats and dry-cleaning fluids and somewhere to live.
Because Patrick seems too muddled and conflicted to manage it, Mary arranges Eleanor's funeral, doing her keep it in line with what Eleanor might have wished. Alas, the result is not what most of the mourners would have liked.  Nancy, for one, is abjectly unimpressed with the whole affair.
All these readings from the Bible were getting on Nancy's nerves. She didn't want to think about death -- it was depressing. At a proper funeral there were amazing choirs that didn't usually sing at private events, and tenors who were practically impossible to get hold of, and readings by famous actors or distinguished public figures. It made the whole thing fun and meant that one hardly ever thought about death, even when the readings were exactly the same, because one was struggling to remember when some tired-looking person had been chancellor of the exchequer, or what the name of their last movie was. That was the miracle of glamour. The more she thought about it, the more furious she felt about Eleanor's dreary funeral. Why, for instance, had she decided to be cremated? Fire was something one dreaded. Fire was something one insured against. The Egyptians had got it right with the pyramids. What could be cosier than something huge and permanent with all one's things tucked away inside (and other people's things as well! Lots and lots of things!) built by thousands of slaves who took the secret of the construction with them to unmarked graves. Nowadays one would have to make prohibitive social-security payments to teams of unionized construction workers. That was modern life for you. Nevertheless, some sort of big monument was infinitely preferable to an urn and a handful of dust.
Read as fiction, the Patrick Melrose novels are a marvel. Reading them as slightly fictionalised autobiography, I marvel that Edward St. Aubyn survived the effects of his childhood, and what's more, seems to have broken out of the family mould. I suppose writing these books was both catharsis and revenge, and I hold him in equal parts brilliant and heroic.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sloth and torpor

The internet is conspiring to scold me today. Over the past few months, I haven't been reading as much as I normally do. Sure, studying Khmer for several hours each week takes some time away from my Kindle, but I could still read more than I do.

I feel guilty about this, because I have mountains of excellent books at hand.  I'm not wasting my time reading rubbish.

I am just spending too much time sitting at the computer.  Too much time, in fact, looking at cute cat pictures which in turn chastise me for not reading good books.

Discipline! What I need is discipline. It wouldn't hurt to have a sad-eyed black cat like the Bear (above) instead of my resident voluptuary, Crumpet, who considers napping the highest form of self-improvement.

No more excuses -- I will finish the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn by the end of this week. I love reading, and these books are superb. It's pure laziness on my part. Switching off the computer now.  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Change of Climate, by Hilary Mantel

I am still waiting to encounter the book by Hilary Mantel that leaves me anything less than awestruck.

One of the countless subjects she handles very astutely is the expatriate experience. In Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, she brought me as close as I ever wish to get to living as a foreigner in Saudi Arabia.  In A Change of Climate, the story shifts back and forth between Norfolk, England and Africa -- specifically South Africa, where apartheid was still new in the early 1950s, and then Bechuanaland (now Botswana).

Mostly, though, this is a book about family chemistry, in which secrets are powerful catalysts, having indirect effects on those who don't know them and often corrosive effects on those who keep them.

Ralph Eldred wants to attend university to pursue his passion for geology -- specifically fossils -- but his father, a Bible literalist, forbids it, insisting that Darwinism is atheism by another name. Making scant headway with his determined son, the patriarch delivers a threat:  Persist in this endeavour, and I shall pull your sister, Emma, out of her studies at medical school. Ralph capitulates, though few (and certainly not his beloved sister) understand the reason why.

The story jumps ahead to Ralph's middle years; he and his wife, Anna, have returned from their missionary postings in Africa to Norfolk, where they're living in a rambling, ramshackle house with their four children. Ralph manages a charitable trust, and the young, old, addled and addicted clients of the trust frequently land in the Eldreds' home for a period of time. Eldest daughter Kit, aged 10, upon finding one of them ineffectually slicing her wrists over the kitchen sink, simply goes for the first-aid kit, and disinfects and bandages the woman's shallow knife cuts. Although the woman clearly has psychological problems, Ralph places her into his category of "Good Souls".  It's small wonder that Ralph's children frequently commented that they lived with a saint.
And this was how the world was divided, when Kit was growing up—into Good Souls and Sad Cases. There was no wickedness in it.
Meanwhile, Ralph's wife, Anna, attends the funeral of the local estate agent, Felix Palmer. Nearly everyone in the area knew that Felix had been carrying on for years with Ralph's sister, Emma. Felix's wife, Ginny, knew it. Anna and the children knew it. Only Ralph was in the dark. But it's a funeral, and everyone maintains a semblance of propriety, as Anna makes clear to her older son, Julian, when she returns home.
Anna went into the kitchen. Julian had heard her come in, and was setting out cups for tea.
 “How did it go?”
 “It went well, I suppose,” Anna said. “We buried him. The main object was achieved. How do funerals ever go?"
 “How was Mrs. Palmer?”
 “Ginny was very much herself. A party of them were going back to the house, for vol-au-vents provided by Mrs. Gleave.” Anna made a face. “And whiskey. She seemed very insistent on the whiskey. If you’d have asked for gin—well, I don’t know what!”
Julian reached for the teapot. “Nobody would have gin, would they, at a funeral?”
“No, it would be unseemly,” Anna said. Mother’s ruin, she thought. The abortionist’s drink. A mistress’s tipple. Flushed complexions and unbuttoned afternoons. 
Then Mantel takes us back to the beginning of Ralph and Anna's marriage, when they accept a missionary posting in South Africa. They seem neither giddy and idealistic nor pious. They seem more than anything to want to be away from Norfolk. Upon arriving in Cape Town, they have an audience with the weary and elderly archbishop.
“Do you also not feel equal to it?” the archbishop inquired.
“I am not sure anyone could be.” This was a good answer.
“Well, I know I am not,” the archbishop said. “There are two things—no, three things—I ask of you, particularly. Try not to despise your opponents; try not to hate them. It will probably be quite difficult for you, but for a Christian the effort is necessary. And try not to break the law. You have not been sent here to get yourselves into the newspapers or the magistrate’s court. I hope you can remember that.”
“The third thing?” Ralph said.
“Oh yes. When you write home to England, ask your people not to make hasty judgments. It is a complicated country, this. I comfort myself that there is little real wickedness in it. But there is so much fear, fear on all sides. Fear paralyzes the sympathies, and the power of reasoning. So it becomes a kind of wickedness, in the end.” The archbishop looked up, nodded. The interview was over.
There it is again. "...ask your people not to make hasty judgments... there is little real wickedness in it." Withhold judgment.  Anna and Ralph will hear this again from the Boer police who arrest and deport them -- You don't understand; this is a very complicated situation. It's true that they are foreigners, new to the country, but it's also patently obvious that the ruling white South Africans are using power oppressively and corruptly. By taking a stand, Ralph and Anna find themselves arrested, disgraced and deported to the backwater known as Bechuanaland.  And that is where the real tragedy strikes them.

Years later, Anna and Ralph are re-settled in Norfolk, Ralph running the trust that his uncle founded, and Anna trying to hold the house and their four teen-aged children together. Two of them, Kit and Robin, reflect on sharing a home with "saints".
“But do you know what I mean? Mum works so hard to keep the house going, with that furnace to be fed, and that demented twin-tub, and that antique Hoover. All Dad does is bring home hulking great hallstands from Yarmouth, and then beam on us like Jehovah and think he’s done his duty by us. Don’t you ever wonder why we have to be good all the time, why we have to have such tender consciences, why we have to have these Visitors every summer?”
“We’ll be getting some new Visitors soon,” Robin said. “Morlocks, Yahoos, slags, and tarts.”
“Why can’t we be normal, and self-absorbed, and acquisitive?” 
Anna and Ralph, however, are not saints. They coped (or failed to cope) in very different ways with the horrifying incident in Africa. It becomes clear to the reader (if not always to the characters)  that the residue of that experience will colour the rest of their lives. Anna, especially, stores a great reservoir of bitterness. In a rare outburst, she airs her unsaintly thoughts on what they sacrificed on that mission.
"I wish we had never left England. I do not believe that any good we have done here can compensate for a hundredth part of what we have suffered, and for what we will suffer as our lives go on. It seems to me impossible that we will ever lead lives like other people, or that anything ordinary and normal and safe will ever be within our reach again."
Not long after their return, Ralph and Anna sit down with Uncle James, the founder of the trust which Ralph will manage. Anna's twin senses of rage and isolation are palpable, and I can't think of many writers who could express them as deftly as Hilary Mantel.
When Ralph and Anna returned to England they began at once upon the business of finding a house. Practical considerations would not go away; there were decisions to make. Anna had talked only briefly, grudgingly, about her missing child. What was the point of talking? she asked. No one could share her feelings. No one could enter into them.
“Anna, don’t injure yourself more,” James said. “There is a thing people do—when they have been hurt, they hurt themselves again, they compound the damage. Don’t become bitter. That’s all I ask.”
“It’s a great deal to ask,” Ralph said.
“Next, James,” Anna said, “you’ll be asking me to forgive.” A kind of hard jauntiness had entered her voice; it was her usual tone now.
“No, I wouldn’t ask that. Not yet.”
“Good,” Anna said. “I am not up to the effort.”
“If you could think,” James said, “that there are some things that God does not control or will, then you could ask God for comfort … but it’s very difficult, Anna.”
“It’s impossible,” she said. “I asked God for comfort when I came home to Elim [South Africa] every night, and saw these beaten people waiting for me on the stoep—but God kept very quiet, James. God did nothing. It was up to me to do something, but I acted within constraints—I tried to be good, you see, I felt the love of God biting into my wrists like a pair of handcuffs. So what did I offer these people? Bandages and platitudes. Suppose my training had been different? I might have stepped on the train to Cape Town with a revolver in my bag, I might have shot Dr. Verwoerd—then I might have done some good in the world. Now, James—when I had in the room with me the man who was going to kill my child—when I had in my hand a broken bottle, suppose I had drawn the edges across his eyes? Suppose I had sliced his eyes to ribbons, suppose I had severed his veins and made him bleed to death? Then I would have done some good in the world.”
“Anna—” he said. She saw the fear in his face.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You leave me alone, James, and I’ll leave you alone. You don’t come at me with your theology, and I won’t stop Ralph doing his job. It was planned that he should take over the Trust, yes? So there’s no reason to change the plan. It doesn’t matter what I think, inside myself. Nobody could imagine or know what I think, inside myself. But I promise you I won’t stand up in church and bawl out that it’s all a sham. We’re professional Christians, aren’t we, Ralph and me? That’s how we make our living. Why should we be poor, when every hypocrite is rich?” No one had seen her cry, not once; not from the beginning. Emma knew right away, when she met them at the airport: “Anna is too angry to cry. She is almost too angry to breathe.”
People who have never lived abroad will tell expatriates that they can't fathom the culture shock of living in a culture vastly different than their own. Few stop to consider, though, that the reverse culture shock can be nearly as profound if and when the expatriate comes back home.
It’s not so easy to return from Africa, even when circumstances are favorable and the return is planned. Hostilities against the cockroach and the ant cease only gradually. A mark on the wall converts itself into a crawling tick, and there is effort and vigilance all the time—it is hard to sit in the fitful English sunshine, in the heat without threat, harmless insects brushing your bare arms. It was more than a year before Anna could bring herself to leave a plate or a cup on a table; after it had been used, she would snatch it away and wash it, to thwart the advancing carpet of crawling greed. “Poor Anna,” people said. “She’s always on the go. She’ll wear herself out, that girl.” The words used about her, the trite kindnesses, had a sting of their own. There had been a tragedy in her life, and no one here had the terms for it. In winter the weight of her clothes oppressed her; wool and shoe leather chafed and cramped and squeezed.
I know other expatriates will empathise with the following passage, knowing all too well the polite and uncomprehending silence of those for whom living in a foreign country is simply unfathomable. A friend of mine announced to her friends in Michigan, US, that she would be volunteering for an NGO in Phnom Penh for two months. Their response:  Collective mute stares followed by a change of topic. She told me today that they never asked her about the experience once she'd returned to Michigan. For Anna and Ralph, their African tragedy makes the conversation even more awkward.
Anna’s parents knew the facts—knew the probabilities, that is— but they settled for not talking about them. They pretended that they were sparing their daughter’s feelings, but really they were sparing their own. Nothing in their lives had prepared them for catastrophe. They worshipped routine; events were dubious matters, and often in bad taste. It was a form of showing off, to have things happen to you. “Of course, it’s terrible, a horrible thing, dreadful,” Mrs. Martin said, “but although I don’t say so, of course, I blame him for taking her there in the first place. He could have had a nice job with his father, there was no need to trail halfway across the globe.” The Martins had spent much of their lives beating the drum for the Christian faith, getting up jumble sales and flower shows so that the dark races could have the benefit of the company of brisk young Englishmen who were familiar with the Psalms and (among other Books) the Book of Job. But they did not expect to have one of these young Englishmen in their back parlor behind the shop, frozen and speechless with misery. They did not expect the Book of Job to have any practical application...

Ralph had feared intrusive questions, but instead there was an indifference that he felt as an insult. He made a discovery, common to those who expatriate themselves and then return: that when he and Anna went abroad they had ceased to be regarded as real people. Out of sight, out of mind. Nobody, even the most generous donor to mission appeals, wanted to hear anything about Africa.
Although Mantel's characters seem to reach an accord to put the horror into storage and get on with life, like so many other dark secrets, it takes on a sinister life of its own, creeping out in dreams, in cringing expressions, in diverted conversations.
After a while they ceased to flinch when a picture of a lost child appeared in the newspapers. Finally the dimensions of the tragedy shrunk; there was a little barbed area in which no one trod, in which the secret was sequestered and locked away. Was it less potent, confined? No: it was more potent, Ralph felt. He dreamt of scrubbing blood away, scrubbing his own blood off a cement floor; but the stain always returned, like the blood in Bluebeard’s room. He understood, then, what the fairy tale means; blood is never wiped out. No bad action goes away. Evil is energy, and perpetuates itself; only its form changes.
Hilary Mantel crafts characters like no one else, but one of the finer ones in this book is the house itself, which becomes an architectural reflection of the family that lives in it -- somewhat disjointed, operating on laissez-faire laws, harboring secrets.
She remembered how she had tried to sell the place, only a couple of years ago. It was a house with no center, she had always felt, no room from which you could command other rooms. Sound traveled in its own way; from one of the attics, you could hear the downstairs telephone quite distinctly, but from nearer rooms it couldn’t be heard at all. The house had its own conduits, sight lines. Sometimes one of the children’s friends had stayed overnight, without her knowing. She didn’t make a practice of searching the rooms, scouring the cupboards and landings for fugitives or stowaways; the house would have its private life, whether she agreed or not. In the morning a parent would telephone, furious or distraught. She would say, “Your child is here to be collected. I make no charge for bed and breakfast.” And then, oblivious to the babble on the line, she would put down the phone. She had not lived her life in a way that attracted sympathy. She had made sure of that. 
Although she gives us moving and profound insights into the lives of these characters, Mantel weaves the same cautionary message throughout the book:  You can't really understand. The South African authorities repeatedly tell Ralph and Anna that no matter how long they stay in the country, the situation is too complex for them to grasp, and so they should neither judge nor meddle in it. Ralph's conservative Christian father, when arguing with his son about why he will not fund a geology degree, says the same thing:  You're young; you're arrogant, and you think you have (or can find through scientific means) all the answers. You can't. The Norfolk residents neither claim nor want any understanding of Africa, nor of what Anna and Ralph experienced there. As the family reaches their crisis point at the book's climax, teen-aged daughter Kit tries to reason with her mother in an attempt to salvage her parents' marriage. And Anna's response?  You know nothing of these matters. You can't possibly understand.

It's true, none of us will ever fully understand what another experiences. That statement, however -- "You don't understand!" -- is a defense mechanism, a barrier.  "...And don't even try" is often the unspoken tag line, leaving the speaker isolated. If we listen and read carefully, though, we can at least gain some insight into the matter. Hilary Mantel has made potential friends and confidantes of her readers, if only her characters could reach out and accept them.

The photo above is by Rebecca Brittain; prints are available for sale here.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Terrorist, by John Updike

If the manuscript for this novel had been submitted anonymously or pseudonymously, it would have perished quietly in the Hamish Hamilton slush-pile. I've read and admired other Updike fiction. For heaven's sake, the man won Pulitzer prizes for two of the Rabbit novels. Terrorist was his last novel, published in 2006, when he was 74. His editor did him a disservice by publishing this book. I think a tactful agreement over cocktails to put this manuscript to rest would have been the best move all round.

Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy lives with his mother, an Irish-American artist, in New Prospect New Jersey, his Egyptian father having bailed out not long after the baby's birth. Ahmad is 18, a high school senior, and a devout student of the Holy Q'uran, as taught by his somewhat oleaginous Yemeni teacher, Shaikh Rashid.

Ahmad is a compelling character, but in the end, one that just doesn't work. He speaks very stiffly and formally, as if English were not his native tongue. He is unwilling to kill insects that cross his path, yet he agrees to martyr himself in a plot that will kill untold numbers of bystanders. He is clearly intelligent and thoughtful, yet he behaves like an automaton where his religion is concerned.18 year-olds can of course be a bundle of inner conflicts, but Updike's Ahmad is fundamentally inconsistent.

The young man's guidance counselor is Jack Levy, a rumpled, dispirited, faithless and middle-aged Jew. Elizabeth is his middle-aged, obese wife, a faithless Lutheran. These people seem to illustrate, at least in Ahmad's mind, what is wrong with America. Well, some of what's wrong with it. There are, of course, millions of other illustrative infidels.

I know it's a small world, and coincidences abound, but according to Mr. Updike, there are about two degrees of separation from Ahmad, if that. Mr. Levy feels compelled to visit Ahmad's home, simply because he feels the boy is not going to achieve his full potential by learning to drive a truck, which his imam has encouraged in favour of a godless university track. (Can you see where that's heading?) I, personally, have never heard of a guidance counselor who makes house calls, but Levy goes one step further and embarks upon an affair with Ahmad's mother.  Even though he doesn't really think much of her paintings.

Meanwhile, his cuckolded, overweight wife, Elizabeth, talks on the phone with her sister. Hermione is the adoring, almost worshipful assistant to the newly appointed Director of Homeland Security. Frumpy and middle-aged, she is nonetheless a stolid trooper, a female Bill Gannon to the Director's Sgt. Joe Friday.

This allusion to Dragnet is not incidental. Did Updike always write such absurdly stilted dialogue? Hermione's weak-kneed adoration of her superior is laughable:  Neither "his powerful, rueful masseters" nor his "thoroughly masculine but beautifully formed brunette brows" does a thing for this middle-aged, frumpy reader, except make me rue the day I read them.
He turns in his black suit from the radiant window looking over the Ellipse and the Mall, trampled meadows where those sheep the citizenry graze in their jogging suits and polychrome shorts and running shoes configured like space ships in 'thirties comic books. "I'm wondering," he confides to Hermione, "if we should put the Mid-Atlantic region back on the orange level of alert." 
"Sir, begging your pardon," she says, "but I talk with my sister in New Jersey, and I'm not sure the people know what to do different as the levels go up."
The Secretary chews this over a moment, with his powerful, rueful masseters, then asserts, "No, but the authorities do. They up their own levels; they have a whole menu of emergency measures in front of them." Yet even as he utters this reassurance he feels irritation -- she can tell by the way his fine eyes narrow under their thoroughly masculine but beautifully formed brunette brows...
"If this thing in New Jersey blows up, there'll be no sitting on fat-cat boards for me. No speaker's fees. No million-dollar advance on my memoirs." It was the sort of confession a man should make only to his wife.
Hermione is shocked. He has come closer to her but has fallen in her estimation. She tells him a shade tartly, trying to recall this beautiful, selfless public servant to himself, "Mr. Secretary, no man can serve two masters. Mammon is one; it would be presumptuous for me to name the other."
I appreciate what Updike was aiming for. We all want to get inside the heads of those who commit suicidal mass murder in the name of their religion. Unfortunately, his effort turned mostly into a farce. Like Hermione, though, it feels presumptuous of me to judge someone of John Updike's calibre. Could I write a better novel? Quite probably not.  And so, although I do feel that this book was an overall failure, I must give credit where it's due. There are passages that have the classic Updike panache.  This one, describing the changes that the post-9/11 security upgrades imposed, and how those changes affected people of different social strata, is nothing short of brilliant.
To the well-paid professionals who travelled the airways and frequented the newly fortified government buildings, it appears that a dusky underclass has been given tyrannical power. Comfortable lives that even a decade ago moved fluidly through circuits of privilege and assumed access now encounter sticking-points at what seem every step, while maddeningly deliberate guards ponder driver's licenses and boarding passes. Where once a confident manner, a correct suit and tie, and a business card measuring two by three and a half inches had opened doors, the switch is no longer tripped, the door remains closed. How can the fluid, hydraulically responsive workings of capitalism, let alone the commerce of intellectual exchange and the social life of extended families, function through such obdurate thicknesses of precaution? The enemy has achieved his goal: business and recreation in the West are gummed up, exorbitantly so.
I bought a hard-cover copy of Terrorist at a book sale in Kuala Lumpur in 2010 or so. It sat on the shelf in my un-air-conditioned office, and because I'd not yet read it, I packed and shipped it to Phnom Penh when I moved in March 2014. I inadvertently killed my Kindle by rolling over on it while I slept, and until I could replace it, I was limited to reading print. Mind you, I adore print books. I have borderline pornographic fantasies about libraries filled with them.

But this is what a book looks like after four (4!) years in the tropics with no climate control.

I have a new Kindle Paperwhite now. I may be disappointed in some of the books I'll read on it in the years to come, but at least they'll be crisp black on pristine white.  

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene

King Cophetua and the
Beggar Maid,
Edwin Burne-Jones (1884)

Maurice Bendrix, Greene's protagonist (and, I suspect, his alter-ego) says this book not a love story, but a story about hatred. Bendrix himself is far from loveable. He fell for Sarah, the wife of Henry, his ostensible friend, but she has abruptly ended their affair, leaving him even more bitter. In his angry, dark voice, though, Bendrix narrates what proves to be a complex and profound love story.

None of the loves in this novel is easy -- each is fraught in its own way. Henry and Sarah have a platonic marriage. Bendrix' friendship with Henry is often astonishing in its depth; his passion for Sarah is peppered with mistrust. He learns that Sarah has in fact left him for someone else. The private investigator he hires, Parkis, (who also falls for Sarah in his own humble way) uncovers that Sarah is now trying to find her way in a turbulent relationship with God.

The novel is set in war-time London, and the darkness, punctuated by bomb blasts and murky with fog, is the ideal backdrop -- so little is clear, so much is intense. Bendrix recalls the first time he met Sarah; he had grudgingly accepted an invitation to a party at Henry's house. His cold, anti-social manner failed to put her off. This was perhaps the first time it's failed him; she saw beyond it.
For one thing, she was beautiful, and beautiful women, especially if they are intelligent also, stir some deep feeling of inferiority in me. I don't know whether psychologists have yet named the Cophetua complex, but I have always found it hard to feel sexual desire without some sense of superiority, mental or physical. All I noticed about her that first time was her beauty and her happiness and her way of touching people with her hands, as though she loved them. I can only recall one thing she said to me, apart from that statement with which she began - 'You do seem to dislike a lot of people.'
Greene devises his interior settings as brilliantly as the drear outside. Rooms can tell us so much about the people who live in them, revealing the best and the worst of character traits.
... when I met Henry it was on Sarah's territory, her haphazard living-room where nothing matched, nothing was period or planned, where everything seemed to belong to that very week because nothing was ever allowed to remain as a token of past taste or past sentiment. Everything was used there; just as in Henry's study I now felt that very little had ever been used. I doubted whether the set of Gibbon had once been opened, and the set of Scott was only there because it had - probably - belonged to his father, like the bronze copy of the Discus Thrower. And yet he was happier in his unused room simply because it was his: his possession. I thought with bitterness and envy: if one possesses a thing securely, one need never use it.
I highlighted the following paragraph not because it was central to the story but because it speaks so aptly about the creative process. Call it a muse, call it a miracle -- flashes of insight just seem to materialise from nothing. Provided, of course, that you sit down at that desk on a regular basis.
So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one's days. One may be preoccupied with shopping and income tax returns and chance conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed, solving problems, planning ahead: one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words come as though from the air: the situations that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse move forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends.
I once read that the opposite of love is not hatred but fear. Greene seems to concur, at least on the point that love and hate can be dangerously similar in appearance.
Hatred seems to operate the same glands as love: it even produces the same actions. If we had not been taught how to interpret the story of the Passion, would we have been able to say from their actions alone whether it was the jealous Judas or the cowardly Peter who loved Christ?
In one of his Easter season sermons, my pastor considered Peter's three denials. This story has always made me miserably uncomfortable. Peter proclaimed to love Jesus and presumably meant it with all his heart, but when pressed, courage failed him. Judas also betrayed Christ -- whether for jealousy, as Greene says, or for silver, who's to say? The difference between them, though, is what they did in their shame:  Judas hung himself. Peter asked forgiveness, and he received it, and that seems to be an essential component of courage and love. Although Bendrix seems unlikely to hang himself in either despair or regret, he doesn't seem open to the idea of mercy -- either earthly or divine.

The private detective manages to pilfer Sarah's diary, and he presents it to Bendrix, who is stunned to realise that Sarah is fighting her own battle with what it means to give and receive love, both earthly and divine.
All today Maurice has been sweet to me. He tells me often that he has never loved another woman so much. He thinks that by saying it often, he will make me believe it. But I believe it simply because I love him in exactly the same way. If I stopped loving him, I would cease to believe in his love. If I loved God, then I would believe in His love for me. It's not enough to need it We have to love first, and I don't know how. But I need it, how I need it.
Bendrix also discovers that Sarah has been consulting a 'rationalist' -- an atheist who delivers impassioned monologues in the park about the fallacy of religious belief. She wants him to convince her that she is deluded. She records in her diary that his certainty has the opposite effect upon her. I think Richard Dawkins has a similar effect on many people -- his vitriolic atheism is no more reasonable than fundamentalist religious views. Rigid, narrow views tend to be fragile and unbalanced.  I admire the fact that Sarah is wrestling with her beliefs and faith throughout the book; Greene never allows her staunch confidence.
I had gone to him to rid me of a superstition, but every time I went his fanaticism fixed the superstition deeper.
After Sarah's death, Henry wants to cremate his late wife's remains, but a priest turns up and asks him to reconsider and to give her instead a proper Catholic burial. Bendrix now seethes with anger at his rival, refusing to admit that He has won.
"Oh no, Henry. She didn't believe in anything, any more than you or me." I wanted her burnt up, I wanted to be able to say, Resurrect that body if you can. My jealousy had not finished, like Henry's, with her death. It was as if she were alive still, in the company of a lover she had preferred to me. How I wished I could send Parkis after her to interrupt their eternity.
Bendrix returns to the tangled braid of love, hate and fear. Sarah had made a leap of faith, of love. The apostle Peter had failed his beloved teacher miserably, but then he did the same. And Maurice Bendrix?
What I chiefly felt was less hate than fear. For if this God exists, I thought, and if even you [Sarah] - with your lusts and your adulteries and the timid lies you used to tell - can change like this, we could all be saints by leaping as you leapt, by shutting the eyes and leaping once and for all: if you are a saint, it's not so difficult to be a saint. It's something He can demand of any of us, leap. But I won't leap.

Friday, July 4, 2014


There comes a point in one's life when one realises that big dreams, glowing aspirations and hard work will only go so far. For me, reading Zadie Smith's review of J. G. Ballard's Crash in this morning's Guardian was just the latest reminder that I am never going to be a literary lion.

This review is the sort of thing I have in mind when I sit down to write every entry, but my posts end up on the kittenish end of the spectrum.   

It opens with Ms. Smith's account of her disastrous meeting with Mr. Ballard aboard a boat full of inebriated English writers, many of whom were pitching plastic chairs into the Thames. My only connection to fine literature is that my late veterinarian-father used to treat Allan Ginsberg's farm animals. 

Smith takes a broad overview of all Ballard's fiction, noting that his gift is to reveal the monstrous in the quotidian: "And Ballard was in the business of taking what seems 'natural' – what seems normal, familiar and rational – and revealing its psychopathology." In the case of Crash, it's our love of cars that becomes pornographic. She goes on to pull in other futuristic and dystopian fiction, noting that Ballard's novel is more subtle, dispassionately crafted with his "medic's eye".  She observes the novel's fine details, but she also places it in the larger universe.

I'll read this review several more times.  If I stare at the lion long enough, carefully enough, maybe -- just maybe -- I can pick up pick up some hints on how she roars.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Reasons She Goes to the Woods, by Deborah Kay Davies

What are little girls made of? 
Sugar and spice 
And everything nice, 
That's what little girls are made of. 

Deborah Kay Davies would like to debunk that little bit of doggerel, thank you very much. Little girls, like little boys, are often horrible creatures, and we forget that and idealise them at our peril.

Pearl is not rotten through and through, of course -- that would also be too simplistic. She refers to her newly-arrived baby brother as 'The Blob', but she later protects him from their mother, who is certifiably mad. Pearl turns to her father, who doesn't cope effectively with either his wife's mental illness or his daughter's obvious Electra complex. When she's out in the woods or the hedgerow with her little friends, Pearl thinks and does things that adults don't want to attribute to nice little beings of sugar and spice.

As the novel opens, I wondered if it was going to be a tribute to a pastoral idyll. This passage alone is more than enough reason to go to the woods!
The weeping willow Pearl is riding dips its neck into a clear, brown stream. Sssshhhh, she whispers, as she pats the bucking trunk and grips with her thighs. Above her, the willow tosses its shaggy arms. Slim, fish-shaped leaves fall past Pearl and plop into the stream. She dangles over to watch and inhales as the slivers of green swim away; the stream's breath smells of bright weeds, frogspawn, lichened pebbles. The water is a dazzling drink. Circular, swirling eyes come and go on its surface. Underneath, worm-thin plants all reach forwards, like hair in the wind. Pearl would love to be a stickleback, or a newt, and have the stream as her home. She climbs out of the tree and joins the tall fern-crowds running down to see the water. As she slips through they slap her with gentle, lemony hands, streaking her with juice. Pearl's shorts and pink sun-top all feel so stupid. She wades into the water, her sandals growing heavy, and waits for the stream to settle. Insects are ticking in the undergrowth. Kingcups glow amongst the fleshy plants along the water's margin. Pearl lies down in a smooth, shallow pool. Her hair entwines with the waving plants, her skin turns to liquid, her open eyes are just-born jewels. She can feel her brown limbs dissolving. Sunlight falls in bars and spots through the trees. As the lovely water laps her ears and throat, moves inside her shorts, slips across her fragile ribs, Pearl grins, thinking she hears laughter, and raises her arms to the just-glimpsed sky. These are some of the reasons she comes to the woods.
Pearl befriends Fee when the feckless little girl agrees to eat Pearl's offering of a mud-pie stuffed with dead insects. Her friendship with the not-so-sweet Honey also involves a lot of mud and mischief, not all of which is harmless fun.
Honey tells Pearl about the baby she used to take out. I love babies, she says, making a thumb-sized mud child and giving it to Pearl. You can do stuff with them, and they can't tell anyone. Pearl crushes the friable brown baby between her palms. Apart from with The Blob, she hadn't thought of that before. Honey puts lumps of mud on each of Pearl's toes, then flattens them out to cover her nails. Pearl shapes a huge, hanging mud nose and fits it on Honey. They stare at each other in the hedge gloom. Honey's wide smile looks odd curving out behind her rough, earth nose. We have a baby in our street, Pearl says, so they clean up and knock on the baby's door. The baby's mother is a friend of Pearl's family. Keep to the paths, she says, tucking a blanket in. We promise, they say. Inside the buggy the pink baby is propped up on a frilly pillow. Pearl and Honey take turns to push. Soon they come to a stile in the hedge. I know, says Pearl, we could easily get this thing over. They manage to lift the buggy up to the top bar of the stile. I'm puffed, Honey says, and sits down. Pearl thinks she can do it alone, but suddenly everything upends. The baby flies out and lands in some nettles like a knot of washing. The trees lean in and a bird trills while they stand, transfixed. Then Pearl vaults the stile, pulls the baby up by her talcy shawls and plonks her back in the righted pushchair. The baby is quivering; about to yell, covered in scarlet nettle stings and dead leaves. Its soiled bonnet is askew. Pearl and Honey hold hands; worst of all, there is a greeny-grey lump growing above the baby's right eye.
The novel follows Pearl from her early childhood through her adolescent and teen years, when her mother's mental health becomes ever more precarious. Like many children who live with a deranged family member, Pearl's intuition grows very sharp. It seems the house itself gives her signals as to what waits within.
Pearl only has to look at her front door to know how it will be inside. The oval window above the letterbox changes colour. Like an eye that's sometimes vacant, sometimes terrified, sometimes blind with rage, the bluey-green glass subtly alters. It's a language Pearl can understand. Once or twice even the brass door handle has told her things.
At once whimsical and deeply disturbing, gorgeously written and provocative, Reasons She Goes to the Woods reminds us of the wonders and the pain of childhood, giving us a new recipe for what little girls are made of.