Monthly Archives: July 2021

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

It is fitting that gardens play such an important part in this novel, for I read it while relaxing in mine. At last the sweet peas have arrived, the poppies are dropping their petals and the honeysuckle is drooped over the fence like a chatty neighbour.

For the couple at the heart of this novel gardens represent freedom. Jennifer will find her garden in the Sussex countryside, even if she has to battle with her spade against brambles and snails. For James, a country vicar, it is the only place where he can escape the expectations of his sister and his parishioners.

Father

Gardens were important to Elizabeth von Arnim too. Her first novel was called Elizabeth and her German Garden. And who can forget the magical qualities of the Italian castle gardens in The Enchanted April?

Gardens represent freedom, and in opposition is duty. Both Jennifer and James are caught up in duty’s coils.

Jennifer Dodge is already in her thirties but unmarried. She is one of the nearly 2 million ‘surplus women’ of the interwar years. At a time when marriage was the purpose of a woman’s life, the failure of so many women was an important social issue. She promised her dying mother that she would look after her father and so she is bound by a promise and the sense of duty imposed by father. She has spent the years maintaining a household to his liking, and assisting with his well known, but not well-read, books. He is a man of frigid habits. There are no gardens to enjoy at his house in Gower Street, London. 

Richard Dodge diverts from his normal path and marries a young and beautiful girl called Netta. He has done this because his novels have been criticised for being too sensual, so he plans to use up this sensuality in his life and keep it out of his books. This act frees Jennifer from her duty to father and it allows her to set out to find her own cottage with a garden, which she does as soon as they have gone on their honeymoon. (A nice comedic detail is that father plans to take Netta to Norway.)

James is ‘entangled in his own canonicals’ (224). His sister Alice, a mirror image to father, brought him up and is now his housekeeper in the little Sussex village of Cherry Lidgate. She manages everything for him, and manages him through emotional blackmail. It is owing to her annoyance at him that she lets Rose Cottage to Jennifer. But when she sees that there is a danger from her brother being attracted to Miss Dodge she uses all her powers to separate them and to bring him to his senses – as she sees it. She takes him to Switzerland, and while there the hotel manager asks him to provide a Sunday service for the English guests. James realises that he does not wish to be a vicar.

Really it was a terrible, a horrifyingly lonely thing, thought James, gripping his head in his hands and staring at the Bradshaw on his knees, to be all by oneself in the middle of other people’s determinations and conventions, and having to behave as though they were one’s own, having to put on one’s surplice every Sunday and talk as if one agreed, and talk as if one upheld, when all one wanted – (224)

Alice has a very annoying habit of saying, ‘Bosh!’ when she doesn’t agree with something. She says it once too often to James while they are traveling back to England. She plans to remove the tenant from Rose Cottage and he to propose. The reader cheers to realise that James has thrown off the dreadful Alice. And when she finds a soulmate, thinking herself inconsolable by the loss of James, we think this is entirely fitting for both parties.

While they have been in Switzerland, Jennifer has been getting on with her new life, mostly working in her garden. But she is interrupted by Netta, who has not gone to Norway (because her lap dog would have had to quarantine on their return) but to Brighton. Although marriage to Richard Dodge is not at all to her taste she is persuaded to return to Brighton. She is followed a day or two later by father. Netta has left him and he requires Jennifer to return to Gower Street and care for him again. 

The scene between the two of them is brutal. He believes that Jennifer sped to Rose Cottage to punish him for re-marrying. She cannot persuade him that she loves her life there. She tries to explain to him, but he only listens silently, unable to understand her. 

Such nonsense, too; such grievous nonsense. Stuff about beauty, and independence, and the bliss, he gathered, of nothingness. To have nothing – to be nothing – it appeared to amount to that – was the only freedom, according to his absurd daughter. If she had declared that to be dead was the only true  freedom, it would have made quite enough sense.
But, pitiably and confusedly as she talked, and insulting and ungrateful as her implications were, it did somehow emerge from the welter that the theory of a vendetta for his remarriage was incorrect and she was here because she liked it. (203)

There is much that is farcical about this novel, which lightens the pervading sense of oppression and wasted lives. Few people are honest with each other, preferring to make assumptions about; there are attempts to escape Switzerland that are thwarted by other escapes from Switzerland; meanness of spirit is employed to communicate the fault of other people. Who could forget the description of a lover’s first attempts at a romantic kiss to be ‘gobbling’? Some of the comings and goings are remind me of French farce.

The story reaches a happy-ever-after, but not before we have seen the full extent of Jennifer’s duty and obligation to her father. 

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1931 and reissued in the British Library Women Writers series in 2020. 296pp

Related posts

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim

Father has been reviewed by two bloggers I respect: Heavenali, who says it is glorious, and Stuck in a Book, who also wrote the helpful Afterword which illuminates the plight of ‘surplus women’.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

How do we categorise the people we meet? By what we see? By ethnicity, colour, gender, age and in the UK those tiny indicators of class. Whole systems of exploitation have been built on the genetic features, especially ethnicity and gender. 

In recent years we have been encouraged to believe that our genetic composition determines our characters. Think of those people who look for criminal genes, or speak about inheriting certain characteristics from their parents, such as sporting ability. Think of the tv programme Who do you think you are? in which ancestors are traced, implying they can explain the person featured. 

The Vanishing Half questions these ideas about inherited attributes. It challenges how people are identified by ethnicity, or gender, and looks at some people who choose to ‘pass’. And it does this through a moving story of twins who ran away and their daughters.

The Vanishing Half

Twin girls, Desiree and Stella, are born in Mallard, a small town in the southern state of Louisiana. Their father was light skinned, and was murdered by white men in front of the twins. The town of Mallard is inhabited by light skinned African Americans, and its population values lightness above all. The consequences of maintaining the lighter skin tone in the town creates an oppressive environment. It was 1954when the twins ran away but 14 years later Desiree, returns without Stella. This is the starting point of the novel, for Desiree is escaping a violent marriage and is accompanied by her very dark skinned daughter, Jude. Stella has disappeared. Early Jones is a tracker paid by her husband to trace Desiree, but they become lovers and his attempts to trace Stella on her behalf produce no results. 

The story shifts down a generation. Jude suffers from her dark skin in Mallard and escapes as soon as she can, to LA on a university athletics scholarship. Stella lives in an exclusive, white neighbourhood, ‘passing’ as the white wife of a rich man, with a beautiful pale skinned fair haired daughter called Kennedy. They too live in LA and of course the paths of Kennedy and Jude cross. 

Stella, living as a white woman, is perpetually in fear of discovery. She is oppressed by  the consequences of her decision to be seen as white. She must be secretive about her early life, and does not mix socially. When her neighbours discover that a Black family will move into their exclusive community she leads the campaign of resistance. But she cannot resist befriending the wife of these incomers when their daughters play together. Kennedy does not know her mother’s secret, but when the cousins meet Jude works it out and tries to convince her.

Jude, in the meantime, has fallen for Reese, who has his own secrets. And they are friends with Barry, who has a successful drag act, while being a teacher in his day job. So many lies. So much acting.

There is no happy ending to this novel. Each of the characters must find their own way to live. Stella returns to Mallard to visit her mother and her twin only once and then resumes her wealthy, secretive, white life. Her daughter becomes a soap actress, recognised as the character she plays, not as herself.

Kennedy’s role in Pacific Cove as girl-next-door Charity Harris serves her well when she retrains to become a realtor:

A model home was nothing but a set, if you thought about it, the open house a grand performance directed by her. Each time, she stood behind the door, bowing her head as jittery as the first time she had ever taken the stage, knowing that her mother would be out there in the audience watching. Then she put on a big Charity Harris smile, opening the door. She would disappear inside herself, inside the empty home where nobody actually lived. As the room filled with strangers, she always found her mark, guiding a couple through the kitchen, pointing out the light fixtures, backsplash, high ceilings.
‘Imagine your life here,’ she said. ‘Imagine who you could be.’ (319)

So what is identity? Can you make up your own identity? Does your genetic heritage determine who you are? Or are you who you choose to be? It is not only the actors who have to pretend a role in life. Don’t we all have to do this to some extent? 

It’s a good novel that can pose pertinent, important questions and carry a compelling story at the same time. 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, published in 2020. I read the paperback edition from Dialogue Books. 366pp

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Women of Colour

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

The ‘long nightmare’ is over but everything is changed. This wonderful novel captures one glorious summer’s day in 1946 around the village of Wealding near the south coast of England. We follow Laura Marshall as she contemplates her life now that the Second World War has been over for a year. She ends her day on Barrow Down, where she has gone to retrieve her dog and sits down to look at the view.

She had had to lose a dog and climb a hill, a year later, to realize what it would have meant if England had lost. We are at peace, we still stand, we will stand when you are dust, sang the humming land in the summer evening. (143)

One Fine Day

The structure of this book is very simple. We follow Laura on this day, and through her concerns, activities and from her interactions with other people we are shown a view of the country as wide as her view from Barrow Down.

Laura, 38, is married to Stephen, who, since his return from the war after years of separation, has caught the 8.47 train up to his job in the City of London every weekday morning. Their daughter, Victoria, is ten years old and something of an alien species to Stephen as he last knew her as a toddler. His dismay at his daughter is summed up in his reaction to finding her dental brace in the bathroom. His time at home is dominated by the garden as Chandler, their pre-war gardener, was killed in Holland and the replacement, Voller, is a very old man with limited capacity. Some of Laura’s day will be spent trying to find a better gardener. 

When Stephen has gone for the train (taking the car) and daughter to school (taking the bus) Laura settles down to a morning of housework with her ‘help’ Mrs Prout, and for some shopping in the nearby town (also taking the bus). Mrs Prout does well in these post-war years. She is not slow to make comments about the neighbours, or Laura’s single child. She is the subject of the first cameo, a deftly, sparingly drawn portrait, which tells us so much.

Mrs Prout obliged several ladies in Wealding, conscious of her own value, enjoying glimpses of this household and that, sly, sardonic, given to nose-tapping and enormous winks, kind, a one for whist tables and a quiet glass at the local, scornful of the floundering efforts of the gentry to remain gentry still when there wasn’t nobody even to answer their doorbells, poor souls.  (18) 

Returning to Wealding after her shopping trip, Laura visits the Porter family to see whether George, recently returned from India, can take on their garden. The scene at the Porter’s door draws in many of the threads of the novel. George sees no future in Wealding, so is off to the city to find a job, girls, cinemas and dancing. Laura is chastened to find that to him she is akin to an old sofa. She is aware that she is losing her youth. Mavis Porter, formerly of the WAAF, has added to the Porter brood as a result of a liaison with a Polish airman. She too will soon be gone. 

As the day progresses Laura has interactions with the Vicar, ‘a saint who had the misfortune to sound like a bore’ (54); her mother who lives in Cornwall and was almost untouched by the war and its consequences; and the Cranmers. This is the family whose house has dominated the village, not just because of its size, but also in economic terms. Mrs Cranmer is the local landowner and many of the local farmers are her tenants. The big house had provided employment for the villagers, and during the war accommodation for Canadian soldiers. But Mrs Cranmer and her silent sister are to move to the stables and the house is sold to become some kind of institution. They invite Laura in for tea.

She continues on her way to fetch Stuffy the dog, climbing up the lower slopes of Barrow Down where a gypsy lives in an old railway carriage. She is intrigued by this man who lives apart from the village and is known to have a special way with animals. She is particularly struck by the fact that he doesn’t own a radio. In many ways his quiet, peaceable life appeals to her. She feels again the overwhelming demands of her nice house. 

She climbs the rest of the way up the barrow and sees the wonderful landscape bathed in evening light. She contemplates her options, unable to live lightly as the gypsy does. But she thinks of the fun she and Stephen had before the war, and begins to see the possibility that her life with him and Victoria can be more than drudgery. And Stephen returning home from the city is also reminded of what he still has, despite everything. And that he and Laura can still find happiness with each other.

There have been frequent examples of references to the world beyond Wealding and Bridbury: Cornwall, London, Poland, Canada, India and even the view from Barrow Down brings a wider perspective. It is one of Mollie Panter-Downes’s skills to show so much from that moment, those people, in that place.

Mollie Panter-Downes

Mollie Panter-Downes was born in London in 1906. Her father was killed in the First World War and she grew up with her widowed mother in a village in the south of England. She began her writing career at 17 with a successful novel The Shoreless Sea. During the war she published Letters from London in the New Yorker every two weeks and many short stories (see Good Evening, Mrs Craven). They form a cumulative account of the Second World War for Americans, from the perspective of London and the Home Counties. By the time she came to write One Fine Day after the war she had honed her journalist skills of observation and of drawing meaning from everyday incidents. 

One of the charms of this novel is the way she shows us people is so few words, from passengers on the bus to the people in the big house. Her observation of dog behaviour is so familiar that it must have been drawn from life. Her love of and familiarity with the countryside and the natural world is also a feature. Her descriptions of the demanding garden, other people’s gardens and the hedgerows are enchanting. Here she summons up a wonderful view and Laura’s reaction as she looks out.

She did not stir. The golden eye blinked again, far out in the warm haze. Yes, it was a car, for it was moving. She watched it half-sleepily, listening to the hum floating up from the great bowl. It was the summer voice of England, seeming to say in the rattle of hay carts, the swish of the blades laying the sorrel and clover in swathes, the murmur and buzz of the uncut fields, the men’s deep voices calling peacefully across the dead quiet. We are at peace. An aeroplane flew south, trundling along, flashing a silver blink to the gold blink below, and Laura watched it go as idly as she had watched the car crawl and dip along the unknown road. Planes were no longer something to glance up at warily. The long nightmare was over, the land sang its peaceful song. (142-3)

In following Laura’s day we have observed the changes brought by war, especially to the middle classes. For Laura, the loss of servants could chain her, as so many women, to the domestic duties required by their houses as the servants will not return. Some people have been lost in the war, killed, moved away for better opportunities or new partners. The war has widened the perspective of the villagers. 

Stephen and Laura will have to deal with the separation forced by the war which took Victoria from toddler to near-adolescent, and now lands them back together without the social structure upon which they relied. Laura is perpetually tired (she falls asleep on the barrow) and going grey at 38. Stephen wonders whether he fought the war in order to continue his daily commute. Both Laura and Stephen come to see what they liked and still like about each other, and about the countryside in which they live. The three of them will find their way we are sure and the novel finishes as they all return home.

And I am left wondering what we, in 2021, will see when our long Covid-19 nightmare is over. Will we rejoice in what we have and adjust to what we have lost?

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, first published in 1947, reissued as a Virago Modern Classic in 1985. 179pp

Related links

Good Evening Mrs Craven and London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes (war-time stories from the New Yorker)

Wave me Goodbye (short stories from the Second World War)

In Praise of Short Stories

Three bloggers, whose views I respect, have all praised this novel: Heaven AliStuck in a Book and Jacquiwine

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Matilda Windsor is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin

It’s 1989. Matilda Osborne is in Ghyllside Hospital in Cumbria. She has been there for about 50 years. She is being moved to Tuke House, half-way accommodation established to help the residents transfer to semi-independent living as part of the new policy – Care in the Community. Matty, as they call her, is 70 years old. The staff are not sure that she will manage the transition.

This is the 54th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. The author, Anne Goodwin, has also contributed to my posts about older women writers. You can find the links at the end of the post and you can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books in my series with links to the reviews here.

Matilda Windsor is Coming Home

The reader follows Matty’s story from three perspectives. The first is of her half-brother Henry, 57 at the time of the story. He was 7 when Tilly (as he knew her) was sent away by her step-father. Both Tilly and Henry were devastated by the separation. Tilly’s mother, a widow, had married Mr Windsor and Henry was their son. But she died in childbirth, so Tilly had raised Henry. He has spent the years since she left searching for her. 

His job with the council is at risk as he does not see the point of using computers and refuses to be retrained. As he is approaching retirement he is transferred to humiliating positions where this is not an issue, which include organising a party for the local old people and dressing up as a Christmas elf, in a hilarious episode. He has not realised how close he is to his sister when he is enrolled into the local campaign to prevent the inhabitants of Ghyllside being rehoused on his doorstep.

A second perspective from which we see Matty is a social worker’s. Janice is newly qualified and her job at Ghyllside is her first. She is optimistic about the new policy and schemes to get Matty onto the first programme for relocation. She has been charmed by Matty. Waiting in the hall for an interview Janice meets the old lady for the first time.

Janice watched her pluck a jelly baby from the packet, bite off its head, and add its body to the tail of a procession snaking the bench.
Engrossed in the etiquette of a parallel universe, she seemed unaware of Janice, too self-absorbed to shimmy along for her to sit or deposit her bag. Yet the woman raised her gaze. “Did you run away from the circus?”
“Pardon me?” Janice would have been less shocked if the walls had addressed her. And, had she credited the patient with a voice stronger than a whisper, and the will to use it, she’d never imagined her speaking like royalty. (16)

Matty’s own perspective is also gradually revealed. She has spent half a century in institutions. She treats everyone as if they were her guest or her servant at her grand house. Her key nurse is her maid, for example. Any difficulties are explained away by the necessities of war. While Matty appears to be a dotty old woman, we can see that she has developed coping mechanisms. She is frequently overcome by thoughts of ‘the Prince’, who it emerges is her step-father. I imagined the prince of darkness. She has many very attractive qualities: a way of speaking her mind, generosity, hospitality, courtesy and resilience.

There are more than 60 short chapters in this novel, so the stories of Matty, her brother and Janice, bowl along with some amusing episodes and some which are more shocking. The past is a dark continent, and as we understand Matty’s story, we can see the difficulties for Janice and the new policy.

Humour in this novel comes from observing the professionals, the social workers and care staff for example. Or from watching Henry pursuing an adulterous relationship once a week with a hairdresser and she is getting fed up with him. Or seeing Matty cope with her life.

“Thank you, dear, that was delicious.”
Au contraire, the food is barely palatable but that is no fault of the maid, or the cook, given the challenges of producing an appetising menu in wartime. Indeed, it would be perverse to eat cordon bleu when the men suffer so dreadfully at the front. Besides, flattering the staff pays dividends. If theyare happy, so are the guests.
“Could you manage some jam roly-poly and custard?” (96)

As readers we are asked to consider the challenges of rolling out the policy of care in the community, including reactions to it. NIMBYism is a feature. We can also see how in the past attitudes to unwelcome behaviour, especially pregnancy of unmarried women, involved removal from the community. At the end of the 20thcentury racism and homophobia work their evil. 

And through these events we can see some of the damage done by long-term institutionalisation. They take your name. They take your past They take your history. They take control of your accommodation and movement. They treat you like a child yet you are not safe from sexual predation. Exploitation of women has a very long history, of course.

Matilda Windsor is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin, published in 2021 by Inspired Quill. 405pp

Related posts

Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers? December 2015

Let’s have more older women writers  February 2020

Why we need more Older Characters in Fiction by Anne Goodwin. Her recent blog post on Inspired Quill Blog

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction

Beowulf 2, in which he meets a feminist

A few months ago, I posted my first piece on the ancient poem Beowulf, saying I would have more to say later. I referred to versions of the poem that I had on my shelves, two of which were designed for children. The post featured versions for present-day readers by Seamus Heaney, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo.

Beowulf is a poem that delights in masculine power and it is a story told by men about men for men. Maria Dahvana Headley suggests that we can look at Beowulf another way. In her novel she gives a name to Beowulf’s second opponent, Grendel’s mother, and tells a modern version of the story, avoiding depicting her as a monster.

Maggie Gee, in an article in The Author reminds us that ‘female monsters and villains have been an avenging presence in myth ever since human story-making began’. Some of them have been half animal and half human. We need them, she suggests, to counter the apologetic behaviour encouraged in women.

On to the page they stride and out across the landscape, laughing maniacally, axes in hand. The tact we try to display in real life is equalled by the dark side of our fictional monsters. [The Author Autumn 2019] 

Her own monster can be found in Blood, published in 2019. 

Maria Dahvana Headley challenges the idea of Grendel’s mother being monstrous. The avenging threat of Grendel’s mother is just that – a mother who has lost her son, ‘carried on a wave of wrath, crazed with sorrow, looking for someone to slay, someone to pay in pain for her heart’s loss’ (l. 1275-7). She is a much more interesting character than the tactful and conforming Willa (a version of Wealhtheow).

At the time of my first post, I was not aware of the Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf, which referred to several versions, and mentioned an upcoming translation by Maria Dahvana Headley and her novel The Mere Wife. Since then (February 2021) I have read both books by Maria Dahvana Headley, attended an on-line event with her, and listened to the podcast.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The novel is a feminist telling of part of the Beowulf story, focusing in particular on Grendel’s mother, set in a place and time which is something like present-day America. Dana Mills, a marine, was filmed being executed in a desert war but she somehow manages to return home. She is pregnant and gives birth secretly to Gren, who she sees will be categorised as an enemy to be destroyed. She finds refuge in the caves in the mountain above her former home. They had been part of a railway system, long since abandoned and forgotten. 

Herot Hall has been built over the previous settlement where Dana had been brought up. It is a gated and privileged community run and profited from by the Herot family. Willa Herot has a son and is concerned to keep up appearances for the rest of the community. 

Willa’s son Dylan is intrigued by what he sees out of his window: Gren, Dana’s son. The two boys form a secret friendship, but at her Christmas party Willa finds evidence of Gren, and Dana, watching the party from outside, sees that her son is in danger and tears through the party. The outcome is that Willa’s husband is killed. The tall, blonde, muscular chief of police – Ben Woolf (say his name) – is believed to have killed Dana by drowning her in the mere. In fact, Dana and Gren have retreated to the underground railway station inside the mountain. Later Dylan runs there too and then the hunt is on.

I really liked the way that the author used the details of the original story. The dragon that emerges from the underground lair is here represented by the restored train. The policeman is seen as a hero because he is big and golden and appears to stand between the comfort of the Herot community and danger represented by Dana and Gren. 

We see that those who define others as monsters have power and authority. They include the police, but also the important families, and the press. At play here is the destruction of the history of the US, gender struggles and the damage done by wars. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2018 by Scribe. 306pp

Beowulf: a new translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

In this new translation of the poem, Maria Dahvana Headley refutes Tolkien’s suggestion that the language used in its translation must be ‘literary and traditional’. Instead, she brings to it a modern idiom, the boastful, male fraternizing tradition of the ‘dude text’. Here’s the opening.

Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days,
everyone knew what men were: brave, glory-bound. Only
stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for hungry times. (l.1-3)

Compare with Heaney’s translation:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. (l.1-3)

The original Old English poem begins with the word Hwæt. Listen to the podcast for a discussion of its possible pronunciation and meaning. 

This is how the boastful Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar, offering to defend the hall against Grendel. 

I’m the strongest and the boldest, and the bravest and the best.
Yes: I mean – I may have bathed in the blood of beasts,
netted five foul ogres at once, smashed my way into a troll den
and come out swinging, gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea
and made sashimi of some sea monsters.
Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me.
They’re asking for it, and I deal them death. [l.416- 422]

Beowulf is all male and aggression, like the hero of an action movie or a video game. 

Her introduction on translating the poem and her interest in it, through Grendel’s mother, is a good explanation of the approach she took and the decisions she made for this new version. One of the interesting things about the text of Beowulf is that it seems to be a very adaptable text, and to have relevance to many different times. I have some thoughts about why that might be which I am saving for a future post.

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2021 by Scribe. 140pp

Relevant Links

Beowulf 1 on Bookword.

The Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf

Leave a Comment

Filed under Feminism, Podcast, poetry, translation, words

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

To create her compelling fiction Sarah Moss places her characters out of their usual location, often on holiday. The characters are tested, by each other and by the environment and having wound them up she sits back and lets the drama unfold. This is something of a pattern in her books and it is very effective.

In Summerwater the characters are staying in log cabins in a holiday park in Scotland beside a loch. It is summer and it should be beautiful, but it is raining. It is raining so much that it feels like the end of the world. They have no phone signals and no nearby shops. The rain and the random selection of guests at the holiday park isolate the cabins’ occupants from each other.

Summerwater

We begin with the rain.

the sounds of blood and air

Light seeps over the water, through the branches. The sky is lying on the loch, filling the trees, heavy in the spaces between the pine needles, settling between the blades of grass and mottling the pebbles on the beach. Although there is no distance between cloud and land, nowhere for rain to fall, it is falling; the sounds of water on leaves and bark, on roofs and stones, windows and cars, become as constant as the sounds of blood and air in your own body.
You would notice soon enough, if it stopped. (1)

Short interludes, such as this one, separate the chapters. But pause a moment before getting into the story to notice the quality of the writing, the observation that rain in these circumstances gets everywhere and distorts the landscape (the sky is lying on the loch … no distance between cloud and land) and feels visceral. 

The occupants of the log cabins emerge into the day slowly, for what is there to do? Justine takes an early morning run. As she creeps out of the cabin, leaving husband and children sleeping, we learn about her frustrations, the lack of money, the lack of opportunities for families like hers. Her observations about the other occupants of the holiday cabins are revealed, including the Rumanians who held another loud party the previous night.

We meet a young lad who goes kayaking and ventures out on the loch and whose trip nearly ends in disaster. He does not tell his parents. A young teenage girl climbs out of her bedroom window to find a phone signal or to visit the ex-soldier in his tent. Here she is as she escapes from her parents for a while.

She goes along the side of the gravel track, not that anyone would hear her footsteps over the weather, past the cabin with the sad woman who never goes out and the two kids. They’re still having their tea, and the scene reminds her of her old Playmobil dolls’ house, the stiff-jointed figures you could arrange around a green plastic table, the tiny plastic cutlery Mum was always telling her not to lose. The rain is seeping through her leggings and Alex’s hoody is beginning to cling to her hands at the cuffs. (150)

A couple spend most of the day in bed as they pursue his ambition of simultaneous orgasms. An older man, with his increasingly disabled wife takes her for a drive. He muses upon the happy times they had in the park when the holidaymakers owned their own cabins and came every year, providing consistency and friendship. Those times have long gone, and he must take care of his wife in the face of the limitations of the cabin, the park and the weather.

There are nearly middle-aged women who, like Justine, are finding life hard, and this cheap holiday is no holiday for them. Children are bored. The men are bored. Only the Rumanians appear to be enjoying themselves, although some of the holidaymakers think they might be Bulgarians and other that they might be Russians. What’s more, they appear to have phone connections, for as evening arrives so do visitors with drink and music and another party starts.

Here is a nightmare scenario: rain all day, nothing to do, nothing to see except your neighbours, the only thing to think about is your sad life and then loud music at night prevents sleep. Resentment is building and the partygoers are clearly going to be the object of judgements and aggressions that are building up. The men decide to go and ask the Rumanians, or Bulgarians or Russians, or Shit-chenkos, (according to one family) to turn the sound down. 

Watching from the neighbouring cabin the little girl see what happens when they knock on the Rumanians’ door.

The Shit-chenko woman steps back into the cabin and a man comes out with two bottles dangling from between his fingers and nods and hands one to Dad and one to the other dad, and then all of them go inside. (193)

By now the tension is very high and the novel’s resolution unfurls very fast, rather surprisingly and very badly. The little girl witnesses the events. She sees the tragedy, but also the community that is suddenly created in response. 

Sarah Moss writes so well, so succinctly, with detailed observations and, in this novel, fully inhabiting the range of characters in the cabins. 

Observing the way we subtly edit ourselves and one another – the limits that puts on us, as well as the strengths it creates – is Moss’s metier. [Melissa Harrison in a review in the Guardian in August 2020]

It is bleak, and harsh and almost apocryphal. It captures the current generally depressed mood and seems to be a comment on the modern world.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss (2020) Picador. 202pp. A paperback version is available.

Related post about books by Sarah Moss on Bookword

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011) in a post of two short reviews

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)

Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland (2012) in a post called Bookword in Iceland

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Writing