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Rattlebone by Maxine Clair

Rattlebone is a black neighbourhood in Kansas City. This novel is set in the city in the 1950s when Maxine Clair was growing up there. It follows the childhood of Irene Wilson and draws in events from the lives of others in the community. I find myself wanting to use words that imply concepts of tweeness, sweetness, naivety and so forth in thinking about this book. But this novel packs quite a punch. It contains little about relations between different ethnic groups. But we are aware that the families who live in Rattlebone have a hard life, do some of the worst jobs and for rubbish wages. At the same time they have built up a strong and developing sense of community. When the high school is destroyed by a rogue aeroplane, local communities contribute to its reconstruction. 

The incident is the most dramatic in the novel. This extract gives us a sense of Maxine Clair’s skill as a writer. Irene is watching the planes from her high school classroom.

They were coming in dangerously low, coming, coming. The pilot in one plane must have been trying to urge the other to pull up. Then the one climbed the sky in a sharp angle, exposing its silver belly to the sun. The other appeared to be locked into a steady plunge. Mr Cox spun around and yelled ‘Run!’ The plane had rotated slightly, so that it seemed to be coming broadside straight for us. By the time we considered running, it was too late. The whole room exploded in a fury of glass. (216)

The incident is included in the final chapter of the novel and leads to a new beginning for Irene, outside of Rattlebone.

Rattlebone

Looked at one way, this is a collection of short stories, but they are all connected to Irene and to the suburb of Rattlebone which makes this more than a collection. There are eleven stories, some of them very short, others extended. Some are retold by characters who appear elsewhere and some are given some perspective by being told in the third person. Some, like the final episode, are narrated by Irene. 

The first chapter is also narrated by Irene and features her new teacher. Interestingly it links her community of Rattlebone with the child herself by starting off in the first-person plural: ‘we’. Here is the first sentence of the opening chapter.

We heard it from our friends, who got it from their near-eyewitness grandmothers and their must-be-psychic ladies, that when she was our same age, our teacher, Miss October Brown, watched her father fire through his rage right on into her mother’s heart. (1)

October Brown comes from outside of Rattlebone, and she immediately begins to change the orderly pattern of Irene’s life. She introduces current affairs and French into the classroom, and her father leaves the family to pursue an affair with her. She appears in other stories, with another errant husband, but also she finally provides Irene with a route out of her narrow life in Rattlebone. 

The perspective in the stories changes as Irene matures, not always making her the focus of the episode. For example, her father is caught up in a flood after work and goes to help with others to build up the levées to protect their families. In another dramatic episode he is forced to face up to what is important in his life. In later stories we find he has returned home, and how his troubled relationship with his wife is resolved, not to Irene’s satisfaction. 

Some of the most touching stories involve the fate of the children of Irene’s age, who experience accidents, or who are so challenged that they are removed from Rattlebone, much to the sadness of mother and sister. The children have considerable leeway over their lives for their parents are always busy working. There is the strange story about the visits of ‘the white woman’. The children are out playing, observing their elders, and enjoying an ordinary day.

Then she drove up in a raggedy-trap, old-time car with no top, black slits in the side of the hood, running boards, rumble seat stuffed with what looked like broken furniture, and a horn blasting Aah-hooga! Aah-hooga!
She stepped out of the car, unfolding her flat self to be taller than any of our mothers. Except for her face, all of her was covered up in white: a long-sleeved, church-ushering dress, white nurse’s shoes, white stockings, white gloves, white thing twist-wrapped around her head with no hair showing. She was the whitest – not beige, not pink, not rouge or lipstick – white woman we had ever seen. (26)

Sister Joan is preaching some kind of religion, but the mothers see her off. She disappeared as suddenly as she arrived.

I have quoted several times from the book because I find Maxine Clair’s prose and her descriptions and the voices she uses to be strong and vivid and entirely suitable to her material. 

Maxine Clair

Born in 1939 and raised in Kansas City, Maxine Clair was 55 when Rattlebone was first published. It received good attention but was not a best-seller. She had been pursuing a career in medical technology, but changed to creative writing, publishing poems and a novel called October Suite, featuring the schoolteacher October Brown – not available in the UK. She is still teaching creative writing. 

The Guardian Review by Nick Duerden in June 2023 refers to Rattlebone as ‘a small perfectly formed classic’.

It was also reviewed on her blog by Heaven Ali in August 2023. You can read that review here. She says, ‘What Maxine Clair does beautifully though is to give us a snapshot of a place in time, that sense of time and place is present in every word she writes.’

Rattlebone by Maxine Clair, first published in the US in 1994. Now available in the UK, published by Daunt Books in 2023, with an introduction by Okechukwu Nzelu. 138pp 

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The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times by Xan Brooks

The long title is not the most unusual thing about this book. The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times indicates that things are awry in 1923 England. The First World War has done untold damage. It has ruined bodies, mental dispositions, families, and the economic and social relationships. This is a world that ignores child prostitution and trafficking, and where the upper classes still hold power. England, in this book, is full of oddities.

The story of The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times

Lucy Marsh is a teenage orphan, living with her grandparents in a declining pub in northeast London. Her grandfather rents her to a client, who takes her every week to meet ‘the funny men’ in Epping Forest. There she finds other children who are also required to be nice to the gentlemen. Winifred becomes Lucy’s unreliable ally until the climax of the story.

We are introduced to a number of other characters: Arthur Ellis, the fat boy who has the ability to produce fire from his fingers, The Long Boys who form a black jazz band, the funny men themselves and the indolent upper class inhabitants and guests at the Big House.

The funny men are named after Dorothy’s companions in The Wizard of Oz and are disfigured and disabled victims of the war, mistakenly recorded as dead but in fact given accommodation by the Earl of Hertford in the grounds of Grantwood House. He is paid for this service. And the men who bring the children to the forest are also paid, and they pay the parents and grandparents of the children.

Many of these characters end up on the Grantwood Estate, where the heir, Rupert Fortnum-Hyde, amuses himself with his pet projects, of which he quickly tires. There is the camel in the garden; some very modern art works including a Pick-Arsehole [say it]; the jazz band, the fat boy and the funny men. Rupert Fortnum-Hyde is a great obnoxious creation. The damage he does, while claiming forward looking ideas is revealed at the novel’s climax.

Winifred and Lucy become demanding and want to cut out the middlemen. They try some enterprise of their own and set up with the funny men. This is not a long-term option for Lucy, although we are led to believe that such activities might be for Fred. Lucy escapes with more maturity than her bland kindness demonstrated in the opening scenes. She helps Scarecrow to escape as well, although both have to learn to look beyond the world of Grantwood House.

Epping Forest

Reflections on reading The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times

The story is savage and sordid, strange, fast paced and populated by many oddities. A chaotic time is explored. It reminded me of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (written in the 1930s). There is less magic than in the Russian novel, but the unexpected and sometimes unexplained often happens.

The trials of war-damaged Arthur Ellis reminded me of Septimus Warren Smith from Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Wolf. Both men are utterly changed and eventually destroyed by their experiences. Ellis has become amoral, thinking only of himself and how to find enough money to survive.

In the house, among the guests and their hosts, there is much talk of the future. And it is true that the war has changed so much. The Earl has had to close one wing of the house, to his chagrin. But the future must grow out of the past and the present, and it is clear that despite the Earl and his son’s reputation for being pink and liberal, they intend that their class will retain power.

‘My feeling is this,’ explains the Earl kindly. ‘Mobility and equality – these are things I will always support. And yet it follows that mobility is most effective and lasting when it is properly regulated. That is why we look to sensible, progressive members of the ruling class. To ensure that there is free movement and proper fairness for all.’ (277)

Despite some high-minded talk, the revolting houseguests are guilty of some sordid and savage behaviour. I found myself shocked by their Monster Hunt. They claimed to be chasing monsters, but the term better describes their casual cruelty and their indifference to the suffering of others.

Eventually the entrepreneurial adolescents, the disabled surviving funny men and the favoured ruling class meet, collide and are ignited. The reader is implicitly invited to consider how the present day compares with this anarchic time.

Related Links

One of the reasons I chose to read this book was the review by Anne Goodwin on her blog Annecdotal. She notes that it is like nothing she has read before and hopes that prize judges will not ignore it.

The review in the Guardian by M John Harrison in April was also very complementary.

This is the second book published by the Independent Publisher Salt that I have reviewed recently. The other was My Shitty Twenties by Emma Morris.

The Clocks in this House all Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks (2017) Salt 388 pp

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Photo credit: Epping forest Julian Stallabrass via Visual Hunt / CC BY

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