Tuesday, 1 March 2011

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

NIGHT WAKING by Sarah Moss Granta pbk.

Last Thursday, I had to take the coach between Cambridge and Oxford. I bought a return ticket. That’s seven hours of coach travel, but as it turned out, it was a really enjoyable journey and the time flew by because I’d brought with me a truly gripping and page-turny book. It wasn’t a thriller. I read far too many of those and they are, it’s true, very good at making travelling time pass speedily. This was a book I’d seen mentioned favourably on a book blog (Cornflower, I think) and the little bit I knew about it made me eager to read it. The ingredients, as I was aware of them before I began, were: a remote Inner Hebridean island, a couple there for the summer with two small children, a skeleton found in the garden and a bundle of letters from a woman writing in Victorian times. There were connections with the real Clearances which took place in this part of the world in the late nineteenth century. Every one of these is intriguing as far as I’m concerned, so I bought the book with no hesitation.

What I didn’t know and what became clear the minute I began to read is that Sarah Moss is a very good writer, bringing to a story that could easily have been mawkish and predictable not only a sure eye for both pathos and humour, but also a very intelligent discussion, in a completely non-didactic vein, of the conflicts that arise for women who are torn between their academic and professional work and the care of their children, one of whom doesn’t sleep at all well at night. Anna, our mostly bone-tired heroine, is a historian and she’s desperately wanting to finish her book. Her husband, Giles, whose family have owned the island of Colsay for centuries, is busy monitoring puffins and their behaviour and to say he doesn’t pull his weight when it comes to childcare is putting it mildly. Still, he’s not a villain, which is another unexpected and clever aspect of the story. Giles and Anna have a newly-renovated cottage to rent out and to it come a high-flying surgeon, his flaky and alcoholic wife and their daughter, Zoe, who has problems of her own.

I won’t give more of the plot away than that, but it’s very well put together, with the Victorian letters slotting into the narrative most ingeniously, and allowing us to see a different historical perspective of what went on in the island. The children, Moth and Raph, (Timothy and Raphael) are brilliantly depicted. Any mother of small children will sympathize with Anna in her sometimes overwhelmingly tiring and difficult situation. It’s never a book that wallows in grimness, though, because Moss tells the story with a wry humour which is laugh-out-loud funny from time to time, but mostly a good description of situations in which if you didn’t laugh, you’d burst into tears. Anna’s excursions into cookery in particular are very entertaining. The food management in the house probably deserves a review paragraph to itself. The children’s relationship with their meals and their biscuits is terrific. This writer describes things exactly. I noticed especially her account of a train journey taken without children for the first time in ages. It’s forensically accurate and I defy any mother not to be saying: Oh, yes! as she’s reading those pages. The novel is an excellent dissection of maternal love, and Anna speaks without shame or embarrassment about how close this sometimes comes to hatred of a sort. Moss is good at history: describing what it is, what it does, how it operates at different epochs and she also somehow manages to give us the look of the island with scant physical description. There are ghosts and birds and the sea and a very modern and familiar kind of marriage. Do seek this book out. It’s a real treat to find a good new writer. Yesterday I was in a bookshop and got hold of her first novel, COLD EARTH. I can't wait to read it.

THE THREE LOVES OF PERSIMMON by Cassandra Golds Penguin Australia pbk.

I hestitated before deciding to write about a book published in Australia, but now that we are all connected by Facebook, twitter and so forth, it ought to be the work of moments to acquire it if you should wish to do so. Which is why, yet again, I’m writing about Cassandra Golds, whose magnificent THE MUSEUM OF MARY CHILD I reviewed last year. It still saddens me that she’s not published in the UK. Any publishers reading this are advised to order her books and give them some consideration. She’s a most extraordinary writer and also one of those rare creatures who really does march to the beat of her own drummer. Her books are quite unlike anyone else’s and it’s this quality of being completely unusual that makes her work so appealing. Some British readers might remember her ‘CLAIR DE LUNE’ which has in it, in addition to much else, a mouse who sets up a ballet school. This mouse interacts with the human heroine and in her latest novel, Golds goes back to the mouse/human combination which was so well done in the earlier book.

Here, a mouse called Epiphany seeks to discover whether there’s a world other than the one she knows. She is one of the mice who live on Platform One in a railway station. We are never told where this railway station is. We don’t know where anything is in a Golds novel: not in the normal, Oh, that’s obviously a place in Australia kind of way. Her stories take place in their own strange universe. Not exactly fairyland but certainly not the real world either. Rather, the author picks bits and pieces of the real world and situates them in a kind of story territory that is unique. We have theatres here, and Botanic Gardens and railway stations and florists’ shops but all of them are not quite as we know them. Persimmon Polidori’s family is split into two camps. “The first and strongest camp was the fruit and vegetable faction. The second, rebel camp was those who (against the wishes of their relatives) had thrown their lot in with flowers.” Thus, Persimmon has a true rebel of a great-aunt called Lily. She writes to Persimmon from beyond the grave (why not? This is Golds territory!) and we discover very soon that Lily was ‘formerly known as Turnip’.

There is magic here and fun. Golds writes delicately and humorously. This is not a book for everyone, but for any child (and this child will most likely be a girl) who loves novels like ‘HENRIETTA'S HOUSE’ by Elizabeth Goudge and who is deeply, deeply romantic, this novel is perfection. Persimmon seeks love and with the beyond-the-grave help of Great-Aunt Lily in Paris I can reveal without giving too much away that Persimmon’s story ends happily as all the best fairytales should, but not before we’ve had some ups and downs with an array of more or less unsuitable suitors. Epiphany the mouse has some hair-raising adventures and the end of her tale is positively epic. Both she and Persimmon will stay with you for a long time after you finish reading this delicious book.

1 comment:

Playing by the book said...

I read the review of Night Waking at the w/end in the Guardian and thought it sounded good but now I'm convinced! We'll be in the bookshop tomorrow for world book day and I think this might slip into my basked then :-)