December 17, 2012
Still a master of the story
The landing of a new collection by Irish short-story writer William Trevor is a beguiling moment because, as he was born in 1928, the masterful supply we’re so accustomed to will inevitably cease. Trevor’s 17-year background as a wood sculptor has complemented the carving of his prose. He rarely leaves more behind him on the page than needs to stand there, and what is left is in mighty good shape. Trevor’s contribution to literature is already an agreed three-dimensional crevice that the dithering of this or any reviewer will not budge. Critically, as he has said of himself, he is “a short-story writer, who also writes the occasional novel, not the other way round.” There is nothing incidental about his short stories.
Writers mine his words the same way archeologists poke at and palpitate over a fragment of bone or jug, jabbed by the desire to figure out how he manages it.
In his new 12-story collection, Cheating at Canasta, we find the title story is a weaker strain than the opening story, The Dressmaker’s Child, which will ring the memory bells for those well versed in Ireland’s summer of moving statues in 1985. In a brilliant concoction, Trevor presents us with the disturbed child of a possessed single mother, who repeatedly hurls herself at passing cars. Cathal, a mechanic, has agreed to drive two smooching Spanish tourists – for 50 euros – to look at a holy statue purported to have once cried tears. On his return, his car strikes the notorious child and he does not stop. The ramifications hammer his life, as the mother of the child stalks him. We shudder because we know it’s not such an unlikely tale. We can hear the distant twittering about such marked women in villages across Ireland and/or random apartment buildings in Canada.
The people that populate Trevor’s stories and novels reflect principally his interest in the ordinary créatúrs of mostly Irish life and, on the other end of the scale, his Big House folk. In Cheating at Canasta, he’s convening mostly with unfortunates whose lives have been stunted by the interference or actions of others, or blistered by their own decisions or lack of them. Trevor probes their resolve, parachuting into the second half of their lives, while waving the torch back on the earlier defining moment that delivered them up to where they now stand. In his quietude, he gives us the telescope into such interesting and ordinary, commonly dark, lives.
His people are steadfast amid the change around them. Despite the odd hint of a latte or a woman buying an organic chicken, he maintains timelessness, vague on dates and place, reserving his precision where it’s warranted – to describe the particulars of a silence, or details of how, as they say in Ireland, a face might betray a body’s thinking. The daily accoutrements of life may have changed in Trevor’s stories, but the mystery and nuance of the human heart is unaffected by any calendar.
This time around, he’s not content only to stamp about in the usual swamp. We feel him straining his neck to bear witness to a younger generation many arms from his own. He manages this with varying degrees of success. He may not always accurately conjure the dialect and exchange between the young, but it matters not, because his stories add up in their own unique way and only a fool would dismiss such stories on the basis of a bit of duff dialogue. It does not take the wind out of them.
His lean succeeds specifically in the disturbing An Afternoon, where teenager Jasmin meets a predator she’s encountered on a telephone chat line. Trevor, on form, unravels how Jasmin innocently plods toward him and succumbs to the predator’s flattery. He also attacks the leech calmly from within as we watch him gradually route Jasmin toward his house. The reader is released from the worst, only when the predator’s sister – he’s on probation – catches him. The sister’s hysteria at the potential of what her brother might have done is particularly affecting, unveiling the complexity that families of such men must face. What’s remarkable about the story is the way Trevor can chart both the pedophile and the teenage girl so effectively that we’re given two distinct portraits, where many short stories might barely scrape one.
In Bravado, Trevor tackles the wanton and incidental violence of a binge-drinking-type night among youths, and the nuanced outcome, where a girl’s decision not to act results in a young man’s death.
A meddling sister ruins the marriage prospect of her clergyman brother in Faith and then finds his life irretrievably entwined with hers, as he witnesses her physical demise. Trevor imaginatively pokes around in their simplicity. His people do not leap back up, and this is what makes them interesting.
I did have the sense of a few stories fading in and out of each other, without sufficient strong fences between them, until I reread read them as a triptych (the same way we look at art) and found they informed one another. Afterward, the single fields around them in this collection – Men of Ireland, The Room, Folie à Deux – also shone more verdant.
An established visual artist once said to me that she looks at art not to find what she likes in it, but for what she does not know. I take a similar approach to William Trevor: I am not looking for what I know he can already give me as a reader, I am all ears for whatever there remains left for him to tell me.
October 13, 2007
CHEATING AT CANASTA
By William Trevor
Knopf Canada, 232 pages, $32
May 14, 2010
I have a theory — I revise my theories four times a day — but this one persists. If you’re going to write working-class stories, they had better arrive beyond bloody brilliant, because stick-handling them past the gatekeepers of the predominantly middle-class publishing industry will require a shot that lands right between the eyes.
In part, this is due to the squeezed nature of publishing: Marketing departments guillotine editorial leaps of faith, so even the impassioned editor who can see some value in proletariat-inclusive prose can face tripping.
To espouse such an opinion, prepare to be deafened by catcalls, but scan your bookshelves and you’ll see what I am muttering about. How often are our literary folk driving the bus, or digging a hole?
James Kelman has had an earful of it, having been called an “illiterate savage” (Times columnist Simon Jenkins). His 1994 Booker win for How Late It Was, How Late was described as “a disgrace” by a Booker judge.
Kelman usually returns to the page (and the odd gruff interview) to settle his class war and heckle his detractors. He refuses to budge from the cadence and minutiae of the world that he’s from — working-class Glasgow — and that matters to him, so he has not, despite the poor trappings of literary success, been seduced from the factory floor.
With so much to mine and so few writers on his turf, why would he be? His influence on a younger generation of writers, such as Irvine Welsh, is uncontestable, even by some of the aforementioned proletariat-averse doughnut heads, for whom a sharp dip into poverty may aid the realization we do not require everyone on the page to only live like them.
Kelman’s new novel, Kieron Smith, Boy, demonstrates again he’s not planning on diluting his style any time soon. Whether you stay and see Kieron marching toward adolescence will depend on how much you demand from your musical register, and your relationship to the act of reading. Kelman has no interest in providing the neat or traditional literary stepladders or any hint of a stick trail to tempt you through his book. There will be no lift, no plot, no explanation.
Hallelujah, says I. It’s a book you read line by line. Give praise, says I. The prose is like a jigsaw puzzle that pieces episodes: the present and past world of one small boy, resolutely in his wee world (redolent of Le Petit Nicolas crossed with a no-jokes Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha) of fighting with his peers, avoiding his despot brother, having his accent corrected by his mother and erased by his teacher, climbing the school roof, shinnying the roan pipe, fighting, more fighting, navigating sectarianism, while worrying he has a Pape (Catholic) name, reading, swimming pool, football, stolen bike and dead granddad. The sectarian football fighting is particularly well created and interpreted from the child’s point of view.
Initially, if you’re of auditory inclination, you’ll love the percussive nature of the prose: ye, ye, ye, cribbed, jooked, dreeped. Then there’s the picnic with endless duo and trio blenders, such as I was greeting … ponging, sparring, a doing, a kicking. The censorship of the spelling, meant to replicate the squashing of his accent, is like an inbuilt quiz.
All this serves to heighten the message that Kieron is not all right, it’s not all right that he’s poor and only education might save him. But his bully brother is good at his lessons, while Kieron tends to exasperate all around him with his Shackleton expeditions up and over the roof.
Even as he is being shaved away, and squashed and skelped by his father, he remains a dotey boy, though some readers may find him remarkably unremarkable. There’s a very interesting contradictory and reinforcement device in his vernacular and Kelman sits in those eye sockets and never budges. There’s a near-identical haze from the left-hand corner of puzzle across to the right, so that you could essentially open the book anywhere and read it forward or backward. For the first 159 pages, it was my idea of wonderful, far from a mere sentimental vote; the victory was seeing the recognizable flagstones of working-class life that are so rarely on the page. And then, at page 160, I ground to inexplicable and crushing halt.
To temper my despair, I reread parts of Beckett’s Watt and Malone Dies, but no matter, still I could not go on. I went back to read some of Kelman’s early work, where weaker prose and recurrent theme of bloke who can’t get laid because he lacks a gas fire and fitted carpets sent me two rungs farther down the ladder. Still nohow on. I read a bit of Beckett’s Happy Days: “Ah well — no worse — no better, no worse — no change — said Winnie.” And, thanks be to God for Winnie inspecting her mouth, I had it. Kelman only gives you his people exactly as they are in that very sequence: no worse — no better — and after 160 pages, no change.
There’s nothing specifically dark or difficult about this book, there’s simply too much of it; imagine chomping an endless piece of spaghetti in exactly the same rhythm until you discover an epic need to cease chomping. Is this a problem? Are all books written to be read in their entirety? I doubt it. Are we only satisfied as readers if we hit a pole vault of victory in our books? I think not.
In his resolute truth to the tenor of his wee man — initially what I thought to be a wise decision — Kelman scuppers himself, because beyond 200 pages, he fails to raise what’s extraordinary in this ordinary, and ordinary, ordinary, drifts into a numbing hum. It’s not unpleasant, but neither for that matter is listening to the fridge.
Kelman may be a writer who some readers only summit a chunk of his books, but what thinking reader requires an Olympic conclusion anyway? Rather, we desire significant moments that force us to consider life in a way we may not have considered it before. You’ll get some moments in this book and the rest of the time you’ll be greeting and sleeting and fleeting.
October 10, 2009
Reader, hail that cab!
Published on Friday, Jul. 24, 2009
Amid the archeology of literature, there are novels easily found, gauzed only by a light crumble of soil, and there are true artifacts: buried six feet under. Their chance encounter is particularly worth talking about because one has to wonder how in the history of the civilized world this pairing of ink and paper has not continued its glory, glory, hallelujah.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Helen Potrebenko was a cherished and important Vancouver writer, well known for her early writing in Pedestal, Canada’s first women’s-liberation newspaper, and for her numerous books that included short stories, novels, poems and plays. Hers was the significant working-class urban feminist voice. She also had jokes, good ones. Modern Times, a major bookstore in San Francisco, had a big sign telling customers that if they only read one book in 1975, it should be Taxi!.
New Star Books published Taxi! during a time when “political” was an urgent rather than a dismissed word. (The novel is now available from Lazara Press.) According to Potrebenko, “Women here were very concerned that there should be literature with which we could identify, and since most women are working class and find very little about people like us to read, we were going to rectify that.”
Taxi! rectifies a great deal more than that and enjoys a born-again pertinence today. It’s wonderfully refreshing and confrontational 34 years later, as we are humped by the recession. On Page 11, the ring from the line “Capitalism has begun its cataclysmic degeneration” would make Karl Marx sit up in his grave and nod, in unison, with the rest of us bamboozled by recent banking bollockology.
Shannon, a sharp and mordantly funny cab driver, delivers as many apt nuggets as passengers while she navigates, examines and confronts the city, clinging to her sanity, among the inane blather of those tripping into, out of and around her cab.
It is this perfect combination of the cab crisscrossing, taking the reader into distinctive Vancouver neighbourhoods, and the varied population who open and slam the door that situates the reader in place and time.
It’s a novel to read for then and now: Potrebenko’s unique voice and perfectly paced writing render it in witty exchanges and jazzy Chekhovian musings, such as: “She was sometimes a personable person. Sometimes people called her beautiful and sometimes ugly, which goes to show she isn’t a proper woman since with proper women there is no doubt whether they are beautiful or ugly.”
And: “Shannon fell in love with Ronnie in October but preoccupied as are all drivers with making money, he didn’t notice until several weeks had gone by.”
Or: “She would have preferred a woman friend but she hardly ever met any women. Few cab drivers are women and few women earn enough money to ride in cabs much.”
Or: “Sundays are always slow unless it snows and it rarely snows in August in Vancouver.”
The fragmented style of the novel conveys the fragmented nature of the job. Discombobulating images flitter though Shannon’s wing and rear-view mirrors, and the snips and snipes of conversation, or more accurately interrogation, gate-crash her ears. I’ve got no money. Airport. Do you ball? Are you married? How do you like cab driving? What sort of job is this? Where can I buy a woman?
Unusually for a character in a novel, but like many people currently, she is looking for a job. We learn of the extrapolations of scoring shifts as a cab driver, and the specific extrapolation for a female driver. Encore, Do you ball?
Vancouver was sleazier in 1975. Constant heckling of women and soliciting for sex, heroin traded where crack moves sleeve to hand now, but the same rituals existed. As Shannon observes: “The city never really changed: it had a way of transforming change like a great sprawling organism which absorbs foreignness into its own body.”
Resolutely class-conscious, Shannon elucidates on the class divisions in her city. Indeed, Taxi! contains informative mini-polemics on Canadian social, political and labour history. If you didn’t live here in 1970s, you can deduce plenty of clues about it from this novel.
The structure of the book mirrors a “work” shift, so we repeatedly meet Shannon and greet what and whom she encounters, much of which drives her bananas. Her world outside work mainly concerns visiting her friend’s baby, in whom she delights, and her pal Gerald, an unemployed, yogurt-eating James Joyce devotee. Taxi! establishes the rhythm of an ordinary working life at its core and acknowledges that to survive the day, the working poor need humour, quiet endurance and the neck of a stretched turtle.
A taxi driver cannot decide which social class or individual steps into her car, so in they all pile, frothing and flawed: businessmen, the 20-year-old kid, psych patients, junkies, people dodging cops, fat, old, bald, drunk, dirty, clean, flowery-dressed. What more drama could be needed when the binoculars are trained on the undiluted peculiarities of humankind?
Despite being warned against talking politics with the punters, Shannon argues full on with them over the status of women, capitalism and the ruling class. Drivers are also not to complain about safety to the safety committee, even though the cars are falling apart and there is the constant demand to turn in high sheets.
However, what the novel ultimately disputes is the simplistic notion there are better jobs to go to. For many people, there are not. It’s a faithful and forensic examination of work, the proletariat and the lack of choices therein. If we think of the increasing numbers of people who wake to face this reality, Taxi! enlightens us that the problem is not with them but with the problematic system that surrounds them and the diversity that is circumstance.
Taxi! gave us a bold voice in 1975. Open it to be amused, invigorated and, well, outraged.
October 22, 2007
By Anne Enright
Black Cat, 261 pages, $17.50
Anne Enright’s Man Booker short-listed novel The Gathering may well polarize readers in the same way childhood experiences divide families into distinct camps. One side will hold its gaze and sit mucho satisfied at the table, another group with less robust constitutions may be unable to confront what it offers and shiver away from it. A third salivating group (likely young writers) will declare a willingness to clamber over moving rocks, minus essential organs, for a similar ability to write such incredible sentences.
This book is more of a perturbing gulp than a difficult read, with writing that hoofs you in the gut no matter how much you may wish to rail against it. Yet I have to confess that this novel left me quite pickled.
Enright’s last novel, The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch, sent us milling into the nether regions of Eliza Lynch and 19th century Paraguay; this time, Veronica Hegarty, the narrator of The Gathering, wants to tell us what happened to her brother Liam the summer he was 8 or 9, but she’s not sure if it really did happen. She’s one of a vast quantity of Hegartys, nine still breathing. Here they all are through Veronica’s savage eye in all their grim and peculiar glory: the twins, the priest, the drifter, the drinker, the yank and more.
All that’s rotten, tricky and normal, the roles and righteousness of family members, especially the untouchable Irish mammy, merge together in this novel, alongside the kind of miserable abuse we now know happened (and still happens) in houses, farms and sacristies. It’s all laid out bare and brutal in this tight domestic landscape.
Hegarty’s younger brother, Liam, has just committed suicide in Brighton, England, and she travels from Ireland to bring his body home for burial.
Much of the narrative revolves around her trying to piece together both her memories of Liam and her granny Ada’s choices, leading up to finally acknowledging that she witnessed Liam being sexually abused years ago by her Granny’s landlord and lover, the manipulative Lambert Nugent.
Hegarty is sure of very little in this novel (except what’s wrong with everyone around her and what’s extraordinary about her two daughters). It’s the twisting effect of sudden death. This is where Enright is at her best, mapping out and depicting the unreliability of memory and the peculiarities of how family members perceive one another and how that perception is entirely different under the gaze of the wider world: that no one can really break free of the roles into which they’ve been cast by their families, even after they’re dead.
This is all woven expertly and tautly through the narrative, and praise be for every word of it. She evokes the bald confusion and infected gouges that abuse inflicts on individuals who experience it, and the ripple effect on those who were blind witnesses to what happened. We are left in no doubt that it is Lamb Nugent’s abuse of her brother Liam that sets him on his path to being a lost soul rattling anonymously in an impersonal life in England, while equally damaged and emotionally arrested Hegarty has dragged herself into a suburban middle-class lifejacket. This was a source of resentment and distance between the two of them.
I kept thinking of how many more Liam Hegartys Ireland has lost to English railway stations or underneath bridges or grungy bedsits, and was gratified to see such a man gracing the pages of our literature.
I admire immensely Enright’s ability to tack hard onto her page both the polite and vicious underbelly of family. She doesn’t nice-up the implications of family in child abuse, nor does she shrink from contrasting how the generations paid attention differently to their children. And it’s unlikely you’ll find a more precisely rendered depiction of the hypocrisy, minor hysterics and comforting ritual of an Irish wake.
I understood the necessary emotional flatness Hegarty demonstrates, but what’s more challenging to resolve in Enright’s work is the clever detachment that pervades it, shoves you away from her characters and keeps you tethered outside the gate. The pattern of overwrought descriptions, especially sexual ones that announce themselves as literary artifacts rather than contribute to the characters, becomes wearisome. At times, I’d enough of the gonads and longed for someone to hold a hairbrush or a doorknob.
This repetition, while it often sounds snazzy – no lack of inventive verve in Enright’s words – bangs the reader on the head. Perhaps she wants to shock, but it’s about 30 years too late. A more likely explanation is that Enright’s level of interest in these things exceeds the actual interest demonstrated by her narrator, who, for all she thinks about sex, rarely actually goes upstairs and has any. Enright has hacked away at the traditions of the novel in this book, but she has not left them far enough behind her to be truly shut of them.
A lack of tenderness generally leaves the novel and reader somewhat bereft. Maybe this is the point: to create a book that unapologetically replicates how numbing abuse and an emotionally bankrupt a family can be. It’s almost as if, in her sensible quest to avoid any smidgen of sentimentality, Enright has slammed the lid on the coal bin down so hard that no air can be allowed in. Thus, I found myself simmering lovingly over sentences, wondering if certain descriptions would ever be this funny or well rendered again, but had little interest in learning anything further about Veronica Hegarty.
I walked into things trying to understand why this novel perplexed me so much. My right brain suggested such an effect is a victory for literature and the mark of a great writer, while my left brain petitioned for oxygen and Snoopy to recover.
It doesn’t do to hazard a guess at how relentless difficult families can be, so for those who don’t have one, Enright’s novel will unequivocally give you one.
Anakana Schofield is sprung from England and Ireland to Canada from a long line of short-legged, batty women.
December 13, 2006
D7 THE GLOBE AND MAIL SATURDAY, JUNE 17, 2006 MEMOIR
Trapped between cultures
The Sailor in the Wardrobe
By Hugo Hamilton
Fourth Estate, 263 pages, $38.95
Reviewed By Anakana Schofield.
For complicated historical reasons, an Gaeilge, the Irish language, has on occasion attracted a certain brand of nutter. Rather than being a useful entity for buying a packet of sausages ordescribing how much you love your goats, the language can become bogged down in its purported significanceas saviour of the nation —an impossible task for which it is neither equipped nor intended. It’s odd because, far from being a didactic language, an Gaeilge, when spoken, is an undulating language, in which the combination of words can have many a shade and meaning.
Hugo Hamilton’s dad was a passionate West Cork man for whom the Irish language (and its twinbrother, Irish nationalism) would provide deliverance. The repair of the Irish nation would begin in earnest between the four walls of his South County Dublin home, where his five children were cast as the pioneers to right the malaise of occupation. Anything British would be forbidden in his house, including the English language. He told his children they were “the new Irish, the speckled people,”while he plodded about being a sincere and violent misery guts, decrying popular culture or anything that was any fun, all for the betterment of the Irish nation. Frighteningly, he was actually well intended; fortunately, it did not all go according to plan and, ironically, as a result, his son Hugo has now written two of the most insightful and significant books ever written about Ireland. In English.
We previously met Hamilton’sdad in his first memoir, The SpeckledPeople, a book so emotionally affecting and written in such evocative and poetic tones that the said pedantic dad might have had cause to admit the old Béarla (English) and The Beatles were not so bad for his son after all. On the opposite side of the table sat Hamilton’s mother, a more sensible and feeling German woman,who arrived in Ireland after the war, clearly post-traumatic, distraught with confusion over everything she’d experienced living in Nazi
Germany. She felt it was “time to walk away from the hurt,” that it was “the time of forgiveness and peace.” While one can barely fathom how she put up with her husband, she managed occasionally to curtail some of his more violent lunges at the children and offer them some respite from his angerand eccentricity. Hugo, meanwhile, bore theweight of his parents’ respective histories, finding himself idir dhá domhain (between two worlds), overheated in his Aran sweaters and lederhosen, racially abused and mortified, while longing to relate exclusively to the world outside his doorstep: Dún Laoghaire, a suburb of Dublin in the late 1960s.
The Sailor in the Wardrobe picks up where Hamilton’s first memoir left off. Against the backdrop of onesummer of his adolescence, he describes and questions the experienceof belonging and not belonging in a riveting and relevant manner. It’s a time fraught with battles and mysteries: His boss at the harbour, Dan Hurley, is engaged in a holy war with another fisherman,Tyrone, who eventually drowns; his best friend, the vibrant Packer, without explanation wants nothing to do with him. When a German cousin, Stefan, arrives in Ireland for a holiday and goes missing in Connemara, the entire family is deeply mystified. Members of the extended family sprinkle the tale like condiments.The various situations give rise to other memories, such as the time Hugo’s father tried to invade Northern Ireland with his Aiserí political party and how his mother risked everything to keep bringing food each day to some people in Mainz, Germany, who now want her to return the ancient book they gave her as thanks. In response to his father’s minidespotism, Hamilton retrieves and relates to a photograph of his grandfather, John Hamilton, soft eyed, relegated to the back of his father’s wardrobe on account of being a sailor in the British navy. The great power of this book, beyond Hamilton having a unique and interesting story to tell, is without doubt the voice in which he tells the story, and also that it has a relevance far beyond just memoir.This is no limited woe-is-me-alas carry-on. His particular offers the reader a way into the general. His description of a fisherman trying to remove a fishhook from his hand, or a needle being inserted into his own spine to test for meningitis, will send you reeling. His evocation of the Ireland of the time and the characters he shares with us possess a reassuring accuracy and roundedness, so that, on finishing, you feel you could happily trot through Dún Laoghaire, cross the road and have a satisfying conversation with the neighbours. Hamilton is also the author of five novels and a short-story collection. Somehow, in these memoirs, his prose has lost a certain edginess that had previously propelled it, and more subtle aspects of his writing have risen up and enriched it. He was always an insightful and unique writer, who deserved to have far more people reading him. It is gratifying to see that the seats around the table are filling up and people are paying attention.
November 26, 2006
By Jeanette Winterson
Bloomsbury, 416 pages, $14.95
Jeanette Winterson is a writer many of us had been hoping our children would grow up to read. She has just sliced a significant number of years off the wait by writing Tanglewreck, a novel children ages 9 and upward will actually want to read. (Precocious children between 6 and 9, fond of rabbits and woolly mammoths, will also get plenty out of it.)
Since, at the age of 23, she burst into the British literary asteroid belt (a predisposition to ducking is useful as literary spats are as stable as Christmas fruitcake) with Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, she’s had her ups — eight novels — and dips — a frosty five-year-period of media dust-ups, where she was a bit of a scrapper, admitting in retrospect she should have sewn her mouth shut. I’ve always admired her bravery and the control she exerted over her prose, even when she was clearly having the odd unexplained ding in orbit. Language is her insulin: She has always taken her work and her readers very seriously.
Tanglewreck is a vibrant book that will ignite children’s interest in science because it lifts scientific theory and modern physics playfully out of the usual textbook situation and boldly skateboards them through a yarn that will appeal equally to boys and girls, science lovers or otherwise.The novel suffers somewhat from being overpopulated with characters, but there is enough variety in them, their situations and the historical settings that you would have to have extremely low blood pressure not to be taken up by some of them. Who can resist a rabbit called Bigamist?
Time is misbehaving. Time has gone completely nuts. The world is experiencing Time Tornados, which whirl people from the present to other time periods. The only thing that can control and conquer time is the errant, ancient watch, the Timekeeper.Silver, an orphan (no child can seem to make it through 400 pages with parents to navigate), lives in a sprawling and, by all accounts, communicative old house, Tanglewreck, with the less than nobly intentioned Mrs. Rockabye. Abel Darkwater, a menacing watch trader, is in league with her, trying to get his mucky paws on the Timekeeper, and they expect innocent and temperate Silver to lead them to it.En route, Silver meets far too many people to list here, but they’re mostly being impacted by, or navigating, or taking advantage of Time’s present hiccups, like evil Regalia Mason, an almost-oil-baroness type, who is transfusing time from people who have too much of it and selling it to people who don’t have enough. Mason and her company, Quanta, are keen to control time and privatize it.For the most part, Winterson’s style and witty material make the transition to younger readers remarkably well, but with a literary venture this rapid and ambitious, aspects do give way. While it’s an exciting rip through history, time and the universe, there’s a certain amount of whiplash in the process. Recurrent periods of dizziness set in around the 270-page mark, when I longed to get off the Einstein line and get stuck down a nice calm tunnel with the big-eared hobbity people, the Throwbacks. Sometimes, you just feel like you’re getting the jacket on a character mentally, and wham, the arms are gone out of the sleeves.Overall, Winterson is stronger, or more comfortable, on the past and the future than the present. There’s a certain forcedness to her take on anything contemporary. It’s evident in her dialogue, too, her cockney thugs or the more “street” characters slide a little close to daftness and a touch of Ali G, while her invented dialect and cadence for the ancient, underground-dwelling Throwbacks never goes out of tune. Creations like Elvis the robot dog, the fridge that beeps to tell you when you are out of milk, petrol ponies (motorbikes) and the Annometer (tells whether time is slipping) are the hard work of an unflagging imagination which will improve the family blood circulation on reading.
In Silver, the main gal, Winterson succeeds in creating a quiet, thoughtful character. The biggest challenge Silver has is not finding the Timekeeper, however, but surviving the din going on around her in this novel, for she is almost gobbled up by it all. At a certain point, you have to try remind yourself, whose story exactly is this? You close the book for a pause and find you can barely recall anything about her.
Other important, central characters struggle, too, with their centre of gravity. Due to this rocky unevenness, Regalia Mason feels so one-dimensional she’s practically brittle. This gives rise to another dilemma: Some of the science feels like Winterson is enjoying telling it more than that it truly has a place in the story. She has a tendency to be a tad didactic, which results in her telling children what they should think about certain characters, rather than depicting a character so rounded that the children will make up their own minds and get exactly what she’s driving at. Sometimes, Winterson just says too much.
Perhaps she felt she had to gallop in order not to lose this iPod-listening, techno-savvy generation, and she could be correct. But a gallop is not necessarily her strength; she’s a writer you’d rather sit and simmer with, even at the age of 9. If she’d lowered the Bunsen burner and stuck more with what she does so very well — i.e. language, underground hobbity people, talking houses and woolly mammoths — she’d have a more lasting legacy for her book.
If it takes a gallop to get children on her bus, so be it, for this book will give children the taste and the tools to hunger for complicated narratives, and will remove any fear of the archaic being dull. We may understand the joy and love with which Winterson infused every page of this novel, but unfortunately, we do not always fully comprehend its purpose.
November 3, 2006
The Globe and Mail (Nov 2006)
Fumbling with doors
Paula Spencer By Roddy Doyle Knopf Canada, 277 pages, $32.95
It has often struck me as strange that modern Irish fiction does not have more working-class heroes. When you consider that for most of the last century, half the country was exiled digging holes, building roads, driving buses in New York and nursing in English hospitals, it’s remarkable more of them haven’t graced the pages of our fiction. Yes, yes, I know, social class and a particular job description cannot eclipse dull writing and lack of a story. The experts would argue me under the bed and over the fence for suggesting such a demand of fiction: What do you think this is, missus, the bleeding equal opportunities commission?
Appeasement and much more besides turn up in Roddy Doyle’s novel Paula Spencer. The working classes have served him well; so has his CD collection.Lest I should appear to be going easy on him for the lone act of putting an evening cleaner on the page, I will say that I have not always been an unadulterated fan of his fiction. Sometimes in his earlier “me bollix” phase of fiction (e.g. The Barrytown Trilogy), I found he relied too heavily on twisting the larynx out of the Dublin accent. My full conversion came at Paddy Clarke Ha, Ha, Ha, an unparalleled portrait and depiction of the peculiarity of being a child.
Doyle likes to keep his people close. Roddy and Paula first did a literary line together in the novel The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, a union that had morphed from his earlier 1994 BBC television series: The Family. The first episode caused Doyle to have his lawn verbally mowed by outraged factions up and down the Irish countryside, for daring to suggest domestic violence existed, for bravely pointing out that life for some folks could be a grim affair.
Three episodes later, they understood his point, and anyone who saw the final episode, which focused entirely on Paula, has the edgy, angry, Bambi-eyed and drawn Paula forever iron-branded into their frontal lobes. Comparatively speaking, with this third-innings Paula Spencer, their literary union has outlasted the average hopeful marriage.
In this new book, Doyle is more than reunited with Paula; he’s back in her kidneys. However, the descent to the renal region is initially a sluggish and flat affair. Paula is somewhat foggy, negotiating the Ireland of new money, of espresso bars, of folks owning apartments in Bulgaria, of brutal traffic jams, Hong Kong-style house prices and the jerky swing to multiculturalism. Ireland is no longer the homogeneous sausage it was during The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, when Paula’s violent husband Charlo was beating her blue and she had nightly date with a bottle of gin.
In The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Doyle essentially outdid himself, placing such an unlikely presence, rendered so strongly and persuasively on that page, that one opens Paula Spencer with a slight apprehension, an apprehension that keeps you wondering for at least the first 70 pages. He’s shifted Paula to the third person, there’s a lot of she looks, she listens, she does, she doesn’t, she lifts, she moves, she sits, she swallows and you wonder where’s our Paula gone? Foul-mouthed, funny, flying Paula. The Paula who spoke to us embedded in the onslaught of domestic violence. The Paula who made my hands physically shake as I read her words. Come back, Paula, climb out of this measured, oak wardrobe.
Finally she does emerge and you literally want to start cheering because there she is, foibles an’ all. Our Paula. How’s it going there Paula? We’ve missed ya, what? Then you realize why Doyle did it. The slow start. Paula’s now a 48-year-old widow who works as an evening cleaner and is coming off the drink (four months and five days with no drop taken). Life’s interminably slow when you’re off the booze and every minute you don’t drink has 60 long seconds. Having served time as an evening cleaner, I can say the sight of a bucket doesn’t rev the pace of life up either.
Doyle’s faithful to Paula’s truth and just as you weren’t going to find chamomile tea flowing through her kidneys in the last book, he’s not going to dress his prose up with Jimi Hendrix solo-style sentences to make you feel better about her life in this one. You won’t find descriptions of the slant of sunlight that sound good, but have no purpose. He heeds only what she would, and if it’s on the page, he’s done the two shaves a day to make sure it needs to be. Literary trickery need not apply. He’s got voice. More writers should consider a subscription to it.
Paula Spencer is worried about her grown-up kids because of how — steeped in drink and abuse herself — she treated them. Leanne’s 23, and on the drink, looking likely to continue her mother’s alcoholic legacy, John Paul (named for the late Pope) is off the heroin, she thinks, with two kids and a girlfriend called Star, whom Paula can’t stand. Nicola has more money than she does, and Jack’s her only child who won’t hate her.
We remain entangled with Paula’s sisters, Carmel and Denise, and some of the finest moments of the book are in their company, including text messages that are so funny they threaten the urinary tract. The crux of the book is Paula trying to deal with the effects of her earlier abusive relationship, and addictive life under the daily threat of alcoholism revisiting her.
Readers rarely get this chance to reconvene with a character years later and see them fumbling to figure it all out. It’s a credit to Doyle that Paula fumbles honestly, desperately and convincingly, but also rises with dignity, determination and humour in a portrait that is fully committed to showing the effect and impact of her behaviour and circumstance. She’s intensely likable, is Paula.
Aside from one quibble with the farfetched notion of John Paul the heroin addict taking up yoga, my only other criticism remains that such intrinsically humane stories should be told more often. If the flaws of a writer’s personality turn up on the page, so too do his or her strengths. Amid success and international book festivals, Roddy Doyle still notices and values the Paula Spencers of this world. He has time for the badgering, muttery auld ones, who talk about their son-in-law at the bus stop, the kind you’d love to brain when you haven’t had your morning coffee. He reminds us, yet again, that there’s plenty going on for God’s ordinary people.
Anakana Schofield regularly had a pain in her backside cleaning toilets in Dublin during the 1990s. It was a great cultivator for literary ambition.
November 1, 2006
The seven-year-old cannot sit up. “I feel sick,” Cúán whimpers. He’s flat on his back across the seats of this Manchester-to-Ulverston train, pale and clutching his tummy, while out the window the Lake District landscape of Arthur Ransome novels we have come specifically to explore flashes past ignored.
Once we arrive at the Ulverston railway station, I discover that there are no buses running on Sunday to Coniston, 17 kilometres away. This is where Bank Ground Farm is located, a bed and breakfast I have chosen because it’s the inspiration for the children’s home in the Ransome books. It’s an indication of how remote, and perhaps unsuitable, the accommodation is. By the time we arrive at Bank Ground Farm, via a resented $50 taxi ride, I am carrying the contents of Cúán’s tummy in a very small bag.
The farm, known as Holly Howe in the celebrated British author’s novels, sits snug along the shores of Lake Coniston and has a Merchant Ivory feel to it – chimney pot overgrown with moss, white exterior, flowerbeds galore. Daffodils welcome us and a couple of lambs head-butt each other in a neighbouring field.
But poor Cúán, who has puked all the way along the bumpy road, is too weak to even look at the famous field where Roger, aged 7, zigzagged, waiting for a telegram with permission from his father to go sailing on the first page of Swallows and Amazons. The housekeeper seems a little surprised at my frustrations with local transport. “We’re out in the middle of nowhere. What do you expect?” Reality appears to be thumping fiction today.
Canadian children are more likely to beg to visit Harry Potter’s King’s Cross train station or Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top Farm rather than the sailboat territory of John, Susan, Titty and Roger – the Walker children – from Swallows and Amazons. Young Canadians usually find Ransome via an enamoured librarian, a parent or, like us, a friend. He’s the kind of author a Books editor may call a “classic – and if you haven’t read him, you should.” Elsewhere, though, he continues to attract a nerdy demographic – think 30s male with innocent girlfriend in tow, who are willing to tramp in marshy spots for the hope of spotting a vague shed they might attribute to one of his novels.
Arthur Ransome, born in 1884, in Leeds, England, spent his childhood summers on the South of Coniston water, where he eventually penned Swallows and Amazons, his most famous book, and many others. His children are regarded as classic characters in British literature. Set in the Lake District and on the Norfolk Broads during the 1930s, the books concern two gangs of children in the days of autonomous adventures, sailing and protecting birds.
When my son begged me not to read the last 50 pages of Swallowdale because the thought of it ending was too painful, I figured the time had come to break out of the bottom bunk and plop him into the landscape he has so fictionally adored.
Ransome aside, the Lake District is a landscape well known for its watery scenery 6,000 archeological sites. Geology to this place is what skyscrapers are to New York.
But, for Cúán and I today, the moral of the story is to be practical about the lure of literary locale. Fortunately, I have taken an unstructured approach to our adventure, with the only stipulation that we explore both the Lake District and Norfolk.
Upon arrival, we have to pass on the promising two-hour Swallows and Amazons boat tour because of a dodgy young stomach. Recuperation takes us to bed to watch a TV rugby match with our ski jackets on.
By 5 p.m., with Cúán reluctantly woken, we are finally experiencing Ransome’s landscape, but there’s no persuading the seven-year-old that the distant settlement on the opposite side of the lake is where we need to be. You cannot turn up the spirit of adventure like a radio. I nudge him a few inches along the road, but he folds to a squat every step, so I thrust out a thumb in desperation. Two London tourists apprehensively rescue us.
Out the window, we pass farmhouses, sheep a-plenty and the wondrous spectacle that is Lake Coniston, with the odd sailboat and the mound of Old Man Coniston mountain defiantly above it like a row of pudgy fists. The simple black-ink sketches that pepper all of Ransome’s novels mean that it’s like meeting a relative you have seen only in photographs, but years later looks no different in the flesh. If you blot out all the cars, it could easily be 1930 on this stretch.
We walk the lakeside path back from Coniston village to Bank Ground Farm, swinging our ginger ale, and gradually my child awakens to his literary landscape. “Pike rock!” he shrieks, spotting some rocks in the water. “Now where is Horseshoe Cove?” He points at a hut on a distant hill. Swallowdale! He announces the title of his favourite Ransome novel in triumph. He approaches a small stone bridge arched over a beck, gets down on his haunches and peers through it. “Can I crawl under it?” His face suggests that he thinks he will find all four characters in the novel waiting in a boat on the lake.
“Mammy,” he says, “let’s just drop the shopping right here and follow the beck all the way to the top of the mountain.”
It’s the spirit of adventure I have been waiting to hear.
The great advantage to Bank Ground Farm is the breakfast table. They offer a spread with home-cooked ham, bread, whisky jam and fruitcake that guests are free to graze on throughout the day.
Even though the helpful, volunteer-run Coniston tourist office suggests the Tarn Hows trail up to a mountain lake – likely the frozen tarn the children skate on in Winter Holiday – the seven-year-old says he’s going up Old Man Coniston mountain (803 metres high) in search of “a ledge” that played a major role in Swallowdale. The story also included a sprained ankle and a tree branch crutch.
It’s steep. Initially, it’s mostly fields with plenty of sheep and the odd rocky outcrop. The climb, once we haul ourselves up past the overflowing car park, turns pleasant as the path flattens and curves. Every turn reveals a new vista of the coppery red mountains. The tones, all red and dusty brown, are closer to something you would expect to see in Egypt rather than England.
We head for the pudding basin stone and Levers Water tarn, but the child is complaining of sore ankles and saying, “There’s no ledge. I’ve been duped.” I heed the ankle groans. I placate his sense of betrayal (“there should have been a ledge!”) by telling him a story as we walk down the Coppermines route, easier on the shins, that charmingly exits via a farm.
“The sun set against the hills,” Cúán quotes Ransome, when I marvel at the splashing sunset from our lakeside route. Remarkably, it’s exactly what’s happening in front of our eyes. The printed page is alive.
We stop by the fence of a field. A tree branch dangles down and offers a view that encompasses the skip of spring lambs, the calm blue water and that dusty red mammoth of Old Man Coniston. It’s a view that confirms why Potter and Ransome sunk their literary boots into this area.
In the evening, with the curtains ajar and after a few chapters of Ransome’s Picts and Martyrs, I insist on viewing a bit of a new television version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion amid seven-year-old protests. On screen, when Captain Wentworth says he wishes to find a wife “with firmness of mind,” my son yells, “Like Beatrix Potter!” All our random and intergenerational literary shoelaces are gradually tying themselves together.
After a day spent exploring the exquisite tarns, there are more hitches when we try to exit the Lake District. The single morning bus drops you almost a kilometre from the station, three minutes after the train leaves. Someone needs to sort out the pickle that is rural transport in Britain.
My moment of extreme foresight has been to schedule some maternal respite, care of a night at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cambridge, which, because of our four-day BritRail pass, is an ideal interlinking point along our train journey to the Norfolk Broads. (We had to travel from Ulverston to London, and then to Cambridge.) Respite is vital if you wish not to fall out irreparably with your small travelling companion.
The sight of East Anglia’s flat arable land is a contrast to the more calf-challenging undulations of Cumbria. The main thing that rises up here are the green reeds along the banks of the Broads: 200 kilometres of navigable man-made waterways, created from flooding after historical peat excavations. Our quest now is for mahogany boats, ropes and sails.
On a train from Cambridge to Norwich, I remember Ransome’s description of Wroxham in Coot Club as “noise and bustle.” It’s polite in comparison with what faces us today: overwhelmed by traffic, cheapened by amusement arcades and tacky shops. The Coach House Bed and Breakfast is affable. Beyond Wroxham being the gateway to access the Norfolk Broads, there’s little to recommend it.
Ludham, a nearby much prettier village, is where we find Hunter’s Yard, a charitable-trust-owned boat yard that restores and rents Ransome-era sailboats and offers skippered tours. In the yard, a dog sleeps. A distant hammer works at keeping these vintage boats in the water. On the wall hangs the Teasel boat sign used in the 1980s BBC film version of Coot Club.
The elements, most especially the wind, are critical to our success today. We are delighted to discover a coot’s nest on the launch, because the stories in the Norfolk novels involve the children protecting them. They are small pert birds, and their black heads have a tongue-shaped white splash; you can see why Ransome was so concerned about their demise, but they appear to have adjusted to the blights of technology.
Once aboard, I realize we are going to have the share the waterways with other boats. Everything is in opposites with the tiller. The seven-year-old is thrilled, grabs it, flinging it in wrong direction, and the boat heads into a bank. During the following three hours, I appeal for the divine intervention of our calm skipper, Tim, each time I see another boat, while the seven-year-old takes orders, decides the direction of the wind and calmly controls the tiller, impervious to possible crashes and calamities.
All the jigsaw pieces of what we have read fall into place. As we tack up the Bure River, I’m aware that this is one of the most interesting experiences I have ever had and I have been bought here by a seven-year-old’s favourite book. It’s extraordinary the places our children lead us.
A Ransome primer
There are two groups of children: the Swallows and the Amazons, who have fun adventures together climbing mountains, sailing boats and getting lost. They feature in 11 novels; Swallows and Amazons is the most famous. The author’s seven-year-old son, Cúán, offers a character guide.
Captain John Walker, 12. “He’s okay, but sometimes he can be a bit chaotic. For example, when Swallow sank in Swallowdale, he wasn’t very organized.”
First mate Susan Walker, 11. “Very good at boiling kettles and when you’re late for lunch she can be a bit strict and not amusing.”
Able seaman Titty Walker, 9. “Really good, very amusing. Let’s just say she’s a strategist, because alone she managed to capture the Amazon boat in Swallows and Amazons.
Boy Roger, 7. “Let’s just put it he follows John around like a puppy. He doesn’t like being the baby of the family. He wishes he was John.”
Nancy Blackett. “Head of the Amazons pirates. She bosses Peggy, her sister, about, by calling her a chump-headed galoot or a great donkey.”
Second mate Peggy Blackett. “A bit more quiet, has more sense than Nancy. If she was captain, they would never have lost that war in Swallows and Amazons.”
Coot Club Books
The D’s: Dick and Dorothea. “Brother and sister. Dick is committed to protecting the Coots nest while Dorothea is always making up very romantic stories.”