Monday, 21 April 2014

Snake's Head Fritillaries at Magdalen College, Oxford

One of the main events in the British naturalist's calendar is the emergence of the snake's head fritillary in the spring. As the daffodils begin to fade, these once common wildflowers emerge in a few choice places in the damp Thames Valley. In Oxford they currently form a purplish sheen peppered with white across Magdalen College's water meadow, and can be seen up close at the far end beside the Fellows' Garden. Although the Wildlife Trusts has them blooming throughout April and May, in our warm and unexpectedly early spring the flowers are already on their way out. Grab an umbrella and catch these delicate, striking blooms this week before they fade.

Don't miss some confused early marsh marigolds on your wander round, and some exuberant forget-me-nots too...

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Hannah Kent's Burial Rites: critical reception and the lyrical spirit

There are two stories to Burial Rites. The first is the tale of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a thirty-four-year-old woman who in 1829 was condemned to death for her part in the murder of two men in northern Iceland. In Hannah Kent's retelling, based on extensive archival research, Agnes is placed with the resentful family of a district official as the bitter winter descends and she awaits her execution. The young reverend drafted in to guide her spiritual journey towards death begins to suspect that the official narrative of events is not what it seems; as Agnes begins to reveal what really happened at Illugastadir, the reader wonders whether the truth - ugly and imperfect as it is - can be enough to save her.

The second story is about the runaway success of a debut novel by an unknown Australian author studying for her PhD in creative writing, a seven-figure advance, a multi-national publicity campaign, a literary vogue for Scandinavia, and critical division. Released to popular acclaim, Burial Rites has been shortlisted for several 2014 literary prizes and its twenty-nine-year-old author has a packed schedule of events in the US and UK over the coming months. As Ben Etherington points out in the Sydney Review of Books, ambivalent reviews for the book are few and far between - but criticism mainly centres on Kent's lyrical use of language and the 'creative-writing-programme' feel of her work. Romanticisms such as 'smears of violet…swelled against darkness of the night' are 'a bit annoying', says Etherington, while Steven Heighton in the New York Times critiques the 'operatic pondering' of Agnes, whose bruises '[blossom] like star clusters under the skin'. The book-buying public, it seems, are not annoyed, while some commentators struggle to reconcile commercial success with purple prose.

Furor will always accompany a major advance for an unknown debut, and the literary world's fascination with the cultural economics of publishing is doubtless a symptom of the financial peril that is the creative writer's habitual subsistence. Several reviewers have situated Kent's popular success within the recent Scandi-vogue - with Burial Rites neatly pinning the relatively unknown Iceland (notwithstanding its Nobel-prize-winning Halldór Laxness) on the mainstream literary map. Beyond its locational innovation, Burial Rites is a smartly-executed and readable page-turner, and considering its multi-national publicity machine it would have had to go very wrong to crash and burn. A bemused Kent writes,

I've been asked why I've had such a good run as a debut author…and I understand why people want to know. However, the truth is that it is a question that troubles me, because I have no answer. Was it hard work?…Luck? Was it due to the skilful navigation of an agent familiar with the weird and troubled waters of publishing?…I'm not sure…All I know is that I am very grateful that it happened to me.

Perhaps it's more fruitful to ask whether critiques of Kent's literary style are justified within the context of the story than to get wistfully stuck on the fairytale of its public emergence. So what is Burial Rites like to read? The brutal beauty of the Icelandic winter landscape emerges from the page with the quiet authority of an author who has actually lived there. Heighton acknowledges, 'the landscape of Iceland’s surprisingly “lush north” is simply and lucidly painted', although Etherington aesthetically winces at how ‘the outlying tongues of rock scarred the perfect kiss of sea and sky’, and wishes Kent would keep her penchant for similes and metaphors to herself ('the sea is a nag'). But in the main, reviewers agree that Kent evokes the stark geography of Iceland with aplomb - its valleys and passes, blizzard skies and rocky outcrops - and that her attention to the historical detail of daily life is bewitching and seamless with the narrative. Kent's tangible feel for landscape and living is not dissimilar from Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves, another prize-winning debut historical thriller whose bleak Canadian winter envelops its characters in an icy fist.

Hannah Kent's photographs of northern Iceland
So far, so well set. The critics struggle more with the portrayal of characters' interiority, particularly the first-person passages told from Agnes' point of view. Heighton says, 'It’s hard to imagine a brutalized convict - even one who has supposedly composed verse - prettifying her affliction so self-consciously.' In the Sydney Review, Etherington is not happy either. He quotes:

...they have strapped me to the saddle like a corpse being taken to the burial ground … I am tied like a lamb for slaughter … I wonder where they will store me, cellar me like butter, like smoked meat. Like a corpse … like a cow I go where I am led … it is as though the winter has set up home in my marrow … rotting slowly in a room like a body in a coffin … Like a woman, he said. The sea is a nag … The light had arrived like a hunted thing…

And comments:

It could well be that the density of simile reflects Agnes’s mental state as she is transported to the farm [at the beginning of the novel]. Although they do not again come as thickly, similes are a continual feature of her voice. We are to believe that Agnes has a strongly lyrical spirit, so this has grounds in the characterisation. It just makes her lyricism a bit annoying.

Kent's style, probably influenced by her reading of the Icelandic sagas, is occasionally poetic to a fault. Yet her language in the mouth of the brutalised and trampled Agnes makes too much psychological sense to be written off as floridity, or the product of generally lyrical characterisation. Kent does not shy away from letting us know that life in nineteenth-century rural Iceland is a world of ice, blood, mucus, bruises, shit, and beatings - quite disgusting and unromantic - which creates the possibility that the lyricism, when it appears, serves a purpose. Mankind has always sought to understand and transcend suffering through art, and Etherington should have paused at the notion that Kent's lyrical inclination has something to do with Agnes' mental state. As the latter is dragged, bound, pushed and pulled from servanthood to prison to farm to execution, her mind butterflies from the harsh reality of her experience - strapped to a saddle, iron-locked at the wrists, silent as her lover betrays her in the next bed - to a poetic analogy that might in the micro-moment transcend it. If she is stored like butter or smoked meat, she is no longer Agnes; the simile's purpose is to make her disappear from her hideous existence. Kent's language repeatedly shows Agnes trying to make her spiritual world bigger than her material one: even the reverend she chooses for counsel, she does so because she met him in a dream. In the secret, transcendent worlds of the simile, the metaphor, and the spirit, Agnes finds a place to hide.

We know this, too, because she tells us as much early on:

I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold on to what has not yet been stolen from me. I cannot let myself slip away. I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt...They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass...They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.

Burial Rites is not just historical tourism, and it's not only the story of an enigma, a woman enwrapped in narratives all purporting to truth. It's also a story about spiritual survival, and as such it fascinates its readers. In nineteenth-century Iceland, when all is said and done, the truth sets no-one free.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Rachel Joyce's Perfect

Rachel Joyce won hearts and minds with her 2012 beautifully-written bestseller The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, about an elderly man who sets out to post a letter to a dying friend and just keeps walking. Joyce follows that tale, in which an unlikely choice liberated its pensioner protagonist from sedate decline, with a novel in which the walls close in on her characters with menacing inevitability. Perfect tackles greed, class, childhood, obsession, loneliness, and mental illness against the backdrop of a brooding summer in the '70s; it's not for the faint-hearted.

Two seconds are added in 1972. When Diana Hemmings takes a shortcut down dodgy Digby Road in their gleaming new Jaguar, eleven-year-old Byron catches sight of the second hand on his watch moving backwards - two seconds in which a small girl on a red bicycle disappears under the wheels, and his mother fails to notice. When the accident eventually bubbles to the surface, and lonely Diana befriends the little girl's deprived and covetous mother, Byron and his besotted friend James must uncover the truth behind the injury and its peculiar consequences, and contain Diana's emerging secrets. Meanwhile, in the present day, a middle-aged man called Jim battles with the obsessions and compulsions that enthral him in order to keep himself safe. Who is Jim, and how will this sorry swirling of summer thunderclouds resolve?

Perfect, like its characters, is imperfect but magnetic. The two seconds, despite their magical-realist anti-clockwise foray on Byron's watch, are not in the end a literary trope that will wind up saving the day à la Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. Instead they give us the first hint of the fragmentation to come: Byron sees the second-hand move and the child disappear beneath the hubcap; Diana sees nothing and no-one. The disconnect between the son's imagination, unfolding reality and the mother's apparent mental absence is disconcerting and portentous. As the story develops, James and Byron manipulate events with childish good intentions that make the reader break out in a cold sweat. We can see that awfulness is descending, even if we can't make out for some time whether it will come in the form of Byron's controlling father Seymour, the grasping Beverley, the obsessional James or the unspooling Diana. When we finally understand Jim's place in the story, the poignancy of his ritualising - his attempts to keep everyone safe, long after it's any use - hits us hard.

The emotional complexity of Perfect creeps up on the reader like a thief in the night. Joyce's sympathetic ability to conjure up the mind states of both the damaged and the naive is impressive, from the extreme obsessive compulsions of Jim to the delicate disintegration of Diana. We want to shake her characters into their senses as they weave their untidy destinies like ricocheting spiders, even as we hope against hope for a beneficent deus ex machina; but, as we found in Harold Fry, an ending is never perfect.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Maria Semple worked for fifteen years as a screenwriter for Ellen, Mad About You and Arrested Development before she turned her hand to novels. If you ever wanted to read an epistolary comic novel about mothers, daughters, architecture, Microsoft, adultery, and Antarctica, Where'd You Go, Bernadette is the book for you. The brilliant, obsessive, and under-occupied Bernadette Fox spends her days in rainy Seattle skulking in a gigantic moulding house and antagonising the local helicopter parents. She'd probably have continued being a moderate-level nuisance wife and mother in perpetuity if her precocious daughter Bee hadn't asked for a trip to Antarctica to celebrate straight A-grades. The upcoming trip precipitates a perfect storm of misunderstanding, resentment, and psychotropic medication, and in the ensuing denouement Bernadette disappears, cleanly and completely, into thin air.

But Bee is not about to let her mother vanish off the face of the earth, and a mother-finding mission commences over the virtual and Antarctic geographies of Semple's glorious tragicomic domain. Along the way, the FBI join the chase, Bernadette's past architectural genius comes to light, Russian email scammers come undone, fifty schoolchildren narrowly escape PTSD, the self-help industry gets a spit-roasting, vegetable-wash will never look the same again - and we really, really want to know: where'd you go, Bernadette?

There's much to love in this deliriously imaginative book, but in the character of Bernadette, Semple scores a post-feminist triumph. We get to know Bee's mother as a quixotic creature who obsesses over the number of five-way intersections in Seattle and orders humungous angry billboards to keep her nosy neighbour off her land. Her predilection for antipsychotics, all-consuming fear of sea-sickness, inability to make friends and online gullibility incline us to side with her husband, Microsoft megastar Elgin Branch: maybe Bernadette is simply bonkers.

And yet - and yet: we discover that back in the day, Bernadette Fox was an architectural superstar who specialised in eco-friendly, paradigm-quaking designs that earned her a MacArthur 'genius' award. The book is as much about what happened to that Bernadette - how the genius became a frustrated suburban mom - as about where Bernadette is, geographically-speaking, now. As each layer of her complex history and personality is revealed, we realise the poignancy in Semple's darkly comic critique of psychiatry, its drugs, and psychobabble. Bernadette is either unhinged, or she's an extraordinarily gifted, thwarted, and disappointed woman, captured in the boredom of underachieving midlife by Semple's wily pen. She won't take the shrink's salvation; will her Houdini act make her find her own? And can Bee track her down in time - just in case?

The vibrant energy of Semple's novel carries the reader along on a penguin-crested wave. Put away the Ritalin, it clamours, and find something you love.