“Perishable Moments”: Jo Baker, The Telling

A marriage, a birth, a death. This wasn’t a life. It was nothing like it. Life’s what happens in between. The tease of a flame at a dry twig. Snowflakes melting in upturned palms. The drip of chlorinated water from soaked curls, lips unsticking in a smile, outstretched arms with fingers crooked to coax a child into swimming. The dip of the tongue’s tip to the palm of the hand to lift a sweet blue pill from a skin-crease. These tiny things that change the world, minute by minute, and forever. These perishable moments, that are gone completely, if we don’t take the trouble of their telling.

I wish Jo Baker had not written Longbourn: if I hadn’t assumed that she was just one more unimaginative barnacle on the unstoppable ship Austen Always Sells, I might have read her other books sooner. Well, OK, I don’t wish that, since against all my expectations Longbourn, when I finally brought myself to read it, turned out to be really goodA Country Road, A Tree convinced me to try it; I went on to read The Undertow, also excellent—and now I can add that so too is The Telling.

The Telling is described on the cover as a “ghost story,” which would have put me off if Baker hadn’t already earned my trust. In fact, the blurb writers left out all the details that would have sold me the book: that it’s set in an old house called Reading Room Cottage, for example, named for an upstairs room featuring a massive built-in bookcase with an “archeological feel,” and that the historical story interwoven with its contemporary one is about the Chartists. In fact, it isn’t really a ghost story at all, at least not in a hokey haunted way. It’s more uncanny than supernatural, more about reverberations between past and present literalized as humming static in the air than about phantoms or visitations. The “ghost” sensed by Rachel, the modern-day protagonist, does have an identity, a story, one that Rachel eventually tries to uncover, only to be thwarted by the inadequacy of the archival record. We are the ones who know who Lizzy was and what happened to her in that house with the bookcase.

Lizzy’s presence in Rachel’s life — Rachel’s feeling that there’s someone else there and yet not there — does bring a frisson or chill into the novel. Baker’s as good at this kind of thing as Sarah Waters:

I felt it. A teetering, pregnant silence as if a breath had been drawn, and someone was about to speak. I looked up, glanced around the room. The daffodils on the windowsill, the grey paths across the floor, the silky ashes in the grate; it was all absolutely ordinary. The view from the window, grey sky and green fields. As I turned my head to look, I felt slow, as if moving through water. The air was thickening; if I lifted up a finger, and ran it through the air in front of me, it would leave a ripple. But it was too much to move a finger. I couldn’t move a finger. Each breath was a conscious effort.

Like Waters, Baker is smart enough to keep everything suggestive in this way: there’s no face looming through the window, no voice whispering in Rachel’s ear, no books shifting inexplicably about or lights mysteriously turning off or on. Everything abnormal thing Rachel (thinks she) feels could even be explained away by her unstable condition: she is recovering (barely) from depression brought on by the overlapping traumas of her mother’s death from cancer and the birth of her daughter. She has come to Reading Room Cottage to sort out her mother’s things and prepare the house for sale, and also to evade her husband’s loving but burdensome concern.

Lizzy, in her time, lives in the cottage with her parents. She is a housemaid; they are basket weavers and farmers struggling to sustain their family since the recent enclosure of some common land. To get by, they take in a lodger, a master carpenter who is also a radical—if, that it, it is radical to encourage working people to read, to question inequality, and to aspire to political representation. He’s the one who builds the shelves and stocks them with books which he begins leaving around for Lizzy to read. Until he came, she had “always read everything the way [she] was taught, as if it were gospel truth.” Fiction, to her, is an uncomfortable revelation: “I never knew that books could lie.” The books he lends her—Paradise LostHamletThe Odyssey, but also works of natural history and Lyell’s Principles of Geology—up-end Lizzy’s mental life, just as his presence, and the reading room he sets up for meetings and debates, disturb the already uneasy equilibrium in the community.

What brings Lizzy and Rachel together, across time (if we want to believe in ghosts) or just across the novel? Good as both strands were—both are convincing, gripping, moving—I was not 100% convinced that they made a unified whole. At any rate, the parallels between the two women’s stories were not obvious to me. What stands out most to me, thinking about them together, is that Rachel’s grief for her mother makes her acutely aware of how much of every life is ultimately lost. Lizzy’s sorrows are different; what draws her close to Rachel is not that their experiences are similar but that we don’t, or rather Rachel’s doesn’t, know anything about her. All that remains are fragile records, just as all that remains of Rachel’s mother are remnants already losing their meaning: “the photographs that Mum had selected, the moments of her life that she had wanted to keep, to return to, to experience again.” How different, too, is a memory from a haunting? Rachel’s mother is also now no more than an imagined presence. Stories are what remain. In a local bookstore, Rachel finds what we know are some of the books Lizzy read, and in its turn The Telling recreates and preserves the “perishable moments” of what Lizzy’s life might have been.

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