“Wilderness Begins”: Sarah Hall, The Wolf Border

wolf-borderThe branches rustle behind her, the lipping wind or birds flitting between trunks, something stepping back under cover. There’s no one there, but she suddenly feels self-conscious, watched. She stands and looks into the trees, their dark old republic. The perfect environment for ambushing lynx, or bear. She would like to believe Thomas, to think that the country as a whole will one day re-wild, whatever its new man-made divisions created at the ballot box. She would like to believe there will be a place, again, where the streetlights end and wilderness begins. The wolf border. And if this is where it has to begin in England, she thinks, this rich, disqualifying plot, with its private sponsorship and antiquated hierarchy, so be it. The ends justify the means.

On my recent trip to London, during one of my leisurely browses in the Waterstones nearest my hotel, I got to chatting with the young woman at the counter and mentioned Sarah Moss. “Oh,” she said with enthusiasm: “She wrote Mrs. Fox.” “I don’t think so,” I replied, fairly certain but wondering if I’d somehow missed one of Moss’s novels. She, however, was very sure she was right and went defiantly off to confirm the authorship of Mrs. Fox on her computer. A minute or so later she came back and said (without a hint of apology for doubting me!) “Oh! That’s Sarah Hall.”

It’s an understandable enough confusion–two Sarahs, both alike in dignity! As I read The Wolf Border, though, I found myself thinking that, at least on the basis of this one novel by Sarah Hall, there is more proximity between these writers than just their first names. The Wolf Border had the same kind of propulsive but also cerebral energy that I enjoy and admire so much in Moss’s novels. It is built around a scenario that, like those in Moss’s fiction, is not at first glance terribly complicated, at least not structurally, but as the action unfolds its parts begin to resonate with meaning that amplifies their significance beyond the work they are doing as devices to move the characters along. There is a beautiful tactility to Hall’s rendering of nature, as there is to Moss’s in Ghost Wall, and, similar again, the landscape is haunted by its past, providing an alluring but also faintly threatening and unstable setting for a future that is uncertain in interesting ways. Here’s a small sample of Hall’s prose that for me captures something of its appeal:

She looks towards the hide. Under the netting, Gregor will still be filming, focusing the high-powered lens, perhaps following their progress between the thorn trees, along the ridge to the summit, where they will contemplate the broad expanses of Annerdale, and decide which route to take. Rachel looks over the estate. Russet ferns and the knitted furze. The signature fells beyond. Long silhouettes drool from bushes and trees; all the land’s contours are exposed, every curve, every corrie and glacier cut, everything looks shadow-cast, so beautifully sheer.

hall-wIt’s not mannered or ornate, but its rhythms are varied and its vocabulary and word placement are full of small surprises.

The subjects under observation in that excerpt are the two wolves whose introduction onto the Annerdale estate Rachel has overseen as part of an ambitious plan to restore the natural balance of predators and prey. Through Rachel’s work Hall provides a fascinating overview of this process and trains us to look with awed but also, perhaps strangely, loving eyes at the wolves themselves. While they are still in quarantine during the first phase of their introduction to their new territory, Rachel watches them through the night-vision cameras the team has set up:

After a while, they move up towards the hide, into plain view, their coats strangely highlighted, eyes eerie bulbs of light. Darkness is liberty for them, but what comes in darkness to challenge their dominance is the worst thing they face. Another pack, ambushing. Humans. Juggernauts on the highways. Tonight they are playful. Ra trots alongside and then passes Merle, falls back, passes her again. He rises on his hind legs, circles his head, like a boxer. He tugs at her ruff. The day’s languid canine is gone. He is a night hunter, like the legend. . . Ra rolls on his back, rubbing the top of his head backward and forward on the ground, his legs kicking, dopey, submissive. Merle stands over him. Rachel smiles. It is at night that they seem most sacred to her: ghost-like, elegant, and frivolous.

Later, when the wolves are free to roam more widely, she takes a friend’s daughter out to see if they can get a glimpse of them. They spot them”picking their way past boulders and trees”:

They  move mostly in plain view, disappearing for a time behind rods of stone, Merle smoking through the brown bracken. Ra’s pale coat glows in the winter gloom like halogen. They disappear into a grove of trees beside the river.

It is “less than a minute’s payoff for half a day’s investment” but the girl is thrilled: “she is the first child in England to see wild wolves at large.” The excitement is contagious: I found myself completely absorbed by the drama of these animals, so fierce and beautiful and yet, by some, feared and unwelcome and thus vulnerable.

mrs foxThe wolves’ story is entwined with the story of Rachel’s pregnancy, the birth of her child, and the evolution of her relationships with her brother, from whom she has long been alienated. Without setting up overt or heavy-handed parallels, Hall creates a sense of common rhythms to the two stories: Merle and Ra grow in confidence, expanding their domain and skills and, eventually, their own family, as Rachel in her turn is easing the tight control she has always kept over herself, allowing other people into her space and finding there is room in it for feelings she had always thought were antithetical to her independence. As the wolves grow wilder, she becomes more domestic–but that is too pat a way to put either unfolding story. Rachel’s experience in particular shows there are risks and challenges at home too: different needs and desires to be held in what is sometimes a precarious balance. Then alongside this personal drama there’s also a political dimension, one that didn’t really come into focus for me until fairly late in the novel, though it’s clear from early on that Hall is interested in the artifice of human barriers (fences, walls, borders) and the tension they create with nature, which does not understand or respect them. One thing Rachel and her team cannot do is let the wolves run truly wild, for example, but as long as they are enclosed, no matter how generous the space allotted, they must be managed, their natural proclivities shaped to fit man-made limitations. What would it mean for them (or us) to override these boundaries?

michelangeloTo return to my Sarah Moss comparison, I found The Wolf Border not just well-written and engrossing but consistently interesting in the same way that I did The Tidal Zone or Ghost Wall. It’s a novel that is clearly motivated by ideas but it isn’t overwhelmed by them. I have stepped lightly across its specific events, partly because it isn’t really a plot-driven novel, but its plot does have an elegant arc to it that does more than provide an excuse to write marvelously about wolves. I chose The Wolf Border because it looked a bit more conventional than Hall’s other novels, but I trust her enough now that if I only could, I would duck back into Waterstones and pick up the rest of them.

 

“Instead of Nothing”: William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault

lucy-gault

She should have died a child; she knows that but has never said it to the nuns, has never included in the story of herself the days that felt like years when she lay among the fallen stones. It would have lowered their spirits, although it lifts her own because instead of nothing there is what there is.

The Story of Lucy Gault is a melancholy, tender, and strangely comforting novel about the devastating consequences of hatred, violence, and loss. It begins in 1921 with an act of self-defense, a shot fired to scare away boys who have come to “fire” the Gaults’ home of Lahardane on the coast of Ireland. They had been by once before but the dogs had scared them away; “within a week the dogs lay poisoned in the yard, and Captain Gault knew that the intruders would be back.” The bullet strikes one of the boys, and though he does not die the incident makes the anger and suspicion and fear in the community worse and finally Captain Gault and his English wife Heloise decide to leave Ireland. “The trouble will go on,” Heloise tells her husband, “truce or not. You can tell it will. You can feel it. We can’t be protected, Everard.” So they make their plans, pack their things, and say their goodbyes.

But they underestimate their daughter Lucy’s fierce resistance to leaving her home, where she knows and loves every stream and path and stone:

“I won’t go.”

She ran from the room and ran down to her crossing stones. They came to find her, calling out in the woods, but everything she said to them on the way back, they didn’t hear. They didn’t want to hear, they didn’t want to listen.

Much later, Everard will insist that this was their failure, that they carry the blame for what happens next: “that a child’s anxieties had been impatiently ignored was the cruelty that remained.” Because of it, Lucy comes up with a scheme to derail their planned departure. It goes horribly awry and the consequences change everything, for her parents, who leave believing they have lost her forever, and for Lucy, who ends up staying on at Lahardane but in circumstances none of them ever imagined.

gault-3There’s an almost stately simplicity to the novel’s unfolding after this precipitating crisis, which launches its characters into a strange state of limbo. Lucy’s parents, unaware of developments back in Lahardane, roam Europe, exiled from home and happiness by their grief and guilt; Lucy, shamed by what she has done, pays penance for it with a life of near total isolation, even refusing love, when it is offered, as something she cannot accept “until she felt forgiven.” When a reunion finally comes, it is almost too late to repair the damage they have collectively wrought or to make up for the time spent apart, mourning and waiting. There is redemption in the story, though, and it comes from what the nuns who visit Lucy late in her life call her “gift of mercy.” Lucy herself sees nothing extraordinary in what she has done, nothing that needs the kind of explanation others wish they could command: “for what does it matter, really, why people visit one another or walk behind a coffin, only that they do?”

The Story of Lucy Gault is elegantly structured, bringing us patiently around to complete the pattern begun by Everard’s shot in the dark. The story itself is first gripping then almost unbearably heart-wrenching, and then, slowly, it unfurls into a kind of sad, calm beauty. There’s something mesmerizing about the cadences of Trevor’s prose, which is measured but not minimalist, evocative but completely without flourish. Unlike some contemporary writers whose sparse writing seems very flat to me, with little of interest below its dull surface, Trevor’s pulses softly with meaning and feeling. Every page yields a potential example, though it is the cumulative effect that is most powerful. Here’s a sample that perhaps conveys the qualities I liked so much. “For her part,” he tells us,

Lucy did not wonder much about the nature of exile, accepting, with time, what had come about, as she did her lameness and the features that were reflected in her looking-glass. Had Canon Crosbie raised with her the question of going out into the world, she would have replied that the nature and tenets of her life had already been laid down for her. She waited, she would have said, and in doing so kept faith. Each room was dusted clean; each chair, each table, each ornament was as they were remembered. Her full summer vases, her bees, her footsteps on the stairs and on the landings, and crossing rooms and in the cobbled yard and on the gravel, were what she offered. She was not lonely; sometimes she could hardly remember loneliness. ‘Oh, but I’m happy,’ she would have reassured the clergyman had he asked her. ‘Happy enough, you know.’

lucy-gault-2Is the story of Lucy Gault a tragic one? I don’t think so. It is a sad one, certainly, but for all its heartbreak the novel conveys the same sense of peace that draws the visiting nuns to Lucy’s home:

Her tranquillity is their astonishment. For that they come, to be amazed again that such peace is there: all they have heard, and still hear now, does not record it. Calamity shaped a life when, long ago, chance was so cruel. Calamity shapes the story that is told, and is the reason for its being: is what they know, besides, the gentle fruit of such misfortune’s harvest? They like to think so: she has sensed it that they do.

It’s not that there’s a silver lining to the Gault family’s “calamity”: Trevor offers us nothing so pat. I think what makes the novel comforting in spite of its characters’ thwarted joy is that, like Lucy, it settles us into the day-to-day possibilities of grace without insisting that a life without more than that is a failure. “Instead of nothing there is what there is,” Lucy reflects, and what there is has beauty that is its own kind of happiness:

She settles in her chair by the window, to gaze out at the dusky blue of the hydgrangeas. The avenue has gone shadowy, the outline of its trees stark against the sky. The rooks come down to scrabble in the grass as every evening at this time they do, her companions while she watches the fading of the day.

The Whipple Line: Someone At A Distance

whipple“We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink. Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us. A considerable body of women novelists, who wrote like the very devil, bit the Virago dust when Alexandra, Lynn and I exchanged books and reports, on which I would scrawl a brief rejection: ‘Below the Whipple line.'” — Carmen Callil

A few years back, reading Vera Brittain’s The Dark Tide got me thinking about “books that are bad in uninteresting ways and books that are bad and yet somehow still interesting.” The Dark Tide, I concluded, was of the second sort: conspicuously flawed but energetic and purposeful in a way that made me want to engage with it. Reading Dorothy Whipple’s Someone At A Distance made me wonder: can a book be good and yet also uninteresting? What would that mean, exactly, for any reasonable definition of “good”? Reverting, as I often do, to George Henry Lewes’s remarks about Jane Austenthat she was “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end”maybe what it means is that a book can be good on its own terms (the means to its end), but that those terms (that end) might not be particularly challenging or complex.*

In the end, that’s what I felt about Someone At A Distance. It read very easily: its interlocking stories of an English family and the young French woman who infiltrates and then destroys it are neatly executed; its people are sharply delineated; the consequences of the affair are believably painful, especially for the blindsided Ellen, who up to the very moment her husband Avery’s betrayal is revealed has thought herself the happiest of wives. She is wholly unprepared for a life without him at its center. “We’re not the new sort of women,” an unlikely ally later tells her,

with University degrees in Economics, like those women who speak on the Radio nowadays, girls who can do anything. We’re ordinary women, who married too young to get a training, and we’ve spent the best years of our lives keeping house for our husbands. Not that we didn’t enjoy it, but now you’re out on your ear like me at over forty.

whipple-2

Whipple conveys Ellen’s shock and grief with real pathos. She also does a good job with Ellen and Avery’s daughter Anne, knocked abruptly out of her childhood idyll by these adult complications:

They stood in the morning sunlight, looking at each other, and from her mother’s face Anne learned, in another lesson, that the grown-up world was not what she had thought it was, not a place of power and fulfilment, but a place of helplessness, pain and ugliness. A world not to enter. Until now, Anne had run joyfully forward, but now she was halted. She shrank back. She had learnt suspicion and distrust and most of all the fear of life that sickens the youthful heart and from which it takes too long to recover, if recover it does.

That’s all pretty well done, I think, and the unfolding of Ellen’s gradual recovery in counterpoint with Avery’s bitterness and regret carries the novel nicely through to its conclusion.

whipple-3But. It really doesn’t do more than tell this story. There aren’t any layers to it. The characters are fairly two dimensional, especially the French temptress Louise, who to me was the novel’s weakest element. She’s a selfish narcissist who takes what she wants for her own gratification. The whole catastrophe, in fact, is the result of her resentment at an old lover in her home town in France, himself blithely ignorant “that he, at such a distance, could have had anything to do with the breaking up of that family” or with the rift that opens up between Louise and her own parents. Her unmitigated nastiness sapped the novel of any chance of a real moral or emotional dilemma at its center: Avery is wrong to get involved with her and that’s that. Whipple plays out the moves on the board she has set up, but there’s nothing in it for us to think about: we just follow it all through to the end. And that is just not a terribly interesting exercise: Ellen is a bit of a limp noodle, and the solution that unfolds to her problem of finding her own place in the world is too pat, too easy.

trollopeI did enjoy Someone At A Distance in the moment, but I also found myself comparing it unfavorably to another much better book (in my opinion) about an affair, Joanna Trollope’s Marrying the Mistress. In Trollope’s novel the “mistress” is a genuinely sympathetic character; the relationship that develops creates a genuine tension for the husband and then, eventually, for his children, who can’t help but like his new partner in spite of their loyalty to their mother; and the marriage that ends, while not a bad one, has weak spots that made it vulnerableindeed, that maybe even made its end, while painful, a change worth bringing about. Yet even though her mistress is not an evil temptress, Trollope is less sentimental about love, and less blandly optimistic about fixing what has been broken. Someone At A Distance ends with the promise of restoration, but why? Knowing what she now knows about her husband, what is that promise worth to Ellen? I didn’t really care, though: by that point I was ready to be finished with her.

I guess for me the bottom line (my version of the Whipple line?) is that competence in story-telling, and even in characterization, isn’t enough. I’d rather read a more ambitious novel that falls short than a novel that doesn’t do more than Someone At A Distance, no matter how well it’s done. I think Carmen Callil may have been on to something with her disparagement of Whipple as not quite good enough. And yet I can’t argue with the introduction, which praises Whipple’s ability to “take an ordinary tale and make it compulsive reading.”

*I am not saying Austen is not great! Just that the idea of suiting means to end is a useful way to gauge literary success.

“I’m a disgrace”: Cressida Connolly, After the Party

connollyWe all have our crosses to bear, our own personal sorrows. Mine is that the people who should be dearest to me, my own children, my sisters, consider me a bad woman. The grandchildren have been taught to be wary. I think I’m a disgrace to them, really. After the war when the newsreel film was shown of what had gone on in Germany and Poland, those places, the horrors . . . It all got tangled up in their minds, as if we’d stood for such barbarism.

Reading Cressida Connolly’s After the Party I kept waiting for the storm to burst–for some twist or spin or revelation to up-end the unnervingly sedate account of an upper-crust family’s entanglement with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.  It never really happened, and as I finished the novel I felt disappointed, but then as I sat and thought about it for a while I started to wonder if the easy slide of the whole story was in fact the point. For Phyllis, the main character, “the party” is just another political option. She is baffled and offended when her ailing mother’s caretaker tells her off: “I’ve no quarrel with her,” she says;

She doesn’t parade about the streets in uniform, like your children and your sister Nina. It’s you two that need to look to your consciences, following that wicked man … You with your salutes and uniforms and speechifying: you’re nothing better than a bunch of traitors. Thugs they are, most of them. Just because you don’t bring your flags and banners here, don’t think word doesn’t spread.

“Our politics are no concern of yours; nor yours of ours,” Phyllis replies huffily; “We vote by secret ballot in these islands for this very reason, so that neighbours and friends shall not be divided by their beliefs.”

connolly-2Even after her long imprisonment Phyllis remains indignant that her commitment to Mosley’s cause has cost her anything at all and especially that it has led to people concluding she is not a good person. It would be at once pathetic and laughable if it weren’t also plausible and unhappily timely: Phyllis insists that she and her fascist friends were very fine people. The novel approaches them with sly delicacy, never presenting them as outright villains but allowing the us to experience their moral corruption through the lens of Phyllis’s own self-justifications. It also focuses on the personal relationships that naturalize and sanitize the fascist cause for those directly involved, keeping the political context just vague enough that the reader almost has to shake herself to remember that what they stand for is not acceptable, that fascism isn’t just one reasonable choice among many no matter how elegantly its proponents are dressed or how preoccupied they are with their families, lovers, and friends.

There’s something sly about the way the novel mimics a different kind of country-house saga, just as there’s something quietly insidious about the ease with which, once introduced to it by her sister Nina, Phyllis and her husband Hugh embrace the Party and come to admire “the Leader.” They aren’t coerced or bullied; they aren’t suffering from economic anxiety or facing any deprivation or threat; they just go to luncheons and picnics and summer camps and dinner parties … with Oswald Mosley. It’s all superficially very civilized–but under this influence their daughter Julia vandalizes a local theater with the slogan “PJ” (for “Perish Judah”). Phyllis is initially uneasy. “Surely that’s taking things rather too far,” she says to Nina; “I don’t suppose any of them have ever even seen a Jew,” to which Nina knowingly replies, “You’re not quite up to speed with it all.” Hugh, too, is unconcerned: the theatre troupe is made up of “frightful people” who refused to rent their space to the Party when “the Leader himself was coming down to give a talk”: “the theatre people were quite rude. Said our views were against the principles of common decency, anathema, that sort of thing.” When Phyllis argues that “we don’t want anyone to perish,” Hugh urges her not to “overreact.” And so Phyllis slips ever further into the abyss.

So much for a free country,” Phyllis complains as she looks back on the disgrace she and Hugh faced after their release; “You may have the freedom to express your views, but they’ll still damn you for them.” Anti-semitic violence, apologists for fascism, self-righteous hostility about deplatforming “controversial” speakers, willfully ignorant both-sides arguments, and over it all a veneer of civility that smugly insists protest and confrontation are more offensive than the loathsome ideology being protested against: it’s a good thing After the Party is a historical novel–we wouldn’t want to see anything like that going on today!

The Calm (?) Before the Term

Bluhm PergolaMy fall classes start exactly three weeks from today. I’m pretty well prepared already: both of them are repeat offerings, so although I have changed up the readings (quite significantly, in the case of Women and Detective Fiction, and just a bit in Pulp Fiction) I’m not starting from scratch in terms of either course concepts or course materials. I have been working on the syllabi, schedules, and Brightspace sites off and on for a while, because that’s the kind of task I don’t like to do in a rush and also because when other things I’m working on start to feel too amorphous, it is a relief to do a concrete task that can then be crossed off my to-do list. There’s only so much you can do in advance, though, I find, or you sap the first class meetings of the spontaneity that gives them energy.

I am well aware that I use class preparation as both procrastination and comfort in the summer. I’ve written before about the way my mood often slumps in this season, and though it has been better overall this year — thanks in part to the work but also fun of preparing for and then attending the George Eliot conference in July — I have still sometimes felt the same dreary listlessness coming over me. One factor this summer has been that I haven’t been able to settle into a writing project that excites me. I have nobody to blame for this but myself, which just makes me feel worse about it! I have been experiencing crippling indecision about what to write — a strange inability to commit to any project beyond the immediate demands of whatever book I’m currently reviewing. That I have not been finding reviewing very rewarding recently only compounds the problem. I have really enjoyed some of the books I’ve been assigned over the past couple of years, but this year, not so much; also, I have been finding the space constraints I’m typically working within frustrating, although of course if the book I’m writing about is not particularly exciting it is a relief not to have to spin 2000 or more words about it.

inlandI thought it might help to write for some places that do run longer pieces, so I wrote a review “on spec” for one such venue but they didn’t want it–in the end it maybe wasn’t a great fit with the place I sent it, although the book I chose (Téa Obreht’s Inlandis getting a lot of coverage, as I anticipated it would. I suppose I could (should?) keep trying to branch out. It’s a bit frustrating to feel I’m still relatively invisible as a critical presence, even after writing regularly for the TLS for 4 years, but then except for the piece I wrote on the Lymond Chronicles in 2017 I haven’t really had much room to stretch out there and show what I (think I) can do. I suppose here too I have only myself to blame, though it’s hard to think of what I could do in 600 words that would be particularly notable. There was recently a letter to the editor about one of my TLS reviews–a sort-of correction about an implication (not even a direct statement) in an “In Brief” review of a scholarly book about malaria and 19th-century fiction. That is its own kind of irksome, especially considering there’s basically never been any feedback or conversation around anything else I’ve published there.

Anyway, the question that has been much on my mind is, if not (only) reviews, then what? I am running out of time to answer that question this summer, never mind to have any significant result to show for it. The possibilities go round and round in my head (and in my notes). I can’t even decide whether it makes more sense to just work hard on something and then worry about where I might try to publish it or to focus on a particular publication, or type of publication, and then work up the kind of piece that seems likely to fit there. I am thin-skinned about rejections so it is hard to motivate myself to write towards uncertainty rather than a definite goal, but I’m also terrible at pitching. Further, my sense of pacing has been confused by the years I’ve spent doing writing that can be conceived of, executed, and published in a fairly short time; if I’m not working to a fairly immediate publication deadline I feel unproductive, but writing for and then submitting to the kinds of places I think I might like to appear in requires both confidence and patience.

Arcimbolo LibrarianThis is why I keep returning to class prep! It’s so straightforward, and after all, it does have to get done. Maybe I should think of it this way: the better prepared I am for the term, the more likely it is that I can keep working on some kind of writing project even after classes start. My colleagues and I often talk about the way teaching expands to fill however much time you can (or are willing to) give it: this is something we advise TAs and junior colleagues to guard against. Good, detailed course planning is part of a strategy for achieving better balance between my various professional obligations; it’s not just a diversionary tactic when your other commitments are getting you down. Right? RIGHT?!

I do have some time left, though, before the day-to-day demands of teaching become pressing, as they inevitably will, and I am determined not to spend it all fretting and second-guessing myself. I have one review underway (my mixed feelings about the book lie behind some of my current angst about the reviewing process) and a couple of other things I particularly want to wrestle into shape, not as finished pieces but as plans, before September. One of these is the work I was doing during my sabbatical on Woolf’s The Years and related questions about the “social” novel. I felt really good while I was reading and thinking about that material but so far I haven’t figured out what to do with it. Three weeks: that’s enough time, surely, to do at least that much, especially if I stop brooding and complaining. Here goes!

 

“The Touch of the Dead”: Téa Obreht, Inland

inlandSomething might seem missing by the novel’s end, and that’s a clear sense of what larger narrative Obreht offers us about the genre she is at once using and revising. What story is Inland ultimately telling us about the American West, or about the tropes and limitations of the Western?

“Camel. Camel. How could anyone have guessed?” thinks Nora Lark, one of the two main characters in Téa Obreht’s Inland. I certainly couldn’t, at first: there’s nothing in the way Lurie, the novel’s other protagonist, speaks to his companion Burke that gives it away; there’s nothing in the conventions of the genre to which Inland more or less belongs, the Western, that prepares us for it. Inland has another surprise for us too, something about Lurie himself that we learn only after his story and Nora’s have finally intersected. In both cases, shock quickly gives way to understanding, and to appreciation of Obreht’s ingenuity. While Inland includes many elements of the classic Western—there are outlaws and sheriffs, heists and hangings, settlers and “Indians”—Obreht persistently subverts our expectations of the stories to be told about them. The result is a panoramic saga at once familiar and strange.

The action of Inland unfolds through two contrasting storylines. In both of them, as in her widely-praised debut novel The Tiger’s Wife, Obreht pushes the boundaries of realism: in her worlds, the lines between fact and fancy, and between the living and the dead, are wavery ones. Lurie’s first-person narrative recounts his misadventures on the rough edges of nineteenth-century American society. His immigrant father Hadziosman Djurić was “mistaken for a Turk so often” he disowned both his name (becoming “Hodgeman Drury” and then “Hodge Lurie”) and his faith. Orphaned as a small boy, Lurie ends up working with a man known as the Coachman, who trades in corpses—some stolen fresh from the graveyard. It is while doing this grim work that Lurie first experiences a “strange feeling at the edges of myself”: from his contact with the dead he takes away a “whorling hunger” to satisfy their unfulfilled desires. “It’s not as cold as you would expect, the touch of the dead,” he later reflects: tiger-wife

The skin prickles like a dreaming limb. It’s not the strangeness of the feeling that terrifies you—it’s their want. It blows you open.

When Lurie and the Coachman are caught, Lurie is sentenced to work as a “hireling” alongside brothers Hobb and Donovan Mattie.  When Hobb dies of typhoid, he passes on his “itch for pickpocketing” and Lurie and Donovan turn outlaw, robbing stagecoaches, waystations, and pack trains. One night during a heist Lurie seizes “an overbold New York kid” and beats him to death, and this begins the cat and mouse game between Lurie and Marshal John Berger, who becomes his dogged antagonist.

Hobb’s “want” is also what leads Lurie to Burke. One day in the spring of 1856, while heading down the Texas coast to elude Berger’s pursuit, he climbs aboard a ship docked at Indianola. Scouring the ship trying to appease Hobb’s craving, Lurie comes upon “a crude barn” erected near the stern. There he makes a discovery that changes his life forever:

And there of course—sightless, blundering into a fog of stink and breath, terrified suddenly beyond reason—what should I find but you?

The ship is the U.S.S. Supply and Lurie has chanced upon the Camel Corps, a real but little known military venture overseen by “a brooding, handsome, steadfast Syrian Turk” named Hadji Ali but called—through the same distorting process that rechristened Lurie’s father—Hi Jolly, Jolly for short. Jolly’s charges—“roaring, jostling, belching incredibly, dust-rolling, butting necks along wild laterals”—have been brought thousands of miles to “serve as pack animals for the cavalry” in territory where their legendary ability to cross long distances without water will make them invaluable.

camel13

At first just an enthralled observer, Lurie eventually becomes a full-time member of the cameleering troop. He finds himself at home among the men: for once, looking like a “Levantine” lets him blend in rather than stand out. And the camels, with their “profound intolerance and incredible strength,” win his unstinting admiration. “Camels are not for the faint of heart,” he tells us:

They are faster than one might expect, and twice as rattletrap. They are frowzy and irate. Their fur sloughs off and drifts, filling the air with a sweet, malty stench that frenzies mules and horses, who scatter to outrun their own terror.

“Their hearts belong to their riders,” he adds, and thus is born the powerful bond between Lurie and Burke that holds both them and the two strands of Inland together.

Lurie and Burke travel widely, first carrying out military missions with the Camel Corps and then, when Marshal Berger’s proximity once again puts Lurie on the run, serving in timber camps and on mining expeditions. In an elegiac mood, Lurie reminds Burke of the wonders they have seen:

You have stood on the shores of the mighty Platte, where Red Cloud’s Sioux, gathered for the parley that would be their ruin, had grazed a horseherd two thousand strong, balding the prairie all the way back to the tree line. You have seen the hunchback yuccas pick up their spiny skirts to flee an oncoming duststorm. … You have stood on bluffs planted up with scorched saplings where the ground was pocked with exhalations, with ruts belching white gobs of mud. You have walked the rim of a jaundiced gulch, veined high and low with bands of ore, through which the whitecaps of a nameless river went roaring.

Everywhere they go, the camels arouse wonder, fascination, and fear. “We saw curiously few Indians,” Lurie recalls; “word had got around, as it always did, that we were traveling with monsters.”

arizona-territory

In contrast to Lurie’s wide-ranging tale, Nora’s story takes us through just a single eventful day in 1893 on and around her homestead in the Arizona Territory. She lives there with her husband Emmett, once a teacher, now a newspaper man; with her three sons Rob, Dolan, and Toby; with Emmett’s mother Harriet, “immobilized two years ago by a stroke”; and with Josie, “the daughter of Emmett’s cousin Martha,” who unlike Nora has yet to “harden” to their arduous frontier life. It’s not just that Josie is too soft for the work—”ordinary ranch implements confounded her”—but that she is awash in useless and often debilitating beliefs:

Churning around in Josie’s mind was an almanac of tincture remedies, Oriental magic, occult notions, absurd natural histories—especially those detailing the monstrous lizards unearthed by Cope and Marsh—all of which she talked ceaselessly about.

Above all, Josie is plagued by the dead, who, “according to Josie, were everywhere”: “They announced themselves to her in town; on the road; at church. Their sentiments were revealed to her abruptly and ferociously.”

Nora scorns Josie’s “unwelcome eccentricity,” which distracts Josie from the more literal threats that preoccupy Nora, such as, on this key day, their dwindling water supply. But Nora herself has a hidden relationship that also defies reason: she carries on constant silent conversations with the ghost of her baby daughter Evelyn. Evelyn’s death is part of what has transformed Nora from a hopeful, loving woman into a “tough, opinionated, rangy, sweating mule of a thing”: not just the tragedy itself, but Nora’s own role in it, which is one of the threads Obreht unspools for us as this difficult day drags on.  It’s a day driven by thirst—for water, but also for information. Emmett has been missing for three days, and now Rob and Dolan too are not to be found. Meanwhile, Josie and sensitive young Toby are overwrought from fear of “the beast” Josie insists she has seen—“a ruffle-boned skeleton with great, folded wings on its back.” “You think I’m telling tales,” Toby complains when Nora is unconvinced by the signs he shows her of its menacing presence. “Mama don’t think the tracks are cloven,” he reports petulantly to Josie when they come back in from their investigation; “They don’t strike her as tracks at all.”

camel-4306242_1280Thanks to Lurie’s tale, readers will guess the beast’s identity well before Nora does. Before that moment of revelation, however, much has yet to transpire, as Nora’s question for her missing husband and sons brings back memories and leads to encounters with her neighbors, the sheriff, and local ‘Cattle King’ Merrion Crace, all of whom are entangled in a controversy over a proposal to move the county seat from Amargo, where Nora and Emmett have settled, to nearby Ash River. Crace wants to shut down the opposition to the move for which Emmett’s paper has provided a forum; his leverage includes what he knows about Evelyn’s death and what he and the Sheriff tell Nora about Emmett’s fate, and about what Rob and Dolan have been up to since they rode off in the night.

While Lurie is a man in constant motion, Nora is a woman seeking to stay put. After their marriage, the Larks had “followed railroad and rumor” for two years trying to establish a life for themselves on the frontier: “No sooner had Nora warmed to the curtains and mattresses of whatever place boarded them than they were off again.” Finally, in Amargo, bit by painful bit they build a home and a life for themselves and their growing family. “Should the county seat be lost to Ash River,” Nora knows, “all this would have been for nothing.” The pressure of change is inexorable, though, even in remote Amargo:

Hardly a day went by, it seemed, without the newspapers touting some remarkable discovery that had altered the truth or convenience of living … From Atlantic state palaces of learning, educational revues were making their way slowly inland to share the latest scientific advancements: anatomical marvels and wonders of automation. Put together, these all had the effect of drawing things closer to one another, of illuminating that grainy twilight beyond which lay the landscape of a new and truer world.

Emmett (if he ever returned) would, she knows, have no qualms about moving on yet again: “All difficulties in Emmett’s view could be solved by pulling up stakes.” But all Nora can think about is what they might leave behind with this house where “every beam, every mirror, every corner … breathed with the immutable spirit of her daughter. “If I leave here,” she says plaintively to the Evelyn only she can perceive, “will you come with me? Or will you have to stay?”

The strength of the bond between the living and the dead shapes both Lurie’s and Nora’s stories. The novel’s many ghosts might seem to push Inland out of history towards fantasy. As Nora eventually concludes, however, truth is already proving stranger than fiction:

If electromagnetic pulses could fly through the air; if giants with shinbones the length of her entire body had once roamed ancient seas; if the world was plagued by living creatures so miniscule that no living eye could see them, but so vicious that they could lay waste to entire cities—was it not also possible that Josie’s claims … might hold some truth? Might the dead truly inhabit the world alongside the living: laughing, thriving, growing and occupying themselves with the myriad mundanities of afterlife, invisible merely because the mechanism of seeing them had yet to be invented?

Lurie’s story in particular, it turns out, depends on answering “yes” to these rhetorical questions, but Inland as a whole plays with their implications, building a world on “what if” premises that, as Nora’s equivocal skepticism shows, are sometimes easier to dismiss in theory than in practice. More even than Obreht’s nineteenth-century characters, after all, we have learned to live with belief in what we cannot see.

ghost-town

Obreht vividly evokes the sights, sounds, and moods of her frontier setting: Inland conveys both what it is like to travel, fight, and forage across the miles with Lurie and Burke and how it feels to scrabble and fret with Nora and her family on the precarious margins of the modernizing world. For all the pleasures of Obreht’s prose and the originality of her intertwined plots, though, something might seem missing by the novel’s end, and that’s a clear sense of what larger narrative Obreht offers us about the genre she is at once using and revising. What story is Inland ultimately telling us about the American West, or about the tropes and limitations of the Western? Hers is certainly an unconventionally populated saga: both camels and Muslims, though present in reality, are missing in nation-building myth. Inland reminds us that if they seem alien in the landscape she draws it is only because we have not seen it clearly before. The underlying logic of the frontier, however, with its commitment to settler colonialism, is never challenged. While clinging to her home in Amargo, Nora never questions her right to the land; to her, its original inhabitants are the aliens, their proximity filling her with “a plunging dread.”

Yet in the shadows of Nora’s anxious racism, which turns out to have had devastating consequences, we can perhaps glimpse the critique Obreht refrains from spelling out explicitly. One hot day, carrying Evelyn on her front, Nora sees “a dark rider on a spotted horse” on the horizon: “she thought Apache because the word had been growing in her like an illness all her life.” Panicked, she hides in the field for hours, with Evelyn pressed between her body and the ground. It is this act of fear and suspicion that brings on the heatstroke that leads to Evelyn’s death. “There were Indians,” Nora insists ever after; “Five of them. Apaches.” But it wasn’t Indians: it was her neighbor Armando Cortez—“a dark man,” yes, but no more a threat than the Navajo woman (or is she Apache? Nora, revealingly, cannot tell) whose inscrutable visits have exacerbated Nora’s self-destructive paranoia.

nazar-amulet

Lurie and Nora, then, are linked not just by Burke or by ghosts but also by white Americans’ pervasive fear of “dark” others, though Lurie is a victim of this bias while Nora is one of its perpetrators. Lurie finds unlikely fellowship among the cameleers, his kinship with them symbolized in the glass bead he steals from the ship where he also finds Burke—“deepwater blue, painted up with a dizziness of receding circles … something very like the nazar my father had kept in his pocket.” Much later, the nazar turns up in Nora’s barn, a tangible reminder of the interconnectedness of even the most apparently dissimilar lives. While for Lurie strangeness becomes his freedom, even his happiness, Nora’s fear of it has hemmed her in. By the end of the novel she can at least picture something different, a life more fluid and various. Obreht, in her turn, makes the Western strange to her readers, offering us an account not of how the West was won but of how its real diversity could be reimagined.

 

Recent Reading Round-Up

legacyI have read a handful of books recently that I haven’t written up properly here; I thought I would say at least a little bit about them before my impressions fade away.

I chose John Le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies for airplane reading on my trip to London. This was a good choice even though (or possibly because) it is the least good Le Carré novel I have read so far. By this I mean I basically enjoyed it, but it was less intense and intricate than the others and so it didn’t matter that much that I read most of it during a dreary 7-hour layover in Montreal under less than optimum conditions. Alternatively, it is a much better novel than I realized because I read most of it during a dreary 7-hour layover in Montreal under less than optimum conditions! In either case, I felt indifferent enough to it by the time I finished it that I left in my hotel room when I headed up to Leicester. (I hope it ended up with another reader and not in a recycling bin!)

lonely

The other book I packed in my travel bag was Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place, because I am teaching it for the first time in the fall and wanted to reread it before I reread it yet again specifically for class preparation. I wouldn’t necessarily warn you against reading this novel while alone in hotel rooms with creaky floors, but I will say that there are down sides to doing that! When I read this novel for the first time, I struggled with whether the novel was, as some critics claim, a feminist novel that critiques the misogynistic violence it depicts:

In A Lonely Place seemed like a book we could interpret in that way, but also as one that could reasonably be experienced very differently–not as a celebration of violent misogyny (because it doesn’t take long for us to be perfectly clear that Dix is a dreadful, terrifying specimen), but as entertainment based (in a fairly familiar way) on violent misogyny.

This time, primed by Megan Abbott’s introduction and also because I now know the basic elements of the story and so I could pay less attention to the crimes and more to their presentation, I felt more confident that we are positioned critically in relation to Dix from early on, that we are not just not voyeuristic if horrified spectators to his crimes (and in fact, one subtle and clever feature of the novel is precisely that we don’t witness his crimes, thus limiting the kind of prurience other crime novels and especially TV shows often show towards dead and violated women). The women’s roles too, this time, seemed artfully subversive rather than simply clever plot twists. Still, I think there’s a debate to be had about what exactly Hughes does with her noir elements, and I look forward to having that discussion with my class.

barley

One of the books I bought in London was Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley. I follow Harrison on Twitter and typically find her observations interesting, so I paid attention when the book came out and thought it sounded interesting, plus it got rave reviews–a phenomenon I should surely be immune to by now but am not. And so when I spotted it in the London Review Book Shop, I decided to get it. I’m not sorry: I actually thought it was quite good–gripping, very atmospheric, and beautifully written. But I didn’t think it was “a masterpiece,” “astonishing,” or “startling” (as per the front cover). In fact, when I got to the end I felt uncertain what all the parts, individually successful as they were, added up to, which made me think I had missed or lost an important unifying idea along the way–maybe my fault, maybe the novel’s fault, or some of both perhaps. Here’s a sample of the scene setting that for me was the novel’s strongest aspect:

On a cornland farm, such as ours, the pause between haysel and harvest is like a held breath. The summer lanes are edged with dog-roses and wild clematis, the hedges thronged with young birds. At last the cuckoos leave, and you are glad of it, having heard their note for weeks; but the landrails creak on interminably, invisible among the corn. The nights are brief and warm, the Dog Star dazzles overhead; the moon draws a shadow from every blade of wheat. All day, dust rises from unmade roads and hangs in the air long after a cart or a motor-car passes. Everything waits.

Like Miss Boston and Miss HargreavesAll Among the Barley is a novel full of rich details of country life and especially of farming at a highly particularized moment in English history. While Malik’s characters work hard, their landscape is ultimately, and quite literally, a supportive one. Harrison’s characters, in contrast, though they too make their living from the land, seem menaced by it or in tension with it–the whole atmosphere of her book is of implicit threat, as both social and political changes make the certain routines of crops and harvests seem fraught and precarious.

warlightAt a block party recently I mentioned to a neighbor that I was curious about Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, so she kindly lent me her copy. I read it with interest at first but found my attention flagging. It too, in its own way, is a very atmospheric novel, but there didn’t seem to be much more to the novel than atmosphere: not much happens, even in the retrospective spy story that sounds as if it should be suspenseful and, if not action packed, at least eventful. There are events, but they always seemed strangely at a distance; I found Ondaatje’s style portentous, always promising but deferring some deeper meaning that I didn’t think was ever actually delivered. I read The English Patient years ago and I remember liking it, but that was in the dark days Before Blogging, so I can’t go back to an old post to see what I liked about it. A bit of Twitter discussion suggests Ondaatje is a divisive writer. I can see why, given how self-conscious his style is. I liked a lot of moments. One near the end suggested to me the principle the novel itself may be built on:

We order our lives with barely held stories. As if we have been lost in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken–Rachel, the Wren, and I, a Stitch–sewing it all together in order to survive, incomplete, ignored like the sea pea on those mined beaches during the war.

I guess I wanted a story held more firmly together, with more visible shape and purpose.

obasanFinally, I just finished reading Joy Kogawa’s Obasan for my book club. This novel is, of course, a Canadian classic, and I think I must have read it before, though I did not have any specific memory of it. It is a very powerful novel, and a very artful one as well. It is also a depressingly timely one: so much of the racism and anger directed at Japanese Canadians, vilified and scapegoated in the 1940s, is echoed in current anti-immigrant rhetoric, especially but certainly not exclusively in the United States right now. “Which year should we choose for our healing?” Naomi asks, reading through her aunt’s archive of documents about “Canadians of Japanese origin who were expelled from British Columbia in 1941 and are still debarred from returning to their homes.” “Restrictions against us are removed on April Fool’s Day, 1949,” she notes,

But the “old sores” remain. In time the wounds will close and the scabs drop off the healing skin. Till then, I can read these newspaper clippings, I can tell myself the facts. I can remember since Aunt Emily insists that I must and release the flood gates one by one. I can cry for the flutes that have cracked in the dryness and cry for the people who no longer sing. I can cry for Obasan who has turned to stone. But what then? . . .

What’s is done, Aunt Emily, is done, is it not? And no doubt it will all happen again, over and over with different faces and names, variations on the same theme.

“Nothing but the lowest motives of greed, selfishness and hatred have been brought forward to defend these disgraceful Orders,” the Globe and Mail noted. Greed, selfishness, and hatred remain as constant as the human condition, do they not? Or are you thinking that through lobbying and legislation, speech-making and story-telling, we can extricate ourselves from our foolish ways? Is there evidence for optimism?

Reading this novel immediately after the terrible shooting in El Paso, which was motivated by racism, xenophobia, and hatred, it was hard to summon up much optimism, but Obasan itself surely stands as a testament to the power of story-telling: Kerri Sakamoto’s introduction notes that it “touched a nation’s conscience and gave a voice to a movement to redress the injustices perpetrated against Japanese Canadians during World War II.” There is at least some room for hope, Naomi concludes: “This body of grief is not fit for human habitation … the song of mourning is not a lifelong song.” Obasan provokes sorrow and anger and shame, but at least it closes with tenderness: “How gentle the colours of rain.”