Book Review: Barefoot at the Lake, by Bruce Fogle

Barefoot at the lake front coverBarefoot at the Lake: A memoir of summer people and water creatures, by Bruce Fogle (September Publishing)

Along with other city families, the Fogles spent the months from June to August at their Lake Chemong cabin, involved in the local community and wasting days on Swallows-and-Amazons-type summer activities, while father, Morris, commuted to work in his Toronto florist shop. Life followed a familiar pattern: fathers were for day trips, “mothers were for everything else”.

In Barefoot at the Lake Bruce Fogle recalls the events of one summer, aged ten, which sparked his lifelong interest in animal welfare. It is 1954, fields are being cleared for new homes, destroying garter snake habitats, polio is still a worry, a rabid raccoon destroys a milk herd, and the vet discusses promising surgery trials that replace devastating cataracts. Uncle Reub has come to stay. He has abandoned his medical practice and sits outside in his city trousers and shoes, looking across the lake, a large unread book on his lap and tears in his eyes; sometimes he wears his pyjama top all day. Eventually, he leaves his look-out post and joins Bruce. They meander through meadows and sweetgrass, and visit the fort in the woods surrounded by snake skulls, and frogs hanging from the trees. Uncle Reub spins enthralling adventure tales; his probing questions encourage Bruce to wonder whether wildlife is more than a plaything for boyish pranks and experiments.

Everything is coloured through Uncle Reub: ‘It rained that afternoon, the kind of rain that came and went faster than my uncle’s moods.’ Over the summer, Bruce recognises his uncle’s shortcomings, and it stimulates a reconsideration of his silent father.

Nuanced, restrained prose delivers an unsentimental memoir. ‘A single strand of lake weed was as soft and as fragile as a strand of cooked spaghetti but when it was torn by storms from the bed of the lake and twisted and tied by the lake’s waves it became stronger than my father.’ The childlike sensibility and mature storytelling are finely balanced, punctuated with the kind of gentle humour and keen insight that comes with time and distance.

Reviewed in the TLS, 4th November 2015

Book Review: Tony Angell, The House of Owls

house ofowls

For a quarter of a century Tony Angell observed the different pairs of western screech owls that nested in a box he’d nailed to a tree outside his bedroom window, but The House of Owls (Yale UP) is more than just a record of watching owls in a family setting. Angell is an artist, birder, and naturalist; The House of Owls is the apotheosis of a life-time’s engagement with owls. Steeped in the tradition of Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon, it blends taxonomy, ornithology, biogeography and autobiography illustrated with seventy-five ink drawings of owls in their natural habitat, and reinforced with range maps from The Birds of North America project at Cornell Lab. of Ornithology.

Angell’s interest in depicting owls as “an attractive and engaging species that deserved our interest and attention” was sparked by “intense exchanges over the fate of the birds” with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). Attracted by the twin challenges of conservation and capturing on paper an elusive bird that hides in plain sight, he learned that an “emphasis on aesthetics rather than debate […] contributed to a climate where emotions settled down and a reasoned discussion ensued”. As an artist/naturalist “motivated to shape my subject to a degree that does justice to their emotional state”, Angell has since enjoyed a long and distinguished career responding creatively to the symbiotic relationship of birds and humans. For example, he illustrated and co-authored, with scientist John Marzluff,  Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, a groundbreaking investigation into bird behaviour based on innovative research into corvid brain activity (published in paperback in the UK in May 2015.) Through close observation, Angell believes “owls are inquisitive, playful, wrathful, determined, and even contemplative”, and through his meticulous drawings he attempts to communicate the “owlness that sets these birds apart from other avian species”.

You can read the full review in the Times Literary Supplement (12 August 2015)

Tony Angell’s website

Book Review: Britannia Obscura, by Joanne Parker

Britannia Obscura

Britannia Obscura: Mapping Hidden Britain by Joanne Parker (Jonathan Cape)

Writing to his commander from Castle Stalker on Loch Laich, in Appin, a month before the Battle of Culloden, Captain Frederick Scott complained, “this Place is not marked on any of our maps”. William Roy’s subsequent maps included detailed surveys of important Roman sites, owing to Roy’s personal interest in antiquities, while swathes of land, settlements, islands, lochs, hills, and glens were unrecorded. When Roy’s surveyors were unable to access areas remote from Wade’s roads, he simply made “informed guesses” on location and topography. Britain’s national mapping agency has its origins in Roy’s 1747 commission to map the Scottish mainland. Nowadays, their slogan is “No-one Knows Great Britain Better”, nonetheless, pace Ordnance Survey, there are many ways of looking at a landscape: the personal as meaningful as social, historical, political or military significance.

Joanne Parker’s slim volume describes five very different maps: the cavers’ maps, the lost canal network, the megalith hunter’s map, ley hunter maps, and aeronautical maps; maps of the imagination and geographical maps. Parker situates each map within its relevant literary and historical context, but also moves away from text-based research and includes magazine-style snippets of interviews with contemporary cartographers in the field, together with references to websites and blogs in her inclusive approach to looking at the landscape through “a variety of lenses”.

For the review in full see this week’s Times Literary Supplement [subscription needed]

Book Review: The Lovers of Amherst, by William Nicholson

Amherst US edition  lovers of amherst frontcover UK edition

The Lovers of Amherst (Quercus) £16.99

[Amherst, US edition published by Simon and Schuster, $26]

Wild nights – wild nights!

Were I with thee

Wild nights should be

Our luxury!

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) only published a dozen or so poems in her lifetime, but even before Mabel Todd edited the posthumous slim collection of her poems in 1890, she was known locally as “the Myth”. The afterlife of the secretive recluse still ripples across academic circles and the popular imagination; it is surprising to learn that, as recently as 1984, the details about the illicit love affair between Emily Dickinson’s brother and their Amherst neighbour was first brought to public attention in Polly Longsworth’s sympathetic study, Austin and Mabel. More recently, Lyndall Gordon’s 2010 revisionist biography, Lives Like Loaded Guns, dug deeper into the known facts.

But fiction has a truthful purpose too. William Nicholson’s entertaining, respectful story throws fresh light onto the extraordinary love affair between 55-year-old Austin Dickinson and 24-year-old Mabel Todd. We cannot know for certain what the lovers shared in the privacy of Emily Dickinson’s dining room, where they often met, or what she saw and heard there, or the effect on her poetry. By interspersing his narrative with snippets of extant correspondence, diary entries, and secret notes, drawn, mostly, from Longsworth and his own research in the Sterling Memorial Archives at Yale, alongside some of Emily Dickinson’s passionate poems, Nicholson creates a solid historical foundation from which he imaginatively recreates the time period and personalities involved. Moreover, the physical act of researching “the very notes they sent each other with such secrecy” is an integral part of the story, adding an air of factual realism from which he speculates as plausible as a biographer does.

Mavis Loomis Todd (1856-1932) arrived in Amherst in 1881 with her husband, David, who had been appointed director of Amherst College Observatory. Entering into Amherst society, she first struck up a friendship with Susan, Austin’s wife, and thereafter entertained the Dickinson household next door. By then the “Homestead” was occupied by Austin’s sisters, Emily and Lavinia (Vinnie), and their invalid mother. Although Mabel never met Emily (she would listen at the top of the stairs while she played piano and sang), they communicated through notes and gifts.

Running in parallel with the story of Austin and Mabel, is the modern-day story of Alice Dickinson (no relation) who arrives in New England to undertake background research for her screenplay about their affair. Through her lover-turned-friend Jack Broad, Alice gets in touch with Nick Crocker, a visiting professor (with a reputation), and she accepts his offer of temporary accommodation. Alice, Jack, and Nick pull us back to previous books in Nicholson’s interconnected series: in The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life (2009) Nick has an affair with Laura Kinross (Broad), while in All the Hopeful Lovers (2010) Laura’s son Jack is put together with Alice through Facebook in much the same way that his response to her Facebook request for information about Emily Dickinson sends her to Nick’s door.

Rowing in Eden –

Ah, the sea!

Might I but moor tonight

In thee!

As she becomes caught up in an affair of her own, Alice reflects on romantic love and passion, and ponders the “I” in Dickinson’s poems and the poet’s relationship to Mabel. “Something true and powerful is at work here. What if it’s something bigger than love? What is there that’s bigger than love?” In New England for just two weeks, her emotional attachment to Nick is perhaps too quickly established, but is nevertheless a necessary part of the storyline.

Emily Dickinson intrudes into the narrative:

Stand at the top of the stairs. Look down into the dark hallway below. She’s there with him, the one he loves, the one I need. A door opens. The rustle of a dress as a half-glimpsed woman passes quickly down the passage, and out of the back door.

While it is but a step from fictional stage directions and camera angles to thinking about the screen version from the writer of Shadowlands lurking in the background, something deeper is going on. Alice’s problem (aside from the fear of tackling her first screenplay) is how to find a way into a story she doesn’t fully understand. “My story, Alice tells herself, is about Mabel, who chose life in all its mess and hurt, not Emily, who withdrew into the sepulchre of her own room. And yet in every picture she forms of Mabel, Emily is near, the listener behind the closed door.” With Nick, she discusses the process of storytelling; how to frame her fiction, and whether she needs to care about Mabel in order to write her story. The Lovers of Amherst is a rich resource for writers.

Without Mabel Todd, we may never have known about the extent of Dickinson’s creativity. It was Mabel who undertook the task of preserving many of the letters and poems that survive, bringing order to the mass of 1800 poems with painstaking transcription, and pushing forward with publication. Nicholson’s story continues on after the deaths of Emily and Austin to explore Mabel’s motivations. His great achievement, though, in The Lovers of Amherst – is to compel us to read Emily Dickinson’s poetry again, with fresh eyes.

This is my letter to the World

That never wrote to Me –

The simple News that Nature told –

With tender Majesty –

‘Parallel Passion & Poetry’: Independent on Sunday, 14 February 2015

Book Review: A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread

I’ve read and enjoyed Anne Tyler’s writing since her first novella – A Slipping Down Life (1969; reissued by Vintage, 1990). Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1998) is one of the best books ever written. Her latest, A Spool of Blue Thread is a richly textured story about a Baltimore house and the Whitshank family who have lived there for two generations. Tyler spools back and forth between the present and the past, unpicking the “embroidered” truth of family legend – the Whitshanks “had a talent for pretending everything was fine” – to reveal self-delusion and disappointment. Junior Whitshank relates how this son of “poor white trash” in the Appalachian Mountains came to live in the house he built for someone else, while his daughter Merrick is proud to tell how she married her best friend’s boyfriend; in the present, Abby Dalton is married to Junior’s son, Redcliffe (Red) and they are living in the house. She loves to reminisce about her romanticized memories of the day in 1959 they fell in love, while forgetting to mention that she was with another boy that day. Theirs are the Tyleresque lives of “unremarkable people”. As accomplished as her 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons, it is the best novel Anne Tyler has published in decades.

Three of Abby and Red’s four children have married and left home, but Denny, their estranged eldest son, is unsettled, often arriving unannounced and departing just as abruptly, often in a huff. It is a masterclass of restrained writing, lightened with gentle comedy and pitch-perfect dialogue, revealing characters and their motivations slowly, through sibling rivalry and a rising tension that finally overspills in a punch-up in the kitchen.

‘Who said, “You’re only as happy as your least happy child?”’ she’d [Abby] asked Ree in last week’s pottery class.

‘Socrates,’ Ree answered promptly.

‘Really? I was thinking more along the lines of Michelle Obama.’

The complex narrative has more layers than Merrick Whitshank’s wedding cake, held together by recurring motifs and repeated images. Abby, out in her nightgown and slippers during a “derecho”, or fierce storm, to gaze at the “giant tree . . . like a huge stalk of broccoli lying on its side, only with roots”, links the Wizard of Oz, Hurricane Sandy, and the rings on the tulip poplar felled for a wedding photograph. It also resonates with the destructive tree of The Beginner’s Goodbye.

Tyler’s twentieth novel in her fifth decade of writing has playful, knowing nods to previous books: a company for travellers who dislike travelling (The Accidental Tourist); a restaurant named Thanksgiving (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant); Abby feels that life is “slipping through her fingers” (A Slipping Down Life), memory loss (Noah’s Compass), and more. It is as if she has gathered together the threads of her entire oeuvre as an added reward for her attentive, loyal readers.

[Reviewed in the Independent on Sunday, 8 February 2015]

Anne Tyler was interviewed for the BBC World Service this week – listen in to the wonderful discussion of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which offers a glimpse into her writing and ideas.

Book Review: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

HisforHawk

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald is a rare book – as rare as Mabel the goshawk. Last August I read it in proof for review, expecting it to be a maudlin, self-indulgent memoir. It has since gone on to win the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book of the Year, and is currently finding new readers who love it on the other side of the Atlantic. Macdonald’s writing rips up tired conventions and reveals how to write in a tone and language that is both literary and commercial. Needless to say, she won me over.

A unique and beautiful book with a searing emotional honesty, and descriptive language that is unparalleled in modern literature. —Costa Book Award citation

Review:

Early one morning, “overtired, overwrought”, Helen Macdonald races from Cambridge to the countryside, thinking that a goshawk sighting will soothe her jangling nerves. Watching a pair of goshawks “soaring above the canopy”, she reminisces about a day she spent with her father when she was a child. She was bored, restless, waiting for a sight of a sparrowhawk, and he explained to her the meaning of patience: “when you wanted to see something very badly, sometimes you had to stay still, stay in the same place, remember how much you wanted to see it […]. If you want to see hawks you have to be patient”. She brings home in the pocket of her jacket “a small clump of reindeer moss […] a little piece of that branching, pale green-grey lichen that can survive just about anything the world throws at it”. Three weeks later, this little memento becomes imbued with weighty significance when she takes an unexpected telephone call: “it was the reindeer moss I was looking at when my mother called and told me my father was dead”.

Macdonald’s fraught memoir juxtaposes an interior journey through the different stages of grief with an exterior struggle to train a goshawk. She travels from despair to hope, and denial to acceptance; but what rescues the book from cliché is her weird, wonderful style, her intellectual passion, and the associations she forges between wide-ranging topics. H Is for Hawk is partly a literary and biographical study of T. H. White and his books, partly a literary history of goshawks, landscape and culture, and partly a psychological study of grief; the writing is rich and revelatory.

An experienced falconer, Macdonald had never trained a goshawk, a large bird of prey a little short of three inches smaller than a golden eagle, but, after her father’s sudden death, she has a recurring dream about a time when she released a goshawk into the wild: “She opened her wings and in a second was gone. She disappeared over a hedge slant-wise into nothing. It was as if she’d found a rent in the damp Gloucestershire air and slipped through it”. The decision to train one, she proposes, is an “inevitable” one for her to make.

Macdonald’s lyrical prose depicts her inner climate with vivid imagery, fresh similes and metaphors, and loose, run-on sentences that cast familiar places, tasks, and objects in a strange, ethereal light. Here, for example, in a scene of high drama and suspense, Macdonald is simply buying a goshawk from a Belfast breeder on a Scottish quayside.

[A] man was walking towards us, holding two enormous cardboard boxes like a couple of oversized suitcases. […] The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clattering of wings and feet and talons and high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. […] She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.

She takes the bundle of wilderness into her home. The goshawk perches in her living room, and she names her Mabel.

According to T. H. White, “the thing about being associated with a hawk is that […] it is the psychiatrist’s art. One is matching one’s mind against another mind with deadly reason and interest” (The Goshawk, 1951). J. A. Baker followed a pair of peregrine falcons through the Essex landscape for over a decade and he also expressed his observations in psychological terms:

I found myself crouching over the kill, like a mantling hawk. My eyes turned quickly about, alert for the walking heads of men. Unconsciously I was imitating the movements of a hawk, as in some primitive ritual; the hunter becoming the thing he hunts. I looked into the wood. In a lair of shadow the peregrine was crouching, watching me, gripping the neck of a dead branch.  We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. (The Peregrine, 1967)

Training a goshawk takes time and patience: two of the things which Macdonald does not have at this point in her life. Her University post is coming to an end and she should be sorting out a new job and finding new accommodation. Instead, she retreats from the world, cuts herself off from human contact and lives within the constrained confines of her Cambridge living room; the telephone is unplugged, the curtains are drawn over the cityscape, and her freezer is filled with day-old chick carcasses. In her self-imposed solitude, she watches the hawk, waiting for that moment when it forgets that she is there. It is a stage in hawk training known as “manning”, and it demands total vigilance and stillness. Attempting to become invisible to the hawk to encourage it to take food from her hand, Macdonald empties herself of all thought, and, in a moment of high intensity, she experiences a similar transfer of consciousness as White and Baker: “as if it was another person’s heart, or something else living inside me. Something with a flat, reptilian head, two heavy, down-dropped wings”.

Arranged in two parts, and a “Postscript” of follow-on research, the fragmented memories arranged “like heavy blocks of glass” enact the emotional impact of bereavement on the psyche. Training the goshawk, she narrows her perception to the hawk’s view during a gruesome period of hunting with Mabel in the English countryside; she “slip[s] into the exquisite, wordless sharpness of being a hawk”. Nature seeps over the boundary of her selfhood. She becomes as wild as Mabel: she kills half-dead rabbits caught between Mabel’s talons, pushes bits of animal bones into her waistcoat pocket, and trespasses across land containing pheasant runs. Her humanity is exposed in the compassion she retains for the prey which Mabel brings down: as Mabel gorges on their innards she is obsessed with killing them quickly to prevent their prolonged suffering.

“ ‘The best thing for being sad,’ replied Merlyn […], ‘is to learn something’ ” (T. H. White, The Once and Future King, 1958). While the memoir focuses on a particular time-period, Macdonald’s ideas cover a kaleidoscopic range of topics. As well as falconry, it includes topics as diverse as memory and narration, Arthurian mythology, the cult of chalk and history, aeroplane spotting, and environmentalism. A throwaway line from a male friend who advises her to “ ‘leave goshawks to the goshawk boys’ ”, sparks a literary quest to trace gendered bias in falconry books. She is surprised to learn that goshawk behaviour is described according to negative female traits. Goshawks “ ‘can be moody and sulky’ ”, “ ‘disagreeable’ ”, “ ‘[n]ever was there a more contrary bird’ ”, all of which makes them difficult to “man”. However, she finds that, in seventeenth-century falconry guide-books, they are “ ‘stately and brave […] shye and fearful’, and ‘it is the falconer’s role […] to provide for all his hawk’s needs so that she might have ‘joye in her selfe’ ”.

It is an odd decision to exclude a similar detailed analysis of The Peregrine than is afforded to T. H. White’s writing. Macdonald explains that she turned away from Baker during this period because his quest was a hopeless one, but her description of Baker’s obsessive search for the peregrines in her 2006 study of falcons resembles her own quest for consolation in the natural world: “the diaries of a soul’s journey to grace […] the diaries of a man seeking to become invisible”. She does not accept the view he presents, that “the world was dying, and his hawks were icons of extinction: ours, theirs and his own” (Falcon). White’s shadow hovers over the pages while Macdonald conducts “a quiet conversation, of sorts” with him. She challenges White on his “novice austringer” skills, and takes him to task for ignorant cruelty in the way he trains his goshawk, and she wonders about White and his time alone with Gos. “His young German goshawk was a living expression of all the dark, discreditable desires within himself he’d tried to repress for years: it was a thing fey, fairy, feral, ferocious and cruel”. Rebecca Solnit has written recently about how, as a child, she “disappeared into [books] like someone running into the woods” (The Faraway Nearby, 2013). It is an apt description of the kind of vanishing act that Macdonald accomplishes in her nuanced readings of White’s literature and biography. It is a two-way transference: he haunts her memoir and she inhabits his writing, transitioning smoothly between her voice and the voice she creates for him.

In places, though, it’s as if Macdonald doesn’t trust her reader to make the connections she wants her to see, and the narrative is forced into a narrow pattern that flies in the face of its expansive ideas. The relevance of reindeer moss, for example, is over-emphasised; the opening is set up to show its significant symbolism in the narrative theme of “patience made manifest” that plays out over the course of her journey. At other times, for example, in her etymological detours, she doesn’t push as far as she could go. “Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’ ”. There’s a missed opportunity to complete a link with bereavement and patience through her reading of White, although its meaning resonates within the wider context of loss. The “I” in the passage below is White’s, nonetheless, the patient suffering she depicts is also her own.

I must not look the hawk in the eye. I must not punish the hawk, though it bates, and beats, and my hand is raw with pecks and my face stings from the blows of its bating wings. Hawks cannot be punished. They would rather die than submit. Patience is my only weapon. Patience. Derived from patior. Meaning to suffer. It is an ordeal. I shall triumph.

In Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer On Writing (2003), Margaret Atwood considers “all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality—by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring someone or something back from the dead”. In hawk mythology, hawks carry messages from the dead to the living. Macdonald developed an interest in falconry as a child, and it was as a child that she first read The Goshawk. In her “archaeology of grief” happy memories of bird-watching with her father punctuate the narrative: “my dad had been my dad, but also my friend”. Re-reading The Goshawk, she follows a path back into the woods of her childhood reading, and to the desire she once had for a different ending to White’s book; that his lost Gos would return to him. When it’s time for Macdonald to send Mabel from her fist up into the sky, to wait and watch for her return, she is fearful that she will fly off forever. Metaphorically, she is also flying with Mabel to bring her father back from the “tangled woods”.

It is to be expected in a memoir about a hawk, which is also about grief, that the hawk would represent flight of some kind, after all, “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul’ ”, but the shifting symbolism of Macdonald’s goshawk is not so easily defined. In the first part, it is perhaps hope deferred. When her father dies suddenly, time stops, and she slips into the space between that part of her story which has ended and the new one which is not yet written: training a goshawk is a bridge over the chasm in her selfhood. The second stage in hawk training is termed “carriage”, walking outside with it perched on her falconer’s glove in order to reintroduce it to the world; the goshawk is perhaps the outward manifestation of her grief in the manner of the young girl in Anne Hébert’s poem, “The Tomb of Kings”, who carries her heart on her fist in the form of a blind falcon. Fixing a single meaning onto the goshawk, though, limits the imaginative scope that Macdonald’s empathetic writing opens for the reader; it is also impossible to pin it down. It is easier to establish what the goshawk does not represent: a romantic way of thinking about the natural world.

While the goshawk is an ancient survivor—Macdonald points out that in looking at a goshawk you are looking at history—she discourages a nostalgic longing for landscapes of the past, for rural idylls that exist only in the imagination. In Falcon (2006), she describes how falcons “can’t be seen except through what anthropologist Franz Boas describes as your Kulturbrille, the invisible mental lens your own culture gives you through which you see the world”. Her writing about landscape and history and memory is situated within a movement in nature writing that reframes the tradition of writing about the self in relation to the natural world, such as in writing by contemporary writers, including Robert Macfarlane, and Kathleen Jamie. Following a memorial for her father, an event which marks a turning point for her emotionally, Macdonald realises she has been looking in the wrong places for consolation:

I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so. So many of them had been quests inspired by grief or sadness. […] ‘Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions,’ wrote John Muir. ‘Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.’ Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. […] Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.

H Is for Hawk is a mature, accomplished work: a touchstone for future memoirs, bibliomemoirs, and writing that deals with the natural environment and the self.

[Link to Original Review- ‘Grief and the Goshawk’, in TLS, Oct 29 2014]

Review: Finding Soutbek, by Karen Jennings

Finding Soutbek, by Karen Jennings (Holland Park Press)  ISBN: 978-1-907320-20-0

Finding Soutbek is a wise and troubling story about the burden of history that asks whether it’s possible for a nation to transition from social, political and cultural separation into a democratic and fair society. In this debut novel, Karen Jennings merges diverse voices representing the ‘Rainbow Nation’ to expose the stark contrasts and divisions of the post-Apartheid generation living on South Africa’s western coast.

The setting is a fictional town split into two communities separated by a dry riverbed, separated geographically but also by race (the lower towners are white), by class (the upper towners are fishermen – the lower towners are wealthy farmers and city workers), and by wealth (the lower town is filled with holiday homes and “retired couples come to live out their days with a sea view”). As the story begins, fire sweeps through the upper town, destroying homes and possessions. A storm sweeps in behind, leaving the upper towners homeless and destitute, reliant on the goodwill and kindness of the lower towners. Cape Town is too far away; the government will only send food when they have none. With much hand-wringing, and after a week of families sleeping on the beach and in the abandoned fish factory, the town’s first “colored mayor”, Pieter Fortuin, provides temporary shelter in the “brand new” town hall in lower town.

Jennings draws out the inequalities and injustices subtly, with quiet power and deep humanity through an assured control of the narrative. Structured in layers, the story of contemporary Soutbek is related in parallel with extracts from its past through lengthy quotations from New Monomotapa: The History of the Soutbek Region, recently published in a flurry of media attention. The mayor had collaborated with retired academic Terence Pearson to compile the book from recently discovered diaries of a seventeenth-century Dutch explorer named Pieter van Meerman, in which he suggests that the early settlers founded a utopian society at Soutbek; “the birthplace of assimilation and integration”. Fortuin hopes that “The History” will bring prosperity back to Soutbek and provide an inheritance that his son will be proud of, while “the Professor,” as Pearson is known, hopes to rebuild his career.

Deft characterisation reveals their personal burdens. There is the mayor’s wife, Anna, rescued from a life of poverty and beatings; Sara, an orphan the mayor brings home to care for Anna; “the Professor”, nesting like a destitute in the detritus of his unwritten magnum opus; Willem, the mayor’s nephew, living in poverty in upper town; David, the mayor’s boarding-school-educated son ill at ease in his hometown -“The History”, it seems, will solve all their problems. As Jennings shows, it is a burden too large to bear.

Cross-posted from Fiction Uncovered:

a community website at http://www.fictionuncovered.co.uk which offers eight selected writers – and an even broader group of writers through recommendation and endorsement – a chance to reach readers. The website also encourages contributors to uncover lost or forgotten fiction as well as new fiction.