Memories are stored vertically, fluid and accessible from the strangest depths. … [T]o explore was to salvage, to record a story was to remember one.
Rebecca Winterer won the 2016 Del Sol Press First Novel Prize for The Singing Ship, her sophisticated story of the afflictions and creative transformations that shape the Pilgrim family of Mt. Isaac, Queensland over the course of six decades. However, the book opens with an even longer view – a cosmic one – via a prologue offering a millennia-old perspective on human life. An epilogue returns full circle, telescoping from the Pilgrims back out to the enormity of the earth without belittling the value of the individual. In between those two points of vastness, we spend time on the dusty Australian ground with four characters who nurse their traumas with some unusual obsessions.
Eleven-year-old Bernadette emulates her hero, nineteenth-century explorer Charles Sturt, by trekking out into the bush with a log book and carefully amassed provisions. Younger sister Jane combats her nightmares by focusing on stories of the saints and constructing little altars, “earnestly fabricating solace and safe havens.” Already the signs of who they’ll grow up to be are evident – Bernadette an award-winning historian, and Jane a nun. But the road there will not be easy: Winterer plants tiny hints of an attack the girls suffer out in the bush.
Meanwhile, the girls’ father, Robert, admits to a sexual peccadillo with a customer at his department store and has a nervous breakdown. Their mother Audrey, an unfulfilled housewife with creative ambitions, responds with affairs of her own but also embarks on her magnum opus, an enormous quilt decorated with her button collection. One day the quilt will be part of the permanent folk art collection at the National Gallery in Canberra. For now it’s like an echo of the bowerbird nest Bernadette finds: a visual display of newfound confidence.
The novel follows the Pilgrims from perhaps the late 1950s through to the present day; and from drought-plagued Mt. Isaac to the university where Bernadette teaches and the convent where Jane lives. There will be more losses along the way – deaths and broken relationships – but these characters keep reinventing themselves to survive. In two cases name changes are symbolic of leaving a previous life behind: we learn that Robert chose the new surname Pilgrim when he escaped from his father’s hotel-cum-brothel, to signify his eagerness in setting out on his life’s journey; and when Jane takes her vows she becomes Sister Ava.
I was impressed by how much ground this novel covers in just 210 pages. It takes in so many weighty topics: mental illness, adultery, sexual assault, bereavement, suicide, art, history, legacy and culture. Perhaps for that reason, I found that I had to parcel it out into small chunks, reading just 10 pages or so at a time. The chronology can be difficult to follow – unspecified lengths of time pass between the sections and the narrative skips back and forth, such that I longed for date headings to help me orient myself. But some of this is deliberate, I’m sure: as in Virginia Woolf’s work, the past bleeds into the present, with memory and action sometimes indistinguishable. Indeed, one part is entitled “The Voyage Out”; though I’m unfamiliar with that Woolf novel, I had To the Lighthouse in mind while reading.Winterer’s writing also reminded me of Sarah Moss’s, especially her pair of historical novels, due to the theme of obsessions and vocations – the things that distract you versus those that lead you to what really matters in life. I particularly liked the descriptions of Australian flora and fauna, whether used to set a scene or as part of unique metaphors, like “a huge termite mound, the orangey color of glaze on the cream buns at the school tuck shop.”
The title itself has metaphorical significance, referring to a sculpture of Captain Cook’s Endeavor, sited on a headland over Keppel Bay. It’s “white as bleached cuttlebone” and fitted with organ pipes so that when the wind passes through it creates an uncanny music. Later on Winterer likens the sculpture to the human body. That’s one of the images that will stick with me from this dreamy novel: of music emerging from the detritus of troubled lives.
The Singing Ship was published by Del Sol Press on July 21st. My thanks to the author for sending a free copy for review.
Here are mini-reviews of five books I loved recently: two I originally reviewed for other websites and three stellar library reads; three works of historical fiction and two nonfiction books.
Known and Strange Things: Essays
By Teju Cole
This collects 55 short pieces under three headings: literature, visual arts, and travel. Alongside straightforward book reviews are essays in which Cole engages with his literary heroes. A 400-page book of disparate essays is a hard ask, and even photography aficionados may struggle through the long middle section. All the same, patience is rewarded by Part III, “Being There,” in which he deftly blends memoir and travelogue. Again and again he reflects on displacement and ambiguity. Born in Michigan but raised in Nigeria, Cole returned to the States for college. Though erudite and wide-ranging, these essays are not quite as successful as, say, Julian Barnes’s or Geoff Dyer’s in making any and every topic interesting to laymen. Still, Cole proves himself a modern Renaissance man, interweaving experience and opinion in rigorous yet conversational pieces that illuminate the arts. (See my full review on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website.)
By Christopher Nicholson
A perfect novel about a few months of Thomas Hardy’s later life. On the surface it’s the story of a rather odd love triangle: the octogenarian Hardy was infatuated with Gertrude Bugler, a local Dorset actress who had agreed to play his Tess on the London stage; his neurotic second wife, Florence, got wind of his feelings and jealously decided to sabotage Gertie. Underneath, I found this to be a deeply moving book about fear – of death, but also of not having lived the way you wanted and meant to. The perspective moves between Florence and Gertie in the first person and an omniscient third-person narrator. Chapters 1, 6 and 8, in particular, are a pitch-perfect pastiche of Hardy’s style. A bleak country winter is the perfect setting for a story of personal decay and a marriage grown cold. This brought back vivid memories of my visit to Hardy’s house in 2004 and coincided with my own vision of who Hardy was.
The Complete Maus
By Art Spiegelman
The only graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, this brings the Holocaust home in a fresh way. Like Animal Farm, it uses the conceit of various animal associations: Jews are mice, Poles are pigs, Nazis are cats, and Americans are dogs. Spiegelman draws what, from a distance of decades, his father Vladek remembers about his almost unbelievable series of escapes, including time in Auschwitz. Spiegelman gives the book an extra dimension by including his 1970s/80s recording sessions with his father as a framing story for most chapters. The narration is thus in Vladek’s own broken English, and we see how exasperating Spiegelman finds him – for pinching pennies and being racist against blacks, for instance – even as he’s in awe of his story. You can see how this paved the way for comic artists like Roz Chast and Alison Bechdel. I recommend it to absolutely anyone, graphic novel fan or no.
By Francis Spufford
Bawdy, witty, vivid historical fiction; simply brilliant. You’ll never doubt for a second that you are in 1746 New York – an English colony with a heavy Dutch influence, and slavery still the standard. The novel opens suddenly as twenty-four-year-old Richard Smith arrives from London with a promissory note for £1000. He won’t explain how he came by the money or what he intends to do with it, but the order seems legitimate. This puts the merchant Mr. Lovell in rather a bind, because that kind of cash simply can’t be come by. Before he can finally get his money, Smith will fall in and out of love, fight a duel, and be arrested twice – all within the space of two months. In a book full of fantastic scenes, Smith and Septimus’ narrow escape via the rooftops on Pope Day stands out. The finest thing about the novel, though, is the authentic eighteenth-century diction. Spufford writes very good creative nonfiction, with five books to date, but with his debut novel he’s hit a home run.
By A.N. Wilson
From a prolific author of both fiction and nonfiction, a meticulously researched novel about George Forster, one of the naturalists on Captain Cook’s second voyage. Rather than giving a simple chronological account of the journey and its aftermath, Wilson employs a sophisticated structure that alternates vignettes from the voyage with scenes from about 10 years later, when George is unhappily married to Therese and struggling to find suitable work. This is the second novel I’ve read by Wilson, after The Potter’s Hand. I find his fiction to be thoroughly convincing as well as engaging. This reminded me most of Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann, another rip-roaring tale of exploration with prose emulating the more detached narrative style of the eighteenth century. Recommended to any readers of historical fiction and adventure stories. (See my full review at The Bookbag.)
Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?
This past weekend marked my second trip to Whitby in North Yorkshire, more than 10 years after my first. It was, appropriately, on the occasion of a 10-year anniversary – namely, of the existence of Emmanuel Café Church, an informal group based at the University of Leeds chaplaincy center that I was involved in during my master’s year in 2005–6. I was there for the very first year and it was a welcome source of friendship during a tough year of loneliness and homesickness, so it’s gratifying that it’s still going nearly 11 years later (but also scary that it’s all quite that long ago). The reunion was held at Sneaton Castle, a lovely venue with a resident order of Anglican nuns that’s about a half-hour walk from central Whitby.
The more I think about it, Leeds was a fine place to do a Victorian Literature degree – it’s not too far from Haworth, the home of the Brontës, or Whitby, a setting used in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Two of my classmates and I made our own pilgrimages to both sites in 2006. The Whitby Abbey ruins rising above the churchyard of St. Mary’s certainly create a suitably creepy atmosphere. No wonder Whitby is enduringly popular with Goths and at Halloween.
Another resident of Victorian Whitby, unknown to me until I saw a plaque designating her cottage on the walk from Sneaton into town, was Mary Linskill (1840–91), who wrote short stories and novels including Between the Heather and the Northern Sea (1884), The Haven under the Hill (1886) and In Exchange for a Soul (1887). I checked Project Gutenberg and couldn’t find a trace of her work, but the University of Reading holds a copy of her Tales of the North Riding in their off-site store. Perhaps I’ll have a gander!
There are other connections to be made with Whitby, too. For one thing, it has a long maritime history: it was home to William Scoresby (“Whaler, Arctic Voyager and Inventor of the Crow’s Nest,” as the plaque outside his house reads), and Captain James Cook grew up 30 miles away and served an apprenticeship in the town. There’s a statue of Cook plus a big whalebone arch on the hill the other side of the harbor from the church and abbey. It felt particularly fitting that I’ve been reading A.N. Wilson’s forthcoming novel Resolution, about the naturalists who sailed on Captain Cook’s second major expedition in the 1770s.
(My other apt reading for the sunny August weekend was Vanessa Lafaye’s Summertime.)
On our Sunday afternoon browse of Whitby’s town center we couldn’t resist a stop into a bargain bookshop, where my husband bought a cheap copy of David Lebovitz’s all-desserts cookbook; I picked up a classy magnetic bookmark and a novel I’d never heard of for a grand total of £1.09. I know nothing about Dirk Wittenborn’s Pharmakon, but this 10 pence paperback comes with high praise from Lionel Shriver, Bret Easton Ellis and the Guardian, so I’ll give it a try and let you know how it works out in terms of literary value for money!