I’ve grouped these three prize-winning novels from the late 1980s and 1990s together because they all left me scratching my head, wondering whether they were jumbles of random elements and events or if there was indeed a satisfyingly coherent story. While there were aspects I admired, there were also moments when I thought it indulgent of the authors to pursue poetic prose or plot tangents and not consider the reader’s limited patience. I had to think for ages about how to rate these, but eventually arrived at the same rating for each, reflecting my enjoyment but also my hesitation.
The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987)
[Whitbread Prize for Fiction (now Costa Novel Award)]
This is the second-earliest of the 13 McEwan books I’ve read. It’s something of a strange muddle (from the protagonist’s hobbies of Arabic and tennis lessons plus drinking onwards), yet everything clusters around the title’s announced themes of children and time.
Stephen Lewis’s three-year-old daughter, Kate, was abducted from a supermarket three years ago. The incident is recalled early in the book, as if the remainder will be about solving the mystery of what happened to Kate. But such is not the case. Her disappearance is an unalterable fact of Stephen’s life that drove him and his wife apart, but apart from one excruciating scene later in the book when he mistakes a little girl on a school playground for Kate and interrogates the principal about her, the missing child is just subtext.
Instead, the tokens of childhood are political and fanciful. Stephen, a writer whose novels accidentally got categorized as children’s books, is on a government committee producing a report on childcare. On a visit to Suffolk, he learns that his publisher, Charles Darke, who later became an MP, has reverted to childhood, wearing shorts and serving lemonade up in a treehouse.
Meanwhile, Charles’s wife, Thelma, is a physicist researching the nature of time. For Charles, returning to childhood is a way of recapturing timelessness. There’s also an odd shared memory that Stephen and his mother had four decades apart. Even tiny details add on to the time theme, like Stephen’s parents meeting when his father returned a defective clock to the department store where his mother worked.
This is McEwan, so you know there’s going to be a contrived but very funny scene. Here that comes in Chapter 5, when Stephen is behind a flipped lorry and goes to help the driver. He agrees to take down a series of (increasingly outrageous) dictated letters but gets exasperated at about the same time it becomes clear the young man is not approaching death. Instead, he helps him out of the cab and they celebrate by drinking two bottles of champagne. This doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the rest of the book, but is the scene I’m most likely to remember.
Other noteworthy elements: Stephen has a couple of run-ins with the Prime Minister; though this is clearly Margaret Thatcher, McEwan takes pains to neither name nor so much as reveal the gender of the PM (in fear of libel claims?). Homeless people and gypsies show up multiple times, making Stephen uncomfortable but also drawing his attention. I assumed this was a political point about Thatcher’s influence, with the homeless serving as additional stand-ins for children in a paternalistic society, representing vulnerability and (misplaced) trust.
This is a book club read for our third monthly Zoom meeting, coming up in the first week of June. While it’s odd and not entirely successful, I think it should give us a lot to talk about: the good and bad aspects of reverting to childhood, whether it matters if Kate ever comes back, the caginess about Thatcher, and so on.
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)
[Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize for Fiction)]
“One can look deeply for meaning or one can invent it.”
Poland, Greece, Canada; geology, poetry, meteorology. At times it felt like Michaels had picked her settings and topics out of a hat and flung them together. Especially in the early pages, the dreamy prose is so close to poetry that I had trouble figuring out what was actually happening, but gradually I was drawn into the story of Jakob Beer, a Jewish boy rescued like a bog body or golem from the ruins of his Polish village. Raised on a Greek island and in Toronto by his adoptive father, a geologist named Athos who’s determined to combat the Nazi falsifying of archaeological history, Jakob becomes a poet and translator. Though he marries twice, he remains a lonely genius haunted by the loss of his whole family – especially his sister, Bella, who played the piano. Survivor’s guilt never goes away. “To survive was to escape fate. But if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into?”
The final third of the novel, set after Jakob’s death, shifts into another first-person voice. Ben is a student of literature and meteorological history. His parents are concentration camp survivors, so he relates to the themes of loss and longing in Jakob’s poetry. Taking a break from his troubled marriage, Ben offers to go back to the Greek island where Jakob last lived to retrieve his notebooks – which presumably contain all that’s come before. Ben often addresses Jakob directly in the second person, as if to reassure him that he has been remembered. Ultimately, I wasn’t sure what this section was meant to add, but Ben’s narration is more fluent than Jakob’s, so it was at least pleasant to read.
Although this is undoubtedly overwritten in places, too often resorting to weighty one-liners, I found myself entranced by the stylish writing most of the time. I particularly enjoyed the puns, palindromes and rhyming slang that Jakob shares with Athos while learning English, and with his first wife. If I could change one thing, I would boost the presence of the female characters. I was reminded of other books I’ve read about the interpretation of history and memory, Everything Is Illuminated and Moon Tiger, as well as of other works by Canadian women, A Student of Weather and Fall on Your Knees. This won’t be a book for everyone, but if you’ve enjoyed one or more of my readalikes, you might consider giving it a try.
Sacred Country by Rose Tremain (1992)
[James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Prix Fémina Etranger]
In 1952, on the day a two-minute silence is held for the dead king, six-year-old Mary Ward has a distinct thought: “I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.” Growing up on a Suffolk farm with a violent father and a mentally ill mother, Mary asks to be called Martin and binds her breasts with bandages. Kicked out at age 15, she lives with her retired teacher and then starts to pursue a life on her own terms in London. While working for a literary magazine and dating women, she consults a doctor and psychologist to explore the hormonal and surgical options for becoming the man she believes she’s always been.
Meanwhile, a hometown acquaintance with whom she once shared a dentist’s waiting room, Walter Loomis, gives up his family’s butcher shop to pursue his passion for country music. Both he and Mary/Martin are sexually fluid and, dissatisfied with the existence they were born into, resolve to search for something more. The outsiders’ journeys take them to Tennessee, of all places. But when Martin joins Walter there, it’s an anticlimax. You’d expect their new lives to dovetail together, but instead they remain separate strivers.
At a bare summary, this seems like a simple plot, but Tremain complicates it with many minor characters and subplots. The story line stretches to 1980: nearly three decades’ worth of historical and social upheaval. The third person narration shifts perspective often to show a whole breadth of experience in this small English village, while occasional first-person passages from Mary and from her mother, Estelle, who’s in and out of a mental hospital, lend intimacy. Otherwise, the minor characters feel flat, more like symbols or mouthpieces.
To give a flavor of the book’s many random elements, here’s a decoding of the extraordinary cover on the copy I picked up from the free bookshop:
Crimson background and oval shape = female anatomy, menstruation
Central figure in a medieval painting style, with royal blue cloth = Mary
Masculine muscle structure plus yin-yang at top = blended sexuality
Airplane = Estelle’s mother died in a glider accident
Confederate flag = Tennessee
Cards = fate/chance, conjuring tricks Mary learns at school, fortune teller Walter visits
Cleaver = the Loomis butcher shop
Cricket bat = Edward Harker’s woodcraft; he employs and then marries Estelle’s friend Irene
Guitar = Walter’s country music ambitions
Oyster shell with pearl = Irene’s daughter Pearl, whom young Mary loves so much she takes her (then a baby) in to school for show-and-tell
Cutout torso = the search for the title land (both inward and outer), a place beyond duality
Tremain must have been ahead of the times in writing a trans character. She acknowledged that the premise was inspired by Conundrum by Jan Morris (who, born James, knew he was really a girl from the age of five). I recall that Sacred Country turned up often in the footnotes of Tremain’s recent memoir, Rosie, so I expect it has little autobiographical resonances and is a work she’s particularly proud of. I read this in advance of writing a profile of Tremain for Bookmarks magazine. It feels very different from her other books I’ve read; while it’s not as straightforwardly readable as The Road Home, I’d call it my second favorite from her. The writing is somewhat reminiscent of Kate Atkinson, early A.S. Byatt and Shena Mackay, and it’s a memorable exploration of hidden identity and the parts of life that remain a mystery.
Later today we’re making a pilgrimage to Bookbarn International,* one of my favorite secondhand bookshops in the UK, on the way (ish) to seeing friends in Bristol and Exeter for the weekend. In the past we’ve managed to drop in to Bookbarn annually, but it’s been nearly 2.5 years since our last visit. At that special Harvest Supper and Scrabble** tournament in October 2017 (which I wrote about here), I got to meet William Pryor, the chairman of Bookbarn, and he gave me a copy of his grandmother Gwen Raverat’s memoir, Period Piece.
Raverat was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin (the first child of his son George) but never got to meet him as he died three years before her birth. Her book has the subtitle “A Cambridge Childhood,” which perfectly conveys the aim. This is not a comprehensive family history or autobiography, but a portrait of what it was like to grow up in a particular time and place. Raverat was born in 1885, but she begins two years earlier, when her American mother, Maud Du Puy, was 21 and in England for the first time to spend a summer with her great-aunt and -uncle. She had three suitors during that time, all of them Fellows of Trinity College. The rules had only just been changed to allow Fellows to marry, so George Darwin would be among the first married members, and Gwen was in the first batch of offspring.
Period Piece is a charming, witty look at daily life from the 1880s through about 1909 – ending with the marriage of her cousin Frances, which seemed to signal a definitive end to their collective youth. Raverat focuses on everyday sights and sounds but also points out life’s little absurdities. She proceeds thematically rather than chronologically, taking up topics like her mother’s parenting theories; her boarding school education and budding love of art; visits to Grandmamma at Down House, Kent; childhood fears and ghost stories; the five Darwin uncles; religion; sports and games; clothing; and social events such as dances.
Writing towards the end of her life and in the middle of the twentieth century, Raverat neatly draws contrasts between old-fashioned propriety and modern mores. For example, as a child she was often called upon to act as a chaperone to courting couples, and when ladies boated past a watering hole where boys swam naked, they would cover their faces with parasols. She herself managed to avoid the matter of sex entirely until she was an adult, though she does remember looking to an encyclopedia to find out where babies come from.
The utter reliance on servants, a profusion of buttons on every garment, and forced trips to church are a few elements that might strike today’s readers as alien. One incident felt eerily contemporary to me, though: once, walking home alone at around 10 p.m., Gwen saw a gang of dodgy-looking undergraduates carrying a drunk or dead young woman down the street and into a pub. After much internal debate, she decided not to say a word about it to her parents.
I often wonder how novelists and filmmakers get a historical setting just right. The answer is, probably by reading books like this one that so clearly convey quotidian details most people would leave out, e.g. a list of every piece of clothing a lady wore or a rundown of the steps to getting her mother out the door to catch the 8:30 train for a day out in London. Those who have visited or lived in Cambridge will no doubt enjoy spotting familiar locations. There are also amusing cameo appearances from Virginia Stephen (Woolf) and E.M. Forster.
Raverat, a wood engraver, peppered Period Piece with her own illustrations (I have photographed one favorite, at left, but you can see them all in the archive here) – a lovely supplement to the highly visual text. Not just an invaluable record of domestic history, this is a very funny and impressively thorough memoir that could be used by anyone as a model for how to capture childhood. It has never been out of print, and still deserves to be widely read.
*They’ve recently had a renovation that I helped to crowdfund; I’m looking forward to seeing the results. I’ll also be sure to report back on my book haul.
**I was especially delighted to see that the Darwin family had a favorite word-making game, described in the middle of the “Sport” chapter, that sounds a fair bit like Scrabble – except that you only added one letter at a time and could scramble the letters to change the meaning.
Some favorite lines:
(describing one of her mother’s early letters home to America) “They got [rooms for the night] at last at ‘the St Pancreas Hotel’. I was delighted to find this spelling so early, as, to the end of her days, my mother always considered the saint and the internal organ as identical.”
(of their French nurserymaids) “By a provision of Providence they were always called Eugenie, so that when a new one came she could be called Newgenie.”
“The faint flavour of the ghost of my grandfather hung in a friendly way about the whole place [Down] – house, garden and all. … In fact, he was obviously in the same category as God and Father Christmas.”
I read the 2014 Collector’s Library edition, an attractive pocket-sized book with gilt edging and a built-in red ribbon bookmark.
Paulina Flores, a young Chilean author and high school teacher, won the Roberto Bolaño Short Story Prize for the title story in her debut collection. These nine stories are about how we relate to the past, particularly our childhood – whether with nostalgia or regret – and about the pivotal moments that stand out in the memory. The first two, “Humiliation” and “Teresa,” I previewed in one of my Women in Translation Month posts. They feature young fathers and turn on a moment of surprise: An unemployed father takes his two daughters along to his audition; a college student goes home with a single father for a one-night stand.
Of the rest, my favorites were “Talcahuano,” about teenage friends whose plan to steal musical instruments from the local evangelical church goes awry when there’s a crisis with the narrator’s father, a laid-off marine (readalike: Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls); and “Forgetting Freddy,” in which a young woman who ends up back in her mother’s apartment after a breakup listens to the neighbors fighting and relives childhood fears during her long baths (readalike: History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund).
“American Spirit” recalls two friends’ time waitressing (readalike: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler), and in “Last Vacation” a young man recounts his last trip to La Serena with his aunt before everything went wrong for his family. “Laika” is a troubling one in that the protagonist remembers her childhood brush with pedophilia not with terror or disgust but with a sort of fondness. A number of the stories conclude that you can’t truly remake your life, nor can you escape the memories that have shaped you – even if you might like to.
A fairly common feature in story volumes is closing with a novella. Almost invariably, I like these long stories the least, and sometimes skip them. Here, the 72-page “Lucky Me” could easily be omitted. Denise, a librarian who watches porn and reads the Old Testament in her spare time (“what she needed was to feel something. She needed pleasure and spirituality”), lets the upstairs neighbor use her bedroom for sex; Nicole, a fourth-grader, has her world turned upside down when her best friend’s mother becomes their housekeeper. Although the story brings its strands, one in the first person and one in the third (giving the book an even 4.5/4.5 split), together in a satisfying manner, it was among my least favorites in the collection.
Overall, though, these are sharp and readable stories I can give a solid recommendation.
Humiliation (2016; English translation by Megan McDowell, 2019) is published by Oneworld today, November 7th,; it came out on the 5th from Catapult in the USA. My thanks to Margot Weale for a proof copy for review.