Today would have been Doris Lessing’s 100th birthday; she in fact died in 2013. Reading Lara Feigel’s Free Woman last year encouraged me to try more from Lessing, and I’m glad that I did so this month. I started with The Fifth Child, a horror novella for R.I.P., followed by the novel Lessing brought with her when she left Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for England.
The Grass Is Singing (1950)
I had trouble believing that this novel a) was Lessing’s debut and b) is now nearly 70 years old. It felt both fresh and timeless, and I could see how it has inspired writing about the white experience in Africa ever since, especially a book like Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, in which an English farmer and his son are haunted by the violent death of the young man’s mother back in Zambia 10 years ago.
For The Grass Is Singing begins with two sly words, “MURDER MYSTERY”: a newspaper headline announcing that Mary, wife of Rhodesian farmer Dick Turner, has been found murdered by their houseboy. It’s a tease because in one sense there’s no mystery to this at all: we know from the first lines what happened to Mary. And yet we are drawn in, wondering why she was killed and how the Turners went from an idealistic young couple enthusiastic about their various money-making schemes – a shop, chickens, tobacco – to a jaded, distant pair struggling for their health, both mental and physical.
The breakdown of their marriage and the failure of their farm form a dual tragedy that Lessing explores in searing psychological detail, all while exposing (with neither judgment nor approval) how Anglos felt about the natives at that time.
There’s a sense in which this was all fated: Dick is weak, someone Mary pities rather than loves and respects; and Mary’s mixed-up feelings toward her black servants – fear, contempt, curiosity and attraction – were bound to lead to an explosion. The land itself seems to be conspiring against them, too, or is at least indifferent to their plans and dreams.
So many passages struck me for their effortless profundity. I cringed to see myself so clearly in Mary’s boredom and restlessness, along with her ambivalence about the idea of motherhood: “She hated the idea of a baby, when she thought of its helplessness, its dependence, the mess, the worry. But it would give her something to do.”
This was the fifth full-length book I’ve read by Lessing, and by far the best.
Alas, I had a Lessing DNF this month, too:
The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
This was shelved in with the memoirs in The Bookshop, Wigtown. I’m not blaming Mr. Bythell or his staff, as this would be a very easy shelving error to make, even for those well versed in literature. But I was disappointed to realize that it’s actually one of Lessing’s detached, dreamy dystopian novels. I tried really hard with this but couldn’t make it past page 48. There’s just not much detail to latch onto. You know that it is set in a vague but believable near future (London?) in which there has been political and social breakdown, followed by gangs, looting and fighting. The narrator hides out in her apartment and is able to live a fairly normal life (“We can get used to anything at all”), at least until an adolescent girl named Emily Cartright is deposited into her care. The novel still feels relevant – the comments on rumor and gossip being as important as news; the sense that the narrator’s generation has ruined things for Emily’s generation and should accept guilt and responsibility – but there is just no plot to speak of.
Next up for me from Lessing’s works will be at least one of her heavily autobiographical Martha Quest novels.
“A story is like a net: you have to make your own; you have to throw the loops just right; you have to be careful what gets in and what gets out, what you catch and what you keep.”
Ten-year-old Ellie Fleck isn’t like the other children in her North Yorkshire town. The daughter of Pete, a grizzled fisherman, and Kate, an Irish Catholic woman who’s in a mental hospital after a presumed suicide attempt, Ellie was raised on stories of selkies and martyrdoms. Superstition infuses her daily life, making her afraid of pool trips with her classmates – it’s bad luck for fishermen to learn to swim – and leading her to expect her dead grandmother’s soul to waft in through an open window on Halloween night.
What with bullies’ beatings and her teacher Mr. Lockwood’s disapproval, it’s no wonder Ellie misses lots of school, going sea-coaling with her father or running off to the coast alone instead. But with Christmas approaching and Kate due home from the hospital, Ellie’s absences warrant an official visit. Social worker May Fletcher, the mother of Ellie’s new friend Fletch, is also concerned about Ellie’s home life. “How Saints Die,” Ellie and Fletch’s gruesome skit performed as an addendum to the school Nativity play, seems like proof that something is seriously wrong.
This is performance poet Carmen Marcus’s debut novel; from what I can tell it seems partially autobiographical. It powerfully conveys the pull of the sea and the isolation of an unconventional 1980s childhood. The dreamy, hypnotic prose alternates passages from Ellie’s perspective with shorter chapters from the points of view of the adults in her life, including her father, busybody neighbor Mrs. Forster, and May Fletcher. Marcus is equally skilled at the almost stream-of-consciousness passages describing Ellie’s trips to the sea and at humorous one-line descriptions:
Sand and salt in the cut, stinging. Her dad would know what to do. She wants him here, now, to show her. Without him the beach takes her up entirely, the shushshush of the sea and the coarse cackle of the waders at the waters-edge, creakcrackcreakcrackyawyaw; the wind tugging at the shell of her ear. All of it pulling, nipping, cutting at her – snipsnipsnip – and now blood, her edges ragged and wet.
Mrs Forster always smells faintly sweet and acidic like old Christmas cake.
– What are sins?
– They’re like germs but in your thoughts.
It’s easy to get lost in Ellie’s supernatural world of spirits and sea wolves, while the occasional outsider views make it clear just how dangerous some of her notions could be. Like Paula Cocozza’s How to Be Human, this sets up an intriguing contrast between magic realism and madness. The language is full of transformations and fairy tale tropes. I was reminded at times of Amy Sackville’s Orkney and Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter. Although there is perhaps one perilous situation too many at the climax and the resolution is a bit drawn out (and there is also less punctuation than I would like), this is still a strong and absorbing first novel and one I fully expect to see on next year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.
How Saints Die is published in the UK today, July 13th, by Harvill Secker. My thanks to Louise Court for sending a free copy for review.
Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
~Ted Hughes, “The Thought-Fox” (1957)
Foxes Unearthed, freelance journalist Lucy Jones’s first book, won a Society of Authors’ Roger Deakin Award for nature writing. If you’re familiar with Patrick Barkham’s Badgerlands, you’ll recognize this as a book with a comparable breadth and a similar aim: clearing the reputation of an often unfairly reviled British mammal. Jones ranges from history to science and from mythology to children’s literature in her search for the truth about foxes. Given the media’s obsession with fox attacks, this is a noble and worthwhile undertaking.
The book proper opens with a visit to Roald Dahl’s house, now a Buckinghamshire museum, where he wrote Fantastic Mr. Fox. Still one of the best-known representations of foxes in British literature, Dahl’s Mr. Fox is a Robin Hood-like hero, outsmarting a trio of mean-spirited farmers to provide a feast for his family. Foxes’ seemingly innate wiliness prompts ambivalent reactions, though; we admire it, but we also view it as a threat or an annoyance. As Jones puts it, the fox of fables and traditional stories is “a villain we cheer for.”
Not everyone cheers, of course. Under Henry VIII, the Vermin Acts of 1532 (not repealed until the 1750s) promised a reward to anyone who killed foxes, then considered a nuisance animal. Fox hunting and the cruel sport of “tossing” have a long history that eventually came up against the movement towards animal welfare, starting with Jeremy Bentham in the 1740s and codified by the 1911 Protection of Animals Act. Meanwhile, Jones notes, children’s books advocating compassion for animals, such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877), ensured that the message made it out of the legislative chamber and into everyday life.
The second chapter is a useful survey of fox behavior. Foxes are omnivores, and in recent decades have started to move into Britain’s cities, where they find plenty of food to scavenge. In rural settings, foxes are still the subject of farmers’ loathing even though they rarely take lambs and actually help keep rabbit numbers in check. Still, the stereotype of foxes killing for fun instead of for hunger persists, whereas they in fact cache their surplus food. Chapter 3 asks whether fox numbers have reached pest status and considers various control strategies, from straightforward culling to the non-lethal methods supported by conservationists.
I enjoyed Jones’s meetings with figures from both sides of the debate. She goes along on a fox hunt, but also meets or quotes animal rights activists, academics, and high-profile nature promoters like Chris Packham. All told, though, I felt the book could have been closer to 200 pages than 300. Most chapters are very long, and some could easily be combined and/or shortened. For instance, Chapter 1 relays the amount of information about fox hunting that most readers will be prepared to absorb, yet it’s then the subject of two more chapters.
This is an important book for correcting misconceptions, but your enjoyment of it may be in proportion to your personal interest in the subject. In terms of fonts and cover design, though, you’re unlikely to come across a more gorgeous book this year.
Foxes Unearthed was published in paperback by Elliott & Thompson on March 16th. Thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.
To encounter foxes in fiction, try the following:
- Glow by Ned Beauman
- The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen
- Midwinter by Fiona Melrose
- The Soho Leopard by Ruth Padel (a poetry book with a sequence on urban foxes)
& the forthcoming How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza (April 6th).
It was a definite case of judging a book by its cover: I saw a photo of Fiona Melrose’s debut novel, Midwinter, on Twitter and – without reading much about it at all – sent off a quick request e-mail to the publisher. All I knew was that it was about a father and son, that it was set in Suffolk, that a fox featured somewhere, and that Zambia was involved somehow. But that was enough to convince me that this was a book I wanted to read.
I had assumed the title would refer to the novel’s setting; although it does take place during the colder months of the year, Midwinter is also the main characters’ last name. Landyn Midwinter and his twenty-year-old son, Vale, are farmers in the Suffolk countryside. They’re both joined and divided by the memory of Vale’s mum Cecilia’s violent death ten years ago in Zambia, where the family had gone to seek their fortune after money troubles on the English farm. Vale blames Landyn for Cessie’s murder, and the past still fuels explosions between them in the present day.
The novel opens with Vale and his best friend, Tom, who were raised like brothers, stealing a boat and going for a drunken nighttime sail. This scene reminded me of the cataclysmic maritime sections of Wyl Menmuir’s The Many and ends in near-disaster. Vale is fine, but as Tom spends the next weeks in hospital it becomes clear that he will not escape undamaged. Vale and Landyn don’t see eye to eye about what Vale owes his friend; they also disagree about Landyn’s sentimental attitude towards animals: farm dogs and chickens, as well as a vixen he is thrilled to see on his land, thinking of her as an emissary from his lost wife.
Vale and Landyn narrate the book in alternating first-person chapters. It’s their country voices and the father–son theme that drive the story. “It could never be the end for me and Vale,” Landyn says. “I didn’t have a choice in it. Been like that how many times since Cessie passed, all beaten and tired and nothing left.” And yet Vale “cut me right where he knew there was fresh meat, the type that doesn’t knit.” Landyn’s voice worked better for me, but I liked how the same themes crop up for both men as they go through the motions of everyday farming life: guilt over bad decisions, a hot temper, and awkwardness around women.
Past and present coexist stylishly through flashbacks to the Midwinters’ brief time in Africa, and there are several climactic scenes of animal deaths, one quite gruesome – something to keep in mind if you are sensitive to such things.
At a certain point, though, the novel started feeling repetitive to me. Some incidents are recounted from both points of view, but the repetition doesn’t add anything. I thought the book could stand to lose 40–60 pages – page 224 would have served as a perfectly good ending, for instance. In fact, the whole thing feels like an early draft: it’s surprisingly poorly edited in terms of punctuation, typos and compound words.
In all, I think this edition of Melrose’s debut novel doesn’t do her justice. Luckily, I was impressed enough by her elegant treatment of fraught relationships and ongoing guilt that I will still be looking out for her future work.
Other books (all by women!) this reminded me of:
- Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
- The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop
- Shame by Melanie Finn [U.S. title: The Gloaming]
- The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
Midwinter was published in the UK by Corsair on November 2nd. My thanks to Helen Upton of Little, Brown for the free review copy.