Amy Sackville’s debut novel, The Still Point, had been on my radar ever since I read her follow-up, Orkney. I finally put it on my wish list and got a copy for Christmas. In the meantime, I’d also acquired a copy of Emily Rapp’s memoir The Still Point of the Turning World as part of a big secondhand book haul at the start of the first lockdown.
Both books take their title from the eminently quotable T.S. Eliot*, specifically his poem “Burnt Norton.” I couldn’t resist the urge to review them together (along with Rapp’s recent sequel) – although, unlike with my dual review of two books titled Ex Libris, I won’t pit them against each other because they’re such different books.
That said, they do share a dreamlike quality and the search for people and places that might serve as refuges in a shattered life. All:
The Still Point by Amy Sackville (2010)
I am not heroic, I prefer
not to conquer
polar regions, my
gardens in July
serve for me.
~from “emperor’s walk” by G.F. Dutton
A sweltering summer versus an encasing of ice; an ordinary day versus decades of futile waiting. Sackville explores these contradictions only to deflate them, collapsing time such that a polar explorer’s wife and her great-great-niece can inhabit the same literal and emotional space despite being separated by more than a century. When Edward Mackley went off on his expedition in the early 1900s, he left behind Emily, his devoted, hopeful new bride. She was to live out the rest of her days in the Mackley family home with her brother-in-law and his growing family; Edward never returned. Now Julia and her husband Simon reside in that same Victorian house, serving as custodians of memories and artifacts from her ancestors’ travels and naturalist observations. From one early morning until the next, we peer into this average marriage with its sadness and silences. On this day, Julia discovers a family secret, and late on reveals another of her own, that subtly change how we see her and Emily.
This is a highly fluid and sensual novel, but somehow so sinuous as to be hard to grasp. I took in its interlocking story lines just a few pages at a time; floating on the gorgeous prose, basking in the alternating heat and chill. Sackville’s greatest stylistic debt must be to Virginia Woolf, but I was also reminded of Lucy Wood’s Weathering and Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock – two similarly beautiful books in which a house and its ghosts are major characters – and of how some of Sarah Moss’s work braids the past into the everyday. I suspect this won’t be for every reader, but if you can find the right moment and mood, you might just be entranced.
One of Sackville’s research sources was Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, a work I recently skimmed for a winter post. Two passages that stood out to me apply equally well to Rapp’s books:
“The literature of nineteenth-century arctic exploration is full of coincidence and drama—last-minute rescues, a desperate rifle shot to secure food for starving men, secret letters written to painfully missed loved ones. There are moments of surreal stillness, as in Parry’s journal when he writes of the sound of the human voice in the land. And of tender ministration and quiet forbearance in the face of inevitable death.”
“The continuous work of the imagination, I thought, to bring what is actual together with what is dreamed is an expression of human evolution. The conscious desire is to achieve a state, even momentarily, that like light is unbounded, nurturing, suffused with wisdom and creation, a state in which one has absorbed that very darkness which before was the perpetual sign of defeat.”
The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp (2013)
In 2011 Rapp’s baby son Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a degenerative nerve condition that causes blindness, deafness, seizures, paralysis and, ultimately, death. Tay-Sachs is usually seen in Ashkenazi Jews, so it came as a surprise: Rapp and her husband Rick both had to be carriers, whereas only he was Jewish; they never thought to get tested.
This memoir was written while Ronan was still alive, and the rapid, in-the-thick-of-it composition is evident: it rides the same rollercoaster of feelings over and over again, even repeating some of the same facts. I put this down to the brain fog of anticipatory grief. “The constant push-pull: here but not for long. What will come next?” Rapp quotes extensively from other writers who have grappled with bereavement, especially poets, as if building an inner library to bolster herself against what is to come (“it wasn’t consolation I needed or desired, but the tools to walk through this fire without being consumed by it”).
Rapp puts her son’s life into context through memories of growing up disabled (she had a rare condition that necessitated the amputation of a leg as a child, and wore a prosthesis) in the conservative Midwest, contrasting the Christian theology she grew up in and studied at college with the Eastern and New Age spiritualities that prevail in Santa Fe, where she and Rick then lived with Ronan. She ponders the worth of a life that will be marked by no traditional achievements.
In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr advises seven years between the events and the writing about them, but Rapp explains her strategy of instant reaction thus:
grief, this extreme experience, forces a writer to draw on her deepest resources, and such a dive demands so much work that what comes up must be heaved onto the page almost immediately; otherwise it might eat the thinker alive, drown them … Or at least that’s how I felt. You can eat fire for only so long, and then you’ve got to spit it out in another form or risk the burn.
She felt that “rendering loss was a way of honoring life,” which even with this death sentence hanging over the family had its times of pure joy: “there existed inside this helpless, frantic sadness exquisite moments of pristine happiness and an almost-perfect peace.” The title perfectly captures the necessity of finding this calmness of soul amidst a tumultuous life.
Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black (2021)
Things got worse before they got better. As is common for couples who lose a child, Rapp and her first husband separated, soon after she completed her book. In the six months leading up to Ronan’s death in February 2013, his condition deteriorated rapidly and he needed hospice caretakers. Rapp came close to suicide. But in those desperate months, she also threw herself into a new relationship with Kent, a 20-years-older man who was there for her as Ronan was dying and would become her second husband and the father of her daughter, Charlotte (“Charlie”). The acrimonious split from Rick and the astonishment of a new life with Kent – starting in the literal sanctuary of his converted New Mexico chapel, and then moving to California – were two sides of a coin. So were missing Ronan and loving Charlie.
Sanctuary is a similarly allusive text, with each chapter prefaced by a poem, and it is again full of flashbacks, threading all the seemingly disparate parts of a life into a chaotic tapestry. Rapp Black questions the sorts of words that she and her experience got branded with: “brave,” “tragic,” “resilient” – “I unwittingly became the poster child,” she wryly reports. In the same way that she’d been praised for “overcoming disability,” she saw that she was now being trotted out as an example of coping with unimaginable loss. But she didn’t want to be someone’s model; she just wanted the chance to live her life and be happy again. Her wisdom isn’t what makes it onto inspirational stickers, but it’s genuine and hard-won:
“It has little or nothing to do with bravery. Nobody is charging into warfare here. No gold stars are given because none are earned. I am no warrior of love or anything else.”
“Time doesn’t heal anything; it just changes things—reshapes and reorients them.”
“resilience is not always a function of the desire to survive. Either you survive, or you don’t. There’s no fault, no moral judgment, assigned to either outcome.”
“Isn’t it true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? No. What doesn’t kill you changes you, and those who chose to love you. That is what it means to bear witness, a unique and salvific form of resilience.”
Although I was glad to have read both, to have experienced both the in-the-moment and the after-the-fact, I think Sanctuary could easily function as a standalone memoir because of how much of Ronan’s illness it relives. For being that bit more measured and wrought, I think it’s the better book by a hair’s breadth. It tames the fire and just radiates the light and warmth.
I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley. Thanks to John Murray Press for the approval.
It’s cats and butterflies in the spotlight this time, adding in a gazelle as a metaphor for Freddie Mercury’s somebody to love.
Travelling Cat: A Journey round Britain with Pugwash by Frederick Harrison (1988)
If Tom Cox had been born 20 years earlier, this is the sort of book he might have written. In 1987, saddened more by his cat Podey being run over than by the end of his marriage, Harrison set out from South London in his Ford Transit van for a seven-month drive around the country. He decided to take Pugwash, one of his local (presumably ownerless) cats, along as a companion.
They encountered Morris dancers, gypsies, hippies at Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice, sisters having a double wedding, and magic mushroom collectors. They went to a county fair and beaches in Suffolk and East Yorkshire, and briefly to Hay-on-Wye. And on the way back they collected Podey, whom he’d had stuffed. Harrison muses on the English “vice” of nostalgia for a past that probably never existed; Pugwash does what cats do, and very well.
It’s all a bit silly and dated and lightweight, but enjoyable nonetheless. Plus there are tons of black-and-white photos of “Pugs” and other feline friends. This was a secondhand purchase from The Bookshop, Wigtown.
“Cats hate to make prats of themselves. But then, don’t we all?”
(last lines) “Warm, fed, contented, unemployable, and entirely at peace with the world. Yes indeed. Cats certainly know something we don’t.”
Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950)
(An example of a book that just happens to have an animal in the title.) I’d only read one other Pym novel, Quartet in Autumn, a late and fairly melancholy story of four lonely older people. With her first novel I’m in more typical territory, I take it. The middle-aged Bede sisters are pillars of the church in their English village. Harriet takes each new curate under her wing, making of them a sort of collection, and fends off frequent marriage proposals from the likes of a celebrity librarian and an Italian count.
Belinda, on the other hand, only has eyes for one man: Archdeacon Hochleve, whom she’s known and loved for 30 years. They share a fondness for quoting poetry, the more obscure the better (like the title phrase, taken from “Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove: / Something to love, oh, something to love!” by Thomas Haynes Bayly). The only problem is that the archdeacon is happily married. So single-minded is Belinda that she barely notices her own marriage proposal when it comes: a scene that reminded me of Mr. Collins’s proposal to Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, Pym is widely recognized as an heir to Jane Austen, what with her arch studies of relationships in a closed community.
There were a handful of moments that made me laugh, like when the seamstress finds a caterpillar in her cauliflower cheese and has to wipe with a Church Times newspaper when the Bedes run out of toilet paper (such mild sacrilege!). This is enjoyable, if fluffy; it was probably a mistake to have read one of Pym’s more serious books first: I expected too much of this one. If you’re looking for a quick, gentle and escapist read in which nothing awful will happen, though, it would make a good choice. Knowing most of her books are of a piece, I wouldn’t read more than one of the remainder – it’ll most likely be Excellent Women.
An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect by Sharman Apt Russell (2003)
This compact and fairly rollicking book is a natural history of butterflies and of the scientists and collectors who have made them their life’s work. There are some 18,000 species and, unlike, say, beetles, they are generally pretty easy to tell apart because of their bold, colorful markings. Moth and butterfly diversity may well be a synecdoche for overall diversity, making them invaluable indicator species. Although the history of butterfly collecting was fairly familiar to me from Peter Marren’s Rainbow Dust, I still learned or was reminded of a lot, such as the ways you can tell moths and butterflies apart (and it’s not just about whether they fly in the night or the day). And who knew that butterfly rape is a thing?
The final third of the book was strongest for me, including a trip to London’s Natural History Museum; another to Costa Rica’s butterfly ranches, an example of successful ecotourism; and a nicely done case study of the El Segundo Blue butterfly, which was brought back from the brink of extinction by restoration of its southern California dunes habitat. Russell, a New Mexico-based author of novels and nonfiction, also writes about butterflies’ cultural importance: “No matter our religious beliefs, we accept the miracle of metamorphosis. One thing becomes another. … Butterflies wake us up.”
I also recently read the excellent title story from John Murray’s 2003 collection A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. Married surgeons reflect on their losses, including the narrator’s sister in a childhood accident and his wife Maya’s father to brain cancer. In the late 1800s, the narrator’s grandfather, an amateur naturalist in the same vein as Darwin, travelled to Papua New Guinea to collect butterflies. The legends from his time, and from family trips to Cape May to count monarchs on migration in the 1930s, still resonate in the present day for these characters. The treatment of themes like science, grief and family inheritance, and the interweaving of past and present, reminded me of work by Andrea Barrett and A.S. Byatt.
(I’ve put the book aside for now but will go back to it in September as I focus on short stories.)
Other butterfly-themed books I have reviewed:
- Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern (one of last year’s 20 Books of Summer)
- Ruins by Peter Kuper (a graphic novel set in Mexico, this also picks up on monarch migration)
- Magdalena Mountain by Robert Michael Pyle (a novel about butterfly researchers in Colorado)
The Whole World Over by Julia Glass (2006)
When I plucked this from the sidewalk clearance area of my favorite U.S. bookstore, all I knew about it was that it featured a chef and was set in New York City and New Mexico. Those facts were enough to get me interested, and my first taste of Julia Glass’s fiction did not disappoint. I started reading it in the States at the very end of December and finished it in the middle of this month, gobbling up the last 250 pages or so all in one weekend.
Charlotte “Greenie” Duquette is happy enough with her life: a successful bakery in Greenwich Village, her psychiatrist husband Alan, and their young son George. But one February 29th – that anomalous day when anything might happen – she gets a call from the office of the governor of New Mexico, who tasted her famous coconut cake (sandwiched with lemon curd and glazed in brown sugar) at her friend Walter’s tavern and wants her to audition for a job as his personal chef at the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe. It’s just the right offer to shake up her stagnating career and marriage.
One thing you can count on from a doorstopper, from Dickens onward, is that most of the many characters will be connected (“a collection of invisibly layered lives” is how Glass puts it). So: Walter’s lover is one of Alan’s patients; Fenno, the owner of a local bookstore, befriends both Alan and Saga, a possibly homeless young woman with brain damage who volunteers in animal rescue – along with Walter’s dog-walker, who’s dating his nephew; and so on. The title refers to how migrating birds circumnavigate the globe but always find their way home, and the same is true of these characters: no matter how far they stray – even as Greenie and Alan separately reopen past romances – the City always pulls them back.
My only real complaint about the novel is that it’s almost overstuffed: with great characters and their backstories, enticing subplots, and elements that seemed custom-made to appeal to me – baking, a restaurant, brain injury, the relatively recent history of the AIDS crisis, a secondhand bookstore, rescue dogs and cats, and much more. I especially loved the descriptions of multi-course meals and baking projects. Glass spins warm, effortless prose reminiscent of what I’ve read by Louise Miller and Carolyn Parkhurst. I will certainly read her first, best-known book, Three Junes, which won the National Book Award. I was also delighted to recall that I have her latest on my Kindle: A House Among the Trees, based on the life of Maurice Sendak.
All told, this was quite the bargain entertainment at 95 cents! Two small warnings: 1) if you haven’t read Three Junes, try not to learn too much about it – Glass likes to use recurring characters, and even a brief blurb (like what’s on the final page of my paperback; luckily, I didn’t come across it until the end) includes a spoiler about one character. 2) Glass is deliberately coy about when her book is set, and it’s important to not know for as long as possible. So don’t glance at the Library of Congress catalog record, which gives it away.
Page count: 560
I started Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1983) with the best intentions of keeping up with Annabel’s buddy read. The first 50–100 pages really flew by and drew me into the mystery of a medieval abbey where monks keep getting murdered in hideous ways. I loved the Sherlockian shrewdness and tenacity of Brother William; the dutiful recording of his sidekick, narrator Adso of Melk; and the intertextual references to Borges’s idea of a library as a labyrinth. But at some point the historical and theological asides and the untranslated snippets of other languages (mostly Latin) began to defeat me, and I ended up just skimming most of the book. I’d recommend this if you liked Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind, or if you fancy an astronomically more intelligent version of The Da Vinci Code.
A favorite passage: “Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means”
Possibly never before nor since has a great writer been so intensely and so permanently influenced by one woman as Lawrence was by Frieda von Richtofen.
~biographer Robert Lucas
I have a weakness for “famous wives” books, which have become increasingly popular over the past decade. (I have a whole shelf for them on Goodreads.) Frieda particularly appealed to me because of the reading I’ve done around the life of D.H. Lawrence. In my sophomore year of college I took a course on Yeats & Lawrence and found Lawrence fascinating almost in spite of myself. I remember bursting out in one early seminar on Sons and Lovers, “but he sexualizes everything!” The more I read, though, the more I admired his grasping for the fullness of life, which at least starts with the body.
After my study abroad year I did independent travel in Dorset and around Nottingham to explore the sense of place in Thomas Hardy and Lawrence’s works, and when I applied for graduate school scholarships I was undecided whether to focus on the Victorians or Lawrence and the Moderns (I eventually settled on the former). I also adapted a paper I’d written about D.H. Lawrence’s new moral framework for sexuality in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and presented it at the D.H. Lawrence Society of North America’s 2005 conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The conference included a wonderful trip out to Lawrence’s ranch at Taos.
All this explains why I was so keen to see how Annabel Abbs would depict Frieda, who came from disgraced German aristocracy and left her first husband, Ernest Weekley, a linguistics professor at Nottingham, and their three children to be with Lawrence. If you rely only on the words of Lawrence himself, you’d think Frieda was lucky to shed her dull family life and embark on an exciting set of bohemian travels with him as he built his name as a writer.
Abbs adds nuance to that picture by revealing just how much Frieda was giving up, and the sorrow she left behind her. Much of the book is in third person limited from Frieda’s point of view, but there are also occasional chapters from the perspectives of Ernest and the children, mostly their son Monty, as they work through their confusion over Frieda’s actions and try to picture the future without her. I loved the way that these chapters employ dramatic irony, especially to create a believable child mindset. “I have realised there is something inside me struggling to come out,” Frieda says to Monty. “I call it the what-I-could-be.” Poor Monty, just seven years old when the book opens in 1907, thinks his mother must be talking literally about a baby on the way. When her inchoate longings finally center on Lawrence, Ernest’s working-class former student, in 1912, Monty describes the young man as a “hungry fox.”
Frieda’s relationship with Lawrence, whom she called “Lorenzo,” lasted nearly two decades but was undeniably volatile. Abbs refuses to romanticize it: the early days of frolicking naked in meadows and weaving flowers through each other’s pubic hair soon cede to incidents of jealousy and disturbing cruelty. Lawrence pressed her into remarrying though she was happier living outside of convention. We can sympathize with the passion and deep communion she found with Lawrence –
“She was conscious, in that moment, that their minds had met and crossed and understood. That this miner’s son – so strange and unknown, so young – was more like her than anyone she’d ever met.”
“She felt as if she had been split open, as if Mr Lawrence had peered deep inside her, seen things she had hidden from the rest of the world. It was a marvellous feeling, she decided, to be explored and understood.”
– but also with the later suspicion that she’s given up so much – social acceptability and years of life with her children – and perhaps in some ways it hasn’t been worth it. “He could be so infuriating! So exhausting! But his vitality, the sharp light in which he saw everything, his wild poetic fury, they made her feel as if she could breathe again.”
Frieda is particularly reminiscent of Loving Frank, Nancy Horan’s novel about Mamah Borthwick Cheney’s affair with architect Frank Lloyd Wright: she left her children in pursuit of love and independence and spent time traveling, including in Germany, where she absorbed notions of free love and women’s rights – just as Frieda did. I was also reminded of Free Woman, Lara Feigel’s book on Doris Lessing, who gave up her children to pursue her writing. In Lessing’s case there was not the same wrenching regret. Still, all three books offer a valuable look at the choices women make when love, duty and vocation don’t align.
My knowledge of Lawrence’s writings and biography enhanced my enjoyment of this novel. I’ve appreciated for the first time just how much Frieda inspired the female protagonists in Lawrence’s major works. In a comprehensive Historical note and Author’s note, Abbs lists her sources and explains the small tweaks she made to the historical record to fit the story line. However, you don’t need any prior knowledge to fall in love with Frieda’s vivacity. Her determination to live according to her own rules makes her a captivating character.
Frieda was published by Two Roads on November 15th. With thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Novels narrated by an octogenarian and an unborn child; memoirs about connection with nature and escaping an abusive relationship; and a strong poetry collection that includes some everyday epics: these five wildly different books are all 4-star reads I can highly recommend.
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old
In this anonymous Dutch novel in diary form, Hendrik Groen provides a full reckoning of how 2013 went down in his Amsterdam old folks’ care home. He and five friends form the “Old But Not Dead” club and take turns planning exciting weekly outings. Much comic relief is provided by his incorrigibly tippling friend, Evert, and the arrival of Eefje makes late-life romance seem like a possibility for Hendrik. However, there’s no getting around physical decay: between them these friends suffer from incontinence, dementia, diabetic amputations and a stroke. By the time 2014 rolls around, their number will be reduced by one. Yet this is a tremendously witty and warm-hearted book, despite Hendrik’s sad family history. It’s definitely one for fans of A Man Called Ove – but I liked this more. A sequel from 85-year-old Hendrik came out this year in Dutch; I’ll be looking forward to the English translation.
The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy
By Michael McCarthy
An environmental journalist for the UK’s Independent, McCarthy offers a personal view of how the erstwhile abundance of the natural world has experienced a dramatic thinning, even just in England in his lifetime. He gives both statistical and anecdotal evidence for that decline; as a case study he discusses the construction of a sea wall at Saemangeum in South Korea, responsible for decimating a precious estuary habitat for shorebirds. As if to balance his pessimism about the state of the world, McCarthy remembers singular natural encounters that filled him with joy and wonder – first discovering birdwatching as a lad near Liverpool, seeing a morpho butterfly in South America – but also annual displays that rekindle his love of life: the winter solstice, the arrival of cuckoos, and bluebells. This memoir is more sentimental than I expected from an English author, but I admire his passion and openness.
By Ian McEwan
My seventh McEwan novel and one of his strongest. Within the first few pages, I was utterly captivated and convinced by the voice of this contemporary, in utero Hamlet. Provided you suspend disbelief a bit to accept he can see/hear/surmise everything that happens – the most tedious passages are those where McEwan tries to give more precise justification for his narrator’s observations – the plot really works. Not even born and already a snob with an advanced vocabulary and a taste for fine wine, this fetus is a delight to spend time with. His captive state pairs perfectly with Hamlet’s existential despair, but also makes him (and us as readers) part of the conspiracy: even as he wants justice for his father, he has to hope his mother and uncle will get away with their crime; his whole future depends on it.
Favorite line: “I have lungs but not air to shout a warning or weep with shame at my impotence.”
How Snow Falls
By Craig Raine
One of the few best poetry collections I’ve read this year. It contains nary a dud and is a good one to sink your teeth into – it’s composed of just 20 poems, but several are in-depth epics drawn from everyday life and death. Two elegies, to a dead mother and a former lover, are particularly strong. I loved the mixture of clinical and whimsical vocabulary in “I Remember My Mother” as the poet charts the transformation from person to corpse. “Rashomon” is another stand-out, commissioned as an opera and inspired by the short story “In a Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. In couplets with a flexible rhyme scheme, the poem alternates the perspectives of a bandit, a captive husband, his raped wife, and the woodcutter who becomes an unwilling observer. Alliteration is noteworthy throughout the collection, but here produces one of my favorite lines: “Sweet cedar chips were spurting in the gloom like sparks.”
Land of Enchantment
By Leigh Stein
Stein tells of her abusive relationship with Jason, a reckless younger man with whom she moved to New Mexico. The memoir mostly toggles between their shaky attempt at a functional relationship in 2007 and learning about his death in a motorcycle accident in 2011. Even though they’d drifted apart, Jason’s memory still had power over her. Breaking free from him meant growing up at last and taking responsibility for her future. You might call this a feminist coming-of-age narrative, though that makes it sound more strident and formulaic than it actually is. I admired the skipping around in time, and especially a late chapter in the second person. I also enjoyed how New Mexico provides a metaphorical as well as a literal setting; Stein weaves in references to Georgia O’Keeffe’s art and letters to put into context her own search to become a self-sufficient artist.