At hawthorn time 

At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison

Bloomsbury, 2015

Paperback, 275pp

*Borrowed from the library. 

At Hawthorn Time opens with an accident, an early morning collision on a quiet A road in rural England.  A brash, fast "muscle car" has hit an Audi at a junction, and three people are caught up in the tangle of metal and broken glass.  A boy "upside down and veiled in blood", a "slumped figure...perfectly still" and "a third body, face down, on the road."  The tableau is still by the time the reader comes upon it, the impact and the noise having happened a precise seven minutes earlier; the birds are already returning to the surrounding blossom-rich hedges.  It is a late spring dawn, getting on with it's business as though nothing has happened.  Then, with a drawn breath, the novel backs off this scene, reverses away from it in time and relocates a week or more earlier.  It changes tense - from the intimacy of the first person to third person omniscience - and changes tone too, from the language of disaster to the language of ordinary things. 

The setting is an unassuming village called Lodeshill, "an in-between unpretentious sort of place", the kind that you live in rather than visit.  It has a church, a drinker's pub, a handful of functioning farms; it's grand old Manor House is now the deserted second home of some rich family. Howard and his wife Kitty - two out of our four main characters - have just retired there, after a lifetime in suburban London.  He collects and repairs old radios, while she pursues an old dream as a landscape artist.  Their grown up children come to visit at weekends, and they bumble along together in a sort of remote proximity.  Nineteen year old Jamie lives with his parents down the street, working two low paid jobs in nearby industrial estates, and spending all his spare time and money on his beloved car.  He visits his elderly granddad, a survivor of eastern POW camps and goes for the odd pint at the local pub.  When he was younger he had a best friend, Alex, who lived at Culverkeys, the farm next door. Alex went away suddenly when they were teenagers and the farm is up for auction now but Jamie still feels a strong and powerful affection for the place and the land around it. 

Our last point of view is Jack, a homeless tramp who wants nothing more than to walk the paths and byways of the country, working where he can, sleeping where he likes.  He has just been released from prison after a spell for trespassing, and is supposed to be holed up in a probation hostel but he can't stand it.  He has to get out, has to get back into the landscape or lose what sanity he has left.  He's been to Lodeshill before, working the asparagus beds in spring for cash in hand no questions asked.  It used to be you could get odd jobs on farms all year round (lambing, picking asparagus and soft fruit, apples, harvest) but now they're less easy to come by; they want you to sign papers and be above board.  They want to own a bit of you. 

The narrative weaves Howard, Kitty, Jamie and Jack together with the thread of the season.  Each chapter is headed with a checklist of spring: "Wild garlic" one starts, then "dog violets, sycamore bud burst. A cuckoo calling."  Each character is more or less aware of the natural world around them, warming up and changing face.  Some, like Jamie and Jack, have a deeper connection to place and nature than others.  For her part Kitty is trying her best to see and be apart of Lodeshill, though she doesn't feel like she is getting it right, while Howard would prefer to be indoors.  However they experience it, the spring is inexorable.  It goes on around them with unstoppable force, in a timeless round that serves to remind us and them of the momentariness of any action.  As their lives meet and flex, the birds keep nesting and the hawthorn keeps flowering, in spite of all the changes of modern life.

Harrison's book riffs long and deeply on this theme of time and the annual cycle of the year. The focus of the novel is split: one eye on the intimate and specific experiences of four people over the course of one week and the other on the predictable rhythms of the earth and its creatures.  I said that the book began with a car accident, and it does, but before that it begins with the road on which the accident takes place:

Imagine a Roman road.  No, go back further: imagine a broad track, in use for centuries by the tribes who lived and fought and died on these islands, and whose blood lives on in us.  When the Romans came they paved it, and for a short while it was busy with their armies and trade. After they left it decayed, though it wasn't forgotten; it came to make the line beyond which the Vikings lived by their intractable Danish creed.  Later it became a drovers' road, trodden by sheep and cattle; then a turnpike, taking travellers, and mail, to Wales and beyond.  Now, though, it is simply an A-road, known around these parts as the Boundway but marked on maps with letters and numbers alone. 

In this way At Hawthorn Time makes simple life events dense with history, enriches ordinary emotions - grief for a lost friend, guilt about a long ago affair, fear for the death of a parent - with layers of time. The unrelenting pattern of nature is both a comfort and an affront in light of the car accident we know is coming.  In spite of all this 'life goes ever on' stuff we can't help but ask ourselves: who lives, who dies, whose story ends during the accident on the Boundway?  Harrison is sensitive to the premise that she's set up, to the fate she is propelling her characters towards.  This isn't a book about how an accident or a death is just a moment in infinite time and so, in the scheme of things, is insignificant.  It captures dual registers of significance: both the enduring and the ephemeral are important.  So Jamie's love for his granddad, Howard's enthusiasm for his daughter's return from university, Kitty's earnest need to capture something important in her painting are set in the context of the long road that stretches back into the distant past.  Their experiences aren't dwarfed against it, they are not in opposition to it.  They are part of it. 

Really, really lovely stuff.  Thus continues my excellent reading streak of 2016.


Quick AOB: I have been convinced to reprise the 'pop-up reading group' idea at work. These are one off gatherings for topical bookish discussion, and the next one will coincide with the Bailey's Prize announcement.  We're going to be reading last year's winner - Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing - and meeting in the evening on Monday 6th June at the central library for coffee and chat about it. If anyone is in the York area, do come along and keep me company!

The possibility of salvation

Signs for lost children

Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss

Granta, 2015

Trade paperback, 357pp

*My own purchased copy. 

[Warning: It's impossible to write about this book without spoiling some major plot points from the first two in the trilogy at the outset. If you haven't read those, would like to and care about being spoiled, then I recommend you get to them post-haste and leave anything past the second paragraph of this post well alone.]

I was listening to the most recent episode of The Readers podcast this morning while out walking with Juno.  It wasn't the usual banter and chat; instead it was a recording of the Wellcome Book Prize blogger's brunch from last weekend, featuring four of the shortlisted authors and hosted by Simon from Savidge Reads.  I think the shortlist is rich and intriguing - I'm hoping to read all the books this year - and the episode is well worth a listen, if only for Alex Pheby describing his perfect day writing with no trousers on.  One shortlisted author who couldn't make the brunch was Sarah Moss, and her absence there reminded me of her absence here and of the fact that I haven't yet written about Signs for Lost Children, the third and final book in her Moberley trilogy.  

Disclaimer: I loved this book.  Almost from the first page I was interrupting Esther to a) read passages and b) tell her just how much I loved it.  Moss has been among my favourite contemporary writers for the last few years, up there with the other esteemed Sarahs (Hall and Waters), and Signs is a powerful and poised end to the work she started with Night Waking and Bodies of Light.  I'm almost 100% sure it will be on my best of 2016 list.  This post is not so much so much a review as a flood of uncritical praise.

It begins almost exactly where Bodies of Light ended.  It is 1879 and Alethea Moberley has just graduated with a medical degree at the top of her class.  One of the first cohort of women to qualify in England, she has overcome enormous social and personal challenges to claim the epithet Dr.  Now she faces another struggle: how is a woman to find employment in a world almost entirely hostile to female doctors?  Her friend Annie has taken a job in a maternity hospital - a path of least resistance - but Ally is determined to work in psychiatry, a field of medicine where women comprise a disproportionate number of patients.  Her letters of inquiry to asylums find no purchase.  She has also recently married - a fact that makes her even more exotic; a married lady doctor! - and settled with her husband Tom Cavendish, a lighthouse engineer, in a little whitewashed cottage near Falmouth.  Eventually she secures an unpaid volunteer position at the Truro Asylum, a poor reward for her long years of study but a start.  

Then, just as life is beginning to settle into a happy rhythm, all is disturbed.  Tom is commissioned to build lighthouses in Japan, an opportunity he can't miss, and sets sail for the better part of a year leaving Ally alone in an unfamiliar place.  Left to herself, familiar demons fill the vacuum: the strict deprecating voice of her mother, the playful spectre of her dead sister, the disrespect and disdain of her professional peers.  As Tom's absence lengthens Ally's self-control is sorely tested, her desire to hurt herself in order to make up for pain of others becomes overwhelming. Everywhere she looks, everywhere she goes, she is confronted with the powerful presence of her parents and her unhappy childhood.  She looks through drawing room windows and sees her father's wallpaper designs on other people's walls; she hears her mother's admonishment in every hungry glance or dirty back street.  She worries incessantly about how her own comfort, her own choice to light a fire in the winter or catch an omnibus in the rain, is an affront to the poverty of others.  She falls back into the cycle of deprivation and despair that characterised her teenage years.  She is thoroughly exhausted by it, but unable to escape: "Oh be quiet, she thinks.  She bores herself, sometimes, with these spirals of guilt and obligation, with the waste of time and effort."

Meanwhile, in Japan, Tom is surrounded by stark and unlikely beauty.  Travelling with a Japanese colleague Makoto, he is captivated by the apparent simplicity of traditional life, of the houses, the food, the rhythms of the day.  Although he has always thought of himself as a wholly practical and unsentimental sort of man he is utterly seduced by an aesthetic of nature and poetry so different from his English upbringing.  He finds the colonies of ex-pat diplomats and businessmen with their imported luxuries and tragic attempts to replicate English roast dinners utterly ridiculous.  As Ally loses sight of herself back in Falmouth, he falls in love with a completely different way of living and begins to wonder whether his marriage, his English life, is a huge mistake. 

The hallmark of Moss' writing is its sensuality, and a focus on the minutiae of experience. Like Bodies of Light, Signs is an observant novel, full of sight, smell, touch, of the sensation of being a body in context.  Take this, for example, from the first page; Tom at his work desk while Ally is out buying fish for their supper:

The white cottage feels different in Ally's absence.  Like a factory with the machines lying idle, like a ship becalmed. The papers on his desk breathe as the breeze off the river passes over them and he moves his fingers in the sun to see his shadow-hand thicken and elongate on the handwritten page... Shadows lengthen on the lawn as the cloud that has chilled the morning for the last few minutes passes across the sun and out over the water towards St Mawes.  He holds up his hand in light strong enough to glow through his fingertips, to pass through the edges of himself. 

Everything in the world of the novel is imbued with a spirit of its own, so that the simple acts of buying fish, taking a walk, lighting a fire are worthy of attention.  It means that it is possible to fill both ordinary work-a-day activities and dramatic moments with the same radiant significance.  Which is not to say that the book wears its meaning too heavily; the loveliness of the writing is punctuated with irony and humour:

...although she was late there were still great coffin-sized caskets of dead fish lying in the sun.  Hundreds, she thought, maybe thousands, and even at the top a few tails flicking and silver faces mouthing outrage into the hot air.  Some of the fish are still alive, she wanted to say to the men heaving wet nets around the stones, there is a medical emergency here. 

Both beauty and ugliness are taken very seriously.  An English collector has paid Tom to procure him a selection of Japanese art and textiles while he is away -  a lucrative sideline - and Moss takes immense care describing the textures, colours and shapes of these objects. The reader is seduced just as Tom is seduced.  At the same time the terrible cruelty and conditions that Ally witnesses at the asylum are given similar attention.  Look, the book says, look at it all, the loveliness and the awfulness of the world deserve equal measure.

Ally has been taught to look longest and hardest at the awfulness, and to deny herself any loveliness while others suffer.  Her mother's particular brand of self-abnegation, her hostility to comfort of any kind, is an extreme perversion of kindness.  It has left Ally with an almost limitless capacity for self-denial, and has thoroughly repressed her id, "left her unable to say I am hungry or I am cold, left her without the first utterances of a child." The more suffering she sees, the more she believes that she deserves to suffer.  It has left her on the knife edge of sanity and madness.  She is conscious of how and why she thinks the ways she does and yet unable to stop herself from revisiting the same dire thoughts again and again.  When she cuts or burns herself she recognises a symptom of illness.  It is little wonder that she feels a sense of fellowship with her patients at the asylum, and that she is fascinated by the causes of their madness.  She wonders, radically, if it is not the women she sees who are mad at all, but the environments in which they have grown-up, worked and lived.  Who wouldn't go mad from a life of drudgery, violence, relentless motherhood, unrelieved boredom?  It is the world that needs treating, she thinks, and then the women could get well.  If Elizabeth Moberley hadn't been her mother; if Elizabeth's own mother hadn't been her mother, then maybe she wouldn't have been so completely estranged from love and pleasure.

Signs for Lost Children goes to some dark places, but it isn't a dark book.  It is about the possibility of redemption.  Unlike her male colleagues Ally isn't just interested in studying mental illness, or in controlling its symptoms: "It is not the taxonomy of madness that intrigues her but the possibility of individual salvation." She wants to make her patients better, and beyond that she wants to contribute to making a world in which they would never have become ill in the first place.  This belief in the possibility of recovery, in a capacity to heal, is necessary for her own sake; the novel asks repeatedly, can Ally to live a full and well life after everything that has happened to her?  While she treats her patients, Moss treats her.  Although Signs is ostensibly about Ally and Tom equally - they get almost equal page time - it's inevitable, given the focus of the previous book, that the narrative cleaves closest to Ally.  One of the strengths of Bodies of Light was that she emerged from a storyline about women's rights to education and self-determination not as a representative of Victorian repression but as herself.  While other people were constantly trying to put her in the category of pioneer or diagnose her as a social menace, she was determinedly specific.  Her story, her history, isn't a parable; although Moss has written a deeply political book it is the personal that dominates and stays with you.

At last I wanted to say that this is a big hearted story, a really kind book.  On the one hand it's kind to the reader because right away in the opening prologue it reassures us that Ally is going to get a happy ending; and it's kind to it's characters because it always treats them with thoughtful compassion. Not sympathy as such, because some of them don't deserve that, but the compassion that is due to any creature in nature.  And I should probably stop writing there, before this post turns into one garbled torrent of strangulated and undigested admiration. I'll finish with a passage from the book that has stayed with me for weeks, and that I think sums up the ambition and the enterprise of the Moberley books perfectly. 

The craftsmen see the world differently, see the shapes of flowers and feathers and blades of grass built up from the tiniest elements - flickers - of light and colour.  Such a mind must look at a bowl of tea, and see not only each brushstroke on the bowl's glaze but the fall of light on each rising particle of steam. Not only each brick or lighthouse but the speckles of grit in the clay, almost the currents of pressure and gravity coursing through each grain of cement.  How could one endure a world seen in such detail, how could a mind hold the flight path of each mote of dust? He steps nearer to marvel at the stitching, at the eyes and fingers of the makers, the shading finer and more subtle than that of any bird, the light in the silk more mineral than animal.  He had not thought that art could exceed its own subject.  He wants to tell Ally, to hear her healer's voice reply that there is no point in any other kind. 



What are you capable of?



Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (trans. from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston)

Pushkin Press, March 2016

416pp, e-book

 My copy supplied by the publisher via NetGalley.

Waking Lions, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen's second novel, has a desperately compelling beginning.  Tired and groggy after a long night shift Dr. Eitan Green gets into his brand new SUV and drives out to the desert.  It's hours after midnight and dark; he should go home to where his wife Liat and two sons are still sleeping.  Instead he takes his car off-road, looking for a quick burst of adrenaline at high speed under the stars.  He turns the music up, feels his blood sing with exhilaration. His career isn't quite what he wants it to be, exiled to a hospital in the back of beyond, but he has a good life, a loving family. Then he hits a man, an Eritrean refugee.  The man is still alive but barely, his head mushed to pulp in parts; even if Eitan called for an ambulance he would die anyway.  His life would be utterly ruined. He could go to prison for manslaughter. So he makes a decision, to pretend it never happened. There was no night time drive.  There was no man.  Who is this man anyway?  No one.  A nameless black man amongst the thousands of undocumented black men flooding over the border from Egypt. Eitan gets back in his car, flees the scene and lets the man die alone by the road side.  No one need ever know.  

Except someone does know.  The next day there is a knock on the Green family front door.  Eitan opens it to find a black woman standing there holding his wallet. The man who was killed - his name was Asum - was her husband and she watched the whole thing, unseen in the darkness.  Panicked Eitan offers her money, a huge sum, but it isn't money she wants.  Her name is Sirkit and she wants a doctor. 

So begins Eitan's shadow life.  At night, after his paid work, he drives out to Sirkit's camp in the desert and treats an endless queue of migrants and refugees, all illegal and otherwise without medical care.  Sirkit watches over him, avenging herself, demanding long hours and impromptu emergency visits.  His life becomes a round of lies and evasions, at work and at home, the stress of concealing his "secret hospital" added to the pressing guilt of killing a man. As if matters weren't bad enough Asum's body is discovered and the case is picked up by none other than Eitan's police-officer wife.  

You might imagine, from that description, that Waking Lions is part crime novel, part thriller but it isn't really either.  The book has two halves, quite distinct in character.  In the first part we inhabit the minds of Eitan, Sirkit and Liat, almost completely immersed in their thoughts, assumption, fears and desires. Gundar-Goshen focuses unrelentingly on the psychological effects of the accident, and on the moral compromises that people make every day.  It is narrow, claustrophobic reading with little space for peripheral characters, subplot or sense of place.  The novel chews on just a handful of fundamental questions: what makes a person good? What evils are we capable of? Can bad actions ever be justified?  The second part of the book broadens its scope and commits completely to the repercussions of Eitan's actions. As Liat draws closer to the Asum's killer and Eitan begins to lose control of his sense of self, Sirkit reveals a secret that sends the plot spinning off into high octane shoot outs and car chases.  It's a jolting shift, which at first makes the whole feel off-balance. 

An intersection of racism and sexism lies at the heart of the book.  Eitan's white male privilege is juxtaposed with both Liat's position as a woman in a male-dominated environment and with Sirkit's experience as a black woman, first in Eritrea and then in Israel. Sirkit observes that, even though Eitan is experiencing one of the most terrifying junctures of his life, he still walks without fear.  He continues to assume that he deserves to be happy and comfortable and that he will be again.  He looks people in the eye because he never occurs to him that he shouldn't.  She, on the other hand, is practiced in the art of looking down or looking away.  The power her husband's death gives her over Eitan's life is heady and addictive.  It is the first time in her life that someone has to do what she tells them to.  The novel's portrayal of Sirkit's assertion of will is one of it's most powerful and moving aspects, especially in light of the devastating ending. 

Sirkit's rise to power has the knock on effect of disempowering Liat, the other woman in Eitan's life, which in turn impacts on the lives of others.  Cut out of her marriage, increasingly embattled at work, she colludes in the arrest and interrogation of a Bedouin teenager she suspects may have killed Asum.  Her investigation eventually leads to his village, where a young girl steps forward to stand as his alibi witness.  Admitting that she is the boy's lover is tantamount to suicide and it isn't long before her battered body finds it's way through the door of Eitan's desert clinic.  Her's is one of many female bodies shattered, bruised and violated in the book as cultural norms - in Israeli, Bedouin and migrant communities - work to silence them. It makes for challenging reading. 

Even as Eitan grows to care about and respect Sirkit he continues to think of her in ways that exoticise and degrade her.  Seen through his eyes she is the sculpted brazen African queen of Rider Haggard's She, her blackness a sign of a predatory sexuality.  He fantasizes about her "velvety skin" and her long neck; it surprises him (and everyone else) that she can speak Hebrew.  He interprets her blank silences as a form of aggression when actually they are an armour against her vulnerability.  He despises the patients she forces him to treat, viewing them as senseless animals. 

Without language, without the ability to exchange a single sentence the way people do - one speaks, the others listen and vice versa - without words, only flesh remained.  Stinking.  Rotting.  With ulcers, excretions, inflammations, scars.  Perhaps this was how a veterinarian felt.

He darn't allow himself to open himself to either their humanity or their plight. What would that mean for the cosy safe life he lives, or for the worth of the life he took?  Like most people in his situation he does not want to engage with suffering.  He recalls a school trip to Auschwitz, the photographs of starving people waiting to die. A friend asked the tour guide: "But why didn't they try to run away?".  He remembers the guide's anger; he said anyone who didn't know terror couldn't judge. Back at the hotel the boys had a competition to see who could masturbate the quickest and Eitan "thought that deep down he had also hated them, all those emaciated Jews, walking skeletons, who seeped so deeply into your soul that you couldn't even jerk off decently."

If it weren't clear already, Waking Lions is not a book about beauty or truth but about ugliness and lies.  Nor is it a book about redemption or justice or how people are transformed by suffering.  It is a thought experiment the shows how resistant we are to those things, especially if they require us to change our way of life.  Compassion is in limited supply; it is limited still further by our prejudices.  The style of the writing (and of the translation) mirrors this perspective.  It is often perfunctory and bald, philosophical rather than poetic; like Sirkit, it only occasionally gives way to emotion.  It makes the book hard to the touch, difficult to love, in spite of how compelling and thought-provoking it is.  It feels long too but some threads of the story get short shrift in spite of it.  In the second half of the book, for example, we're introduced to a new character, a Bedouin boy whose father works as a prop in an "indigenous" experience for holiday-makers.  He's outraged by the way his dad is humiliated and gawked at night after night, which leads him to get involved in the local drug trade.  His story has a lot to tell about cultural appropriation and the fetishisation of non-white people, but he isn't given enough space to grow and his trajectory is stunted.  

I recommend reading Waking Lions between light-hearted frothy books, the sort that leave you bubbly and buoyant.  If it affects you as it did me you will finish it feeling slightly dirty, spoiled by whatever privileges and comforts you may enjoy, and guilty, definitely guilty, in your complicity in looking away from suffering.