Thursday, 2 February 2017

Garth Greenwell What Belongs to You

Garth Greenwell (2016) What Belongs to You Picador; ISBN 978-1-4472-8051-4; 194 pp.

This three-part novel is set in Bulgaria, where the narrator, an American, is teaching English. There would appear to be a strong autobiographical flavour to the story. In the first part, the narrator meets a young Bulgarian man named Mitko while looking for paid sex in the toilets of the National Palace of Culture (where else?). Mitko exudes a mix of physical magnetism, sexual excitement and danger, a combination that the narrator finds very attractive. However, trying to find true love with a hustler rarely leads to a happy ending and in this case Mitko’s physical deterioration (a mix of drugs, alcohol and violence? We are never completely sure) and his lying about money lead to the inevitable separation.

The second part of the novel is a forty-one page stream of consciousness paragraph where the narrator learns his estranged father is dying, raising memories of the narrator's relationships with his parents. His father rejected and expelled him from home because the son was attracted to other males. While thinking back on this period of his life, the narrator wanders around an unfamiliar area of Sofia, becoming increasingly disoriented, both physically and mentally. There is no resolution but the memories go some way to explaining the narrator’s behaviour in the unfamiliar culture where he has chosen to live in exile.

The final and longest section of the novel finds Mitko and the narrator reunited, not for any resumption of the relationship but because they have both ended up with syphilis (as has the narrator’s new boyfriend in Portugal). The description of the narrator's visit to the state-run clinic is one of the better parts of the book in that it captures the atmosphere of post-Soviet public services in all their loveable and tawdry decay. Mitko and the narrator eventually part ways, but we sense that Mitko, the poor local with few skills or prospects, is on the road to physical ruin, while the narrator, still teaching English but with the ability to return to the United States whenever he wants, remains resolute in refusing to confront his future.

What Belongs to You is Greenwell’s first novel, though he published a prize-winning novella in 2011. The book is beautifully written and often reflects Greenwell’s other vocation as a poet. Neither the narrator nor Mitko are likeable characters and at times I was annoyed by their sad and pointless behaviour, but the strength of the writing kept me reading and left me feeling rewarded at the end.

When someone lives in a foreign culture they never fully understand all the norms and nuances, so they are prone to making errors of judgement and to misunderstanding local people and their motives and needs. Living abroad is often an escape, but the baggage of the past can never be fully left behind. The narrator struggles with these burdens, but does so from a position of privilege and we sense he will be all right in the end. But Mitko, with fewer and fewer resources available to him, and no prospect of meaningful affection, will be destroyed by his personal demons. It’s a sad, cruel and messy world and this lyrical and compelling story captures a slice of it in beautiful detail.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Carlson: Mr Darwin’s Gardener

Kristina Carlson (2013) Mr Darwin’s Gardener trans. Emily Jeremiah & Fleur Jeremiah; Peirene Press, London; 112 pp.; ISBN 978-1-90867009-0 [originally published in Finnish in 2009].

Charles Darwin moved to the village of Down in Kent in 1842 (the village name was later changed to Downe and it is now part of Greater London). He remained there until his death in 1882. In this novel set in the village, Darwin is a looming presence but we never meet him. People talk about him, his work and his eminent visitors, and we know he still goes for his daily constitutional, but the focus in this story is on Thomas Davies, the Welsh man who works as Darwin’s gardener. Thomas has had a hard life – his father died early and left the family poor, then Thomas’s wife Gwyneth died three years ago. His only solace is his two children, Cathy and John. He loves them dearly but Cathy is feeble minded and John has a limp because one leg is shorter than the other.

As the story opens we pass quickly from neighbour to neighbour, and the whole novel continues in this polyphonous fashion. Slowly the picture of village life, personal intrigues and family sorrows emerges. An early sight of Thomas Davies has him on a hill near his house, railing against the heavens because of the grief he feels since his wife died. He looks heavenward but is there a god listening?

Some of his neighbours think Thomas is overdoing the grief, showing off even. Some think he is getting above himself by associating with Darwin. Standing out in a small community is not a good thing. Some believe that the afflictions of his children are a divine punishment on Thomas for his arrogance, or perhaps some wrongdoing committed before he appeared in the village. The sense of divine retribution is still strong.

Thomas is impressed by Darwin’s knowledge and his ideas. Darwin leaves him written instructions for the garden and he begins an experiment to see if electricity will promote the faster growth of agricultural crops. Darwin is old but his dedication to knowledge and his curiosity remain undimmed.

As the seasons turn, Thomas progressively loses faith in heaven and divine mercy, and at one point he admits he is praying ‘under duress’ to a god that does not exist. His neighbours fear that he is careering towards suicide and that he will kill his children along with himself. His actions later in the tale scare the villagers into action, but the outcome is something none of them expect.

Darwin has ignited the debate between science and religion but the lines are not clearly drawn. Darwin’s ideas are debated in the local pub, though typically no one has read his works, even those few residents with literary pretensions. There are many who still see science as the work of Satan.

The division between the private lives of villagers and their public interactions is always maintained. The private realm is often full of fears and insecurities, petty jealousies and hatreds. When a thief and philanderer, Daniel Lewis, returns to the village with a changed appearance, a merchant recognises him and a band of men take revenge. Privately each of them is ashamed of what they do but none of them is brave enough to say it aloud. Village gossip condemns Daniel Lewis, but some women show him mercy in private. Later Lewis will write a lurid take on Darwin’s ideas and Thomas Davies’s private life, igniting yet more village scandal.

There are class divisions in the community, but Dr Kenny the local physician and Henry Faine the solicitor have to muck in with the rest in order that village life remains on an even keel. As Henry Faine muses at one point, if you remain on good terms with everyone, no one notices you. When you live in a small place, not being noticed is as close to freedom as you will get.

In the end Thomas Davies the gardener comes to an acceptance of his lot. He realises that further sorrow on his part will only breed more sorrows in his life. He has made a transition from religious belief to humanism – as many who live after him will do – and we sense that his love for his children will be the beacon of his life now. He finds renewal in his support for Darwin’s work.

Kristina Carlson is a Finnish writer but she captures the atmosphere of a nineteenth century English village in exceptional detail. The polyphonous style, where a paragraph can begin in the third person and shift to the first person of the same character while the next paragraph shifts to someone else entirely, might be disturbing to some readers and takes some getting used to. There is also a lot of onomatopoeia, the sounds of birds often mirroring the snatches of chatter and internal voices we are privy to among the villagers. Yet the story comes together to provide a rich glimpse into a small world being riven by an extraordinary scientific revolution, spearheaded by the old respectable man who lives in Down House in their very midst.

This is a wonderful tale of people living through momentous social change yet who remain focused on the mundane passions and interests of their daily lives. It made me wonder whether we ever really recognise times of momentous change other than when we look back.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Jones: Mr Pip

Lloyd Jones (2007) Mr Pip John Murray, London; 240 pp.; ISBN 978-0-71956994-4

The island of Bougainville is on the eastern edge of Papua New Guinea. In the 1970s a copper mine was established there but over the next two decades local opposition to the mine grew rapidly due to concerns about corruption in the use of funds, the environmental impact of the mine and its processing works, and the negative effects on local communities. In the late 1980s this led to an armed secessionist movement seeking independence from Papua New Guinea. The central government responded with a ruthless and bloody crackdown, aided by foreign mercenaries. The violence eventually ended in 1997 and the island is now part of an autonomous region within Papua New Guinea.

Lloyd Jones's novel is mostly set in a remote village on Bougainville during the rebellion. Matilda, a girl entering puberty in the early 1990s, tells the story of a white man, Tom Watts, who lives in her village with his local wife Grace. The couple met overseas when Grace was studying but they returned to live here and reside in an abandoned house built by missionaries. Grace was clever as a young woman and obtained a scholarship to study abroad, but when she returns with her white husband she is no longer her old self and lives largely in seclusion. When she does make an appearance in public, she is pulled along on a trolley by Mr Watts. He sports a white linen suit and a clown’s red nose. The locals call him Pop Eye because of his bulging eyes but Matilda sees that those eyes have known suffering.

Because of the violence, all the foreigners on the island – missionaries, teachers and mining company staff – have left. There is an economic blockade and many goods, including medicines, have run out. As is ever the case in war, it is the innocent who suffer most.

Mr Watts is the only white man left. One day he takes it upon himself to re-open the village school and to teach the children. He warns them he is no teacher and avoids subjects like science, but covers the basics of spelling and arithmetic and also brings in local women to talk about their experiences and indigenous knowledge. But the core of Mr Watts’s teaching is Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations. He promises to read a chapter a day to the children – fifty-nine chapters in all.

The children have no idea what to expect and their understanding of England, let alone nineteenth century England, could probably be sketched on a fingernail. Still, they are quickly drawn in by the story. Matilda in particular is fascinated by the tale that Mr Watts recounts, not only the details of the plot but also the way in which he conveys the story and acts out the parts of the characters. For Matilda, the important lesson of the novel is that one’s life can change quickly and dramatically due to events outside one’s control. This resonates with her because the onset of the conflict on Bougainville has separated her and her mother from her father who is with a mining company in Australia and unable to return home.

Matilda cannot resist telling her mother the story of Pip, the boy whose life is transformed in Dickens’s novel. At first her mother is interested, but over time she comes to doubt Mr Watts’s intentions. Matilda’s mother is deeply religious in an unthinking way and is worried that Mr Watts is leading the children astray, casting doubt on the existence of the devil and seeming to condone acts of sin.

For a long time the armed conflict is distant and the villagers hear only rumours. Army helicopters from the mainland fly over but otherwise life is undisturbed. Eventually soldiers arrive looking for rebels. They force people to record their names then get angry when they believe someone called Pip is missing from the list. Mr Watts tries to explain the mix-up but soldiers are never very bright and take out their frustrations by killing chickens and smashing and burning property. They warn they will be back to look for Pip. On the second visit the confusion persists and is exacerbated by Mr Watts, so the soldiers burn down the houses in the village, save for the home of Tom and Grace Watts.

Later it is the turn of the rebels to visit. They are undisciplined and suspicious, especially of Mr Watts, but he strikes a bargain with them: he will tell them his story over seven nights if they then leave. It is reminiscent of the Thousand and One Nights and works as effectively. The rebels and villagers alike are spellbound by his story. Mr Watts traces his early life, his meeting Grace, the tragedy of their losing a daughter and their decision to come and live on Bougainville. It’s a nicely crafted tale – but is a word of it true?

The rebels melt away one night and the army quickly arrives on the scene. What ensues brings the story to a crisis and the actions of Mr Watts, Matilda and Matilda’s mother, each of them concealing the truth, have disastrous consequences.

The latter part of the novel traces Matilda in later life. As a university student she visits Mr Watts’s first wife June in suburban Wellington, New Zealand. Grace was a neighbour of Tom and June, and Matilda wonders how Grace could have survived in such a bleak and soul-destroying place. (I found this a little unfair – it is not just the suburbs of Wellington that are like this.) June says Tom was weak, a fantasist and too fond of making up stories, but Matilda sees some important links to the Mr Watts of her childhood.

As the novel closes Matilda is in England, chasing traces of Dickens in London and Kent. The exercise exhausts and deflates her. She realises that in many ways Mr Watts was her Dickens and that his interpretation of Pip’s story was perhaps more cogent than the yarn spun by the famous author.

Despite the close quarters of the action and the dramatic circumstances on Bougainville, I found much of the description in this novel to be understated and occasionally flat. The action in the last part of the book is only covered in a summary fashion – far less satisfying and less convincing than the slow unfolding of events earlier on.

Mr Watts is a feeble character, well-meaning and kind, but naïve and spineless. Naivety is dangerous, and others suffer needlessly because of Mr Watts’s weaknesses. Yet he enriches Matilda’s life. Perhaps Jones is telling us that irrespective of a person’s character and actions, if we remain observant and curious we can learn something from everyone: life is full of lessons if we have a mind to learn.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Morris: A Writer’s House in Wales

Jan Morris (2002) A Writer’s House in Wales National Geographic Directions, Washington; 168 pp.; ISBN 978-0-79226523-8

Jan Morris is a prolific author, though probably best known for her travel literature. Her works have an understated, sometimes detached quality that for me never quite captures the essence of a place, but they are well written and thoroughly researched. In this short but neatly structured book she focuses on her house, Trefan Morys, in the north of Wales. It sits in the Pennant Valley where the river Dwyfor runs from the mountains of Snowdonia to Cardigan Bay. The original large house nearby, Plas Trefan, was built in the 12th century then greatly renovated and extended in the 18th century, but by the early 20th century it had fallen into disrepair. Morris converted the outbuildings of Plas Trefan, and christened the new abode Trefan Morys.

Although she was born in Somerset, England, Morris had a Welsh father and she identifies as Welsh. One of her children who writes poetry in Welsh lives nearby. Morris says that she lives in a ‘Wales of the mind’ and is taken by the landscape, the brooding mountains and fickle weather, the deep dark and lovely woods that separate her house from the Dwyfor River, and the trees, plants and animals that surround her dwelling and form an important backdrop to her writing life.

While she enjoys her dual English-Welsh heritage, she admires the tenacity of Welsh culture and the ways of Welsh people, even if her views are tinged with more than a little romanticism. Though she has only a basic grasp of Welsh, she senses the richness of the language, its amenability to poetry and being read aloud, and the way that it has survived – indeed, revived – despite sustained attacks from successive English governments through the education system.

The two central chapters take us through the house itself, first into the kitchen which Morris sees as the hearth. Tea, bread and cake, those staples of Welsh hospitality, are offered to visitors and Morris likes to entertain, even if she shies away from staying or dining in other people’s homes. She has formed an attachment to the local community and many of them spend time at the kitchen table here. During the summer holidays the place rings with the voices of visiting grandchildren.

In the subsequent chapter we move to the two floors of the house given over to Morris’s work – writing. She has an enormous library, most of it arranged thematically but with an unsorted tower of books glowering like a dark Welsh mountain upstairs. There is a sofa, a wood-burning stove and a desk, and Morris has produced over thirty books in this room. She loves the feel and smell of books and the thrill of browsing, but also has collections of model ships, maps, travel guides and pamphlets from her extensive travels. This part of the house is a mix of memory, inspiration and meditation and is clearly dear to Morris’s heart.

The final part of the book focuses on the mystical dimension of the house and its surroundings. She feels an ancient presence here and the spirit of the god Pan. There are also ghosts, apparitions moving down the nearby lane at night and the pervasive sadness of a female spectre – the 18th century woman who lost her fortune in Plas Trefan.

Jan Morris was born a man and in 1949 married Elizabeth, who still lives in Trefan Morys. Morris underwent surgery in 1972 to become a woman and consequently she and Elizabeth had to divorce. Despite the change of sex, the old gender roles have obviously remained firmly in place. Elizabeth does the cleaning, cooking and gardening, and keeps the house in order. Jan is the breadwinner, often away on travels, and still has a fondness for hard whiskey and fast, flashy cars. Their domestic life is a salutary reminder of the need to think about sex and gender as quite different things.

Morris is now well into her eighties and in a touching passage towards the end of the book she recounts how she and Elizabeth have chosen a small islet in the river to be the spot where their ashes will be scattered after death. Morris has already written some lines that have been engraved on stone in anticipation:
Here are two friends,
Jan and Elizabeth Morris,
At the end of one life
Friends? It seems far too inadequate a word to describe their relationship. However, six years after this book was published, Jan and Elizabeth entered into a civil partnership, the closest thing to marriage then legally available in the United Kingdom. I wondered whether Morris has since altered the epitaph.

This book is part of National Geographic’s Directions series, where authors write about a place of personal significance. I only discovered the series recently so this is the first volume I have read. Morris writes about her house like a slightly dotty great aunt showing you around and reminiscing about the meanings and connections of place. The style might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it gives you an endearing glimpse into a small and remarkable household.