Hiding from the Light, Barbara Erskine

This is what happens when I’m in a hurry. Late for my poetry group meeting, I buzzed through the audio books section of the library, picking up a couple of—I thought—mysteries to keep me entertained during my long commute. I suppose some might consider this book a mystery, but I was surprised and disappointed when it veered off into the supernatural. I kept hoping that these paranormal manifestations were just indications of psychological complexity, but finally had to admit that I’d landed myself with a horror story.

I’m not a fan. I avoid horror movies, whether supernatural or slasher. I’ve never read a Stephen King book or—knowingly—any other horror story. I did see Rosemary’s Baby as a teenager and was deeply perturbed, not so much by the fear that any woman might actually bear such a child as by the duplicity of the people surrounding Rosemary. I myself have always been appallingly gullible, so the idea that such innocent-seeming people could harbor such evil intentions troubled me.

And then I don’t like being scared. The real world is scary enough without agitating myself further with scary stories. I don’t even like roller coasters or any but the most gentle carnival rides, like a merry-go-round. That’s partly physical: wild rides don’t give me an adrenaline rush so much as a whoopsie stomach. But also emotional: I find them disturbing rather than thrilling. My idea of a thrill is to drive a bit over the speed limit (shhh) on an empty highway. Call me a wimp; I don’t mind.

You might ask why I read mysteries, then. The reassuring thing about mysteries, at least the ones I like, is that the puzzle gets sorted in the end. Usually the murderer gets his or her comeuppance, but it’s enough for me that someone knows who the murderer is and what he or she has done. Also, as I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I like mysteries where the sleuth, amateur or professional, has a strong moral compass.

And I did like the main character in Erskine’s book; she was the main reason (along with inertia) that I kept listening to it. Emma has what many would call a perfect life: a rewarding career, a loving significant other who is starting to talk marriage, a gorgeous London flat with a rooftop garden, friends, family. Then she sees an ad for a cottage for sale in Essex and recognises it as one she knew as a child on summertime visits to the country, the one everybody called Liza’s Cottage.

Piers, her S.O., hates the country and makes it perfectly clear that if Emma continues with her scheme to buy the cottage, he will not join her there even for weekends, meaning their relationship may have to end. However, caught in an irresistible compulsion, Emma goes ahead and buys the cottage, not for weekends, but to live in year-round, quitting her job and leaving her London life behind.

I enjoyed the description of the village, including its inhabitants, such as the rector, a single man being relentlessly pursued by one of the village spinsters who also happens to be one of his lay readers; Alex and Paula, he being a house-husband while she commutes to London; and Lindsay, who babysits for them and calls herself a witch. In addition, a film crew has set up in town to do a segment on a shop that seems to be haunted.

All very interesting and well-written. I’d have been happy if the book had stayed at that level. However, when paranormal events started taking over, the characters began to seem increasingly unrealistic. Not because of the supernatural aspects, but because they were behaving in ways that were not consistent with their characters as previously presented. Why did Lindsay, a good Wiccan, suddenly start espousing Satanism? Why did Paula, an intelligent modern woman, suddenly go off the deep end and believe—based on nothing but the word of one woman—that babies were being killed in Satanic rituals? I remember the hysteria that swept Britain in the wake of the Hindley trials, but I found Paula’s reaction unbelievable.

It’s a shame, because the first part of the book was so good, and there’s some terrific writing. I’ve said this before in critiquing books in this blog and I guess I’ll end up saying it many more times: the book started out to be very good indeed, with strong and convincing characters, but then the plot took over and twisted the characters out of recognition. Doesn’t matter if it’s a horror story or a mystery or a literary classic, I’d rather see the plot grow out of the characters than the characters shaped to suit the plot.

The Secret of Lost Things, by Sheridan Hay

Another book about books, and one I thought I would like better than The Thirteenth Tale since it is more narrowly focused on Melville and his masterpiece. Moby Dick is one of those novels people love to hate. Often cited as the best American novel, the story of Ahab and the white whale is equally often mocked for its long digressions and weighty themes. I fell in love with Melville’s work when I was twenty and read everything I could find, including—yes—all of Moby Dick even the chapters on whaling, etc.

So I was eager to read this novel about a young woman who emigrates from Tasmania to New York, where she finds a job in a huge, unruly bookstore and discovers Melville. Rosemary is alone in the world, her mother having passed away, and her one friend (who was also her mother’s only friend) a bookstore-owner back in Tasmania. In New York, Rosemary gradually gets to know the peculiar denizens of the bookstore, such as the owner who rants at customers and employees alike from his raised platform, dishy Oscar from Nonfiction who knows all about fabrics, gentle Mr. Mitchell from Rare Books, and Walter Geist, an albino with numerous mysterious ailments including incipient blindness, who is the store manager.

The store itself is known for finding lost books and the employees play a game called Who Knows? trying to top each other’s knowledge of some little-known, esoteric book. Since the only other woman at the store is Pearl, an aspiring opera singer who is in the process of transitioning to the female she understands herself to be, Rosemary’s arrival at the store sets the pigeon among the cats. Oscar introduces Rosemary to Melville’s epic but spurns her romantic overtures. Arthur, who works in the Art section and calls her TD (short for Tasmanian Devil), shows her photography books that embarrass her. Geist seems to find excuses for her company and eventually makes her his assistant.

Geist asks her to read him a strange letter about a manuscript and then to accompany him to visit one of the store’s most esteemed customers, a rich collector, with whose librarian Geist seems to be on very familiar terms. Intrigued by the air of secrecy surrounding both the letter and the visit, Rosemary talks over her suspicions with Oscar, and the two begin to investigate the mysterious manuscript.

Hay has come up with some truly original characters and has crafted a story with sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious references to Moby Dick and Melville’s other work. At the same time, she has portrayed New York City as a place of mystery and wonder, a feat I’ve rarely seen done, maybe by Pete Hamill, Mark Helprin. So in many ways I liked it better than last week’s book. What I missed, though, was Setterfield’s amazing language, her wonderful sentences. Much to admire in both books, while I look for more literary adventure stories.

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

This is a romance in the original meaning of the word: not a love story so much as a tale of fabulous doings. One of the characters asks, ” ‘What succour, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story?'” A writer after my own heart, in other words.

Margaret lives with her parents over the bookstore where she and her father spend their quiet days while her mother recedes further and further into her own world. The story opens with her receiving a letter from a reclusive writer, Vida Winter, asking Margaret to write her biography. Mystery surrounds the famous author, whose first book was originally entitled Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation but only contained twelve stories. Although the title was fixed in later editions, fascination with the missing story lingered.

Stories help us make sense of our lives. Chaos is reduced to blocks laid end to end to create a narrative arc: a beginning, a middle, an end. What is the missing story, the story that hasn’t been written? It is all about possibility, about knowledge kept secret and half-forgotten histories.

I’m such a book nerd that I love to read books about books. Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels about a man who takes to the road with a tinker’s wagon lined with used books made me think I’d discovered the perfect life. Bookshelves lined the outside of the horse-drawn wagon, so he only has to lift the flaps to open his portable bookstore. When I visited my son in Madrid a few years ago, I was tickled to notice, down a narrow side street, a man doing the same thing: lifting wooden covers to reveal bookshelves attached to the stone walls of the street. Of course we had to stop and buy some books! Other books about books that I’ve enjoyed are A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind. The idea of a Cemetery of Forgotten Books utterly beguiled me.

So I should have loved this book which is so clearly based on Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, with subtle references to many other books, such as The Woman in White and The Turn of the Screw. There’s a ride across the moors out of The Secret Garden and an unwelcoming housekeeper reminiscent of Rebecca.

In fact, the list above is the core of my slight reservation about the book. It’s certainly an enjoyable read. A selection for one of my book clubs, I picked it up at the end of a stressful week and found it just the thing for a relaxing evening. Although I saw the ending coming, the main plot still engaged my interest enough to keep me reading. But I found it a bit too derivative. At times I felt the story being twisted to match the Bronte books. The persistent coherences distracted me from the story and probably contributed to my seeing through the various smokescreens to guess the ending. Or endings, I should say, as there are several.

Having said that, I must add that the book is very well written and an intelligent and absorbing read. The most effective characters, those that come alive for me, are Margaret, her father, and Hester the governess. Perhaps that is because they are not so obviously based on characters from the other novels. And the story that intrigued me the most was one that has nothing to do with Jane or Heathcliff: the story of Margaret’s home life, that disappearing mother, her father’s gentle care of her. Not the fabulous doings, the romance, the madness, but what happens in the family. I’m left thinking Setterfield actually does better without the crutch of better-known books, so while I enjoyed the hide-and-seek game of literary references, I look forward to her next book.

Journal of a Solitude, by May Sarton

I recently reread this book of journal excerpts in preparation for a discussion of Sarton’s poetry that I was scheduled to lead. I first read the book over thirty years ago, and I was completely blown away by it.

Sarton published this journal in order to correct the mistaken impression created by her memoir Plant Dreaming Deep which described her life since moving in 1956 from the Boston area to Nelson, a small town in New Hampshire, where she bought a white frame house and proceeded to create a garden and a home. In the memoir, she also described the people she met in Nelson: Pearley Cole who cut her fields with a scythe, Bessie Lyman from the parsonage who addressed her in Turkish, Quig who made violins and painted, the Warners who cut the hay in her meadow with a team of horses.

Her life in Nelson sounded idyllic to many readers, so in Journal of a Solitude Sarton set out to tell the truth about what it was like for her to live alone for the first time, in a strange town, while wrestling with her first house, a house where the well ran dry in drought and let in marauding squirrels. She writes frankly about loneliness and depression and winter that never seems to end. But also about arranging flowers from her garden and entertaining friends in her first real home. And poetry.

Not having read the earlier memoir, I didn’t realise that this book was supposed to dampen my enthusiasm. I fell in love with the book and read it over and over. She seemed to be speaking directly to me. I too was living alone, trying to write, creating a home in bleak, beloved New England.

I fell in love as well with Sarton’s life, even as I despaired of ever having anything like it. What was not to love? She wrote poetry all morning, gardened in the afternoon, had a wide circle of friends—goodness, in her youth she had known and been encouraged by none other than Virginia Woolf! I skimmed over Sarton’s complaints that the critics ignored her work, her formalist poems running counter to the free-wheeling trend of the times. She seemed very successful to me. Didn’t Norton continue to publish her poetry collections? I somehow missed the fact that she had to teach classes and Wellesley and go on speaking tours in order to make a living.

I missed also that she was so much older than I. Born in 1912 in Belgium, brought to this country by her parents after the outbreak of the Great War, she wrote these journal entries the year she turned 59. Now I have to laugh at my youthful self: how could I, so much younger, expect to have achieved what had taken her so many decades to attain?

I was not the only one who fell in love with Sarton and her life through this journal. Arriving in the early days of the Women’s Movement, it seemed a model for how a creative woman could lead an independent and rewarding existence. Young women swelled her fan base and made her for the first time able to live off of her writing alone. We bought her journals, which continued to appear every few years, her novels and her poetry.

Now I am almost the age she was when she wrote this journal. Rereading it for the first time, I ruefully acknowledge that my earlier despair was groundless. If I haven’t achieved her success as a writer (being nowhere near as good a poet), I have created a life for myself that balances friends and solitude, writing and earning. And one that is full of beauty: sunlight on the trees, birds at the feeder, roses on the table. A perfect life.

I must also acknowledge what an influence she has had on my life. Even though we never met, her example gave me courage over the years to stick to my unorthodox path. Reading this journal now, I don’t see the strong, independent woman I remember. Instead, I see the loneliness of a woman who is not solitary by nature and the persistence needed in her struggle to succeed as a writer. And I recognise my debt to her.

The Gateway, by T. M. McNally

I enjoyed this short story collection immensely. The author was new to me, selected by one of my book clubs. Unlike Olive Kitteridge which I blogged about a few weeks ago, each story here stands alone.

Some people dislike reading short stories because of the effort required to get into a new set of characters and situations; once having made that investment, it can be frustrating to have the story end after a couple of dozen pages. However, I find short stories are perfect for when I have only a little bit of time to read, such as during my half-hour lunch. Also, I appreciate the punch they deliver, heightened by the compression necessitated by the short form.

What does tie the collection together is the author’s unsentimental compassion for his characters. And his generosity. And his remarkable writing.

In “Bastogne”, a man visits the Belgian village where his father fought in the Second World War. This is a story about love. Faced with his own mortality, the narrator moves back and forth in time, weaving his father’s tales into the threads of his own life, and those of his mother, his wife and young son.

Only a very good writer can handle this kind of impressionistic style without irritating me, and McNally is very good indeed. Instead of using linear time to create the narrative arc, McNally uses certain images—dogs, an apple-cheeked nurse, a burning tank—coming back to them again and again, finding a deeper meaning each time. The other thing that he does very well is include specific detail, for example about the design flaw in the original Jeep or Goring’s airdrop of meat paste or Russian-trained dogs. And in the midst of all this detail he can throw in a stunner of a sentence that makes me catch my breath. (I was going to give an example, but they’re not the same out of context.)

Another story that I particularly liked was “Skin Deep” about Lacey, a teenaged girl working for the summer for some landscapers. Her father is in jail, so she lives with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, “an indefinitely-suspended-without-pay firefighter”. Her mother—a former Amway saleswoman who now sells their furniture in yard sales to get by and has just decided to be a Broadway agent—believes Lacey’s destiny is to be a star and wants to sign her up for acting classes at the community college. However, skeptical Lacey has been making plans, with the assistance of her father’s lawyer, to go to college in Massachusetts. McNally captures the end-of-summer ennui, the difficulty of finding and holding jobs, the reluctant love for family mingled with exasperation. And he brilliantly captures what it’s like to be a teenaged girl getting ready to leave home and starting to see her family with objective eyes.

The last story, too, the title story, affected me deeply, resonating with “Bastogne” and its themes. Shortly after his father’s death, Thomas visits Paris with his wife and their young daughter. Paris is where his wife lived and loved before she returned to the States and met him. I loved the image of the gateway itself, a huge arch in St. Louis, the “gateway to the West”, Thomas’s home town where he returned after failing as a screenwriter in Hollywood and became a real-estate agent. Dreams not just deferred but abandoned. And I had to stop and think about mortality and love and parents and children when Thomas says, “People used to call my father The Colossus; then he died; and eventually, not that far into the future, there will be nobody left alive to remember the things he said and did. But when I was a boy, he explained to me the history of the world . . .”

These are real lives, stories from the heartland. I highly recommend this collection.