I've waited a couple of weeks to write about this book, but my thoughts still haven't settled. They are like the birds at the feeder, startling up at the slightest shadow into a flurry of wings. Ondaatje's books always give me plenty to think about, and this one is no exception.
The first part is about Anna and Claire, two teenaged sisters who live on a farm in Northern California with their father and a young man named Coop. The father had brought Coop from the neighboring farm to help with the work and learn to be a farmer after Coop's family was murdered. Older than the girls, Coop moves out to and restores the cabin that the girls' grandfather had built when he first came to stake his claim. The story moves between the three young people, circling around the incidents and stories that make up their past.
Details bring their lives into vivid focus: “Coop, who with his confidence would sweep a hay bale over his shoulder and walk to the barn lighting a cigarette with his free hand.” And “Sometimes Claire and I would come down the hill with the car lights turned off in complete blackness. Or we would climb from our bedroom window onto the skirt of the roof and lie flat on our backs on the large table-rock, still warm from the day, and talk and sing into the night. We counted out seconds between meteor showers slipping horizontal across the heavens.”
Later sections follow Anna, Claire and Coop as they move out into the world, scattered by an act of violence. Only Claire returns regularly from her job in San Francisco to visit her father and ride the high ridges of the farm. Coop has become a gambler, while Anna is in France, researching the life of a nearly-forgotten poet, Lucien Segura. She lives in his now-empty house and meets a young Romany named Rafael who once knew the author.
There are lovely structural parallels in the story. Rafael, Segura, and the three young people all are affected by fathers and stepfathers, their crafts and mistakes and disappearances. Segura's empty house echoes the grandfather's abandoned cabin and the deserted town of Allensworth in Southern California which Anna stops in during her flight from her father. The Central Plain of California, stark and barren, through which she travels was once a sea of flowers, like the depression in Segura's lawn that was once a pond. The story moves in and out of the past, setting up reflections and remnants.
Anna walks Segura's paths, swims in his stream, and sits at his blue table translating his work. She learns that she can hide in art, take refuge in the third person. I love the moment when she falls in love with the task, listening to Segura read some of his work on an old cylinder. “There was a sweet shadow and hesitance in Segura. it was like a ruined love, and it was familiar to me.” It reminded me of a recent conversation with my friend, Steve, when he told me of a casual comment that made him want to know more, and thus set him on his life's work. It also reminded me of a recent Writer's Almanac segment about Stephen Ambrose and how a professor's comment that a research paper “would add to the sum of the world's knowledge” changed his life.
What I find myself returning to again and again is Anna's quixotic effort to capture and preserve the past, Segura's past. A single life is short and buried in the flood of all the lives that come after and around it. You devote your life to accruing knowledge and experience. You expend considerable effort in shaping it into a coherent whole, and then you die and all of that is gone and no one really knows what it was like to be you. Marty introduced me to a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “People”, which has these lines: “To each his world is private . . . In any man who dies there dies with him / his first snow and kiss and fight / it goes with him . . Not people die but worlds die in them.”
The last part of the book gives us what Anna will never know: Segura's story. We find out why he left his family to come alone to the house where she sits, how Rafael met him, and why the blue table is important. Whole peoples have gone, whole towns deserted or drowned. We wonder about the Anasazi, the Mayans, the Minoans. We read about Colette or Wague and wonder What was it like to be you? The birds rise up again and then resettle in a different pattern.