I've given myself a very different reading year this year...or perhaps it's an age thing, perhaps I'm looking for something else.
As you know, some years I'm hungry to devour the latest and the bestest novels and I'm onto them in a flash, oddly this year I'm feeling a bit manyana about it all. I've picked up several Booker longlist certainties and would usually have dived in, but this year I'm way off the Booker pace so it remains to be seen whether the long list piques my attention.
I've been reading Why Poetry Matters by Jay Parini and came across a quote from Robert Frost,
'The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader. I have known people who could read without hearing the sentence sounds and they were the fastest readers. Eye readers we call them. They can get the meaning by glances. But they are bad readers because they miss the best part of what a writer puts into his work.'
In that case I know I've done plenty of 'bad' reading in my time and currently I'm all for ear reading, hearing the sentence sounds and I think this may be one of the unseen benefits of a year in the company of Ulysses... that book has taught me so much about my own reading habits. Team Ulysses...are you still there... I was feeling so bereft at the thought of no post for the July 16th that I plan, in the best of teamwork traditions, a team debrief for this Friday.
And suddenly I'm loving poetry again too.
So where was I...right... The Hand That First Held Mine and perfect because Maggie O' Farrell writes beautifully about the complexities of family relationships spread across two generations and which you somehow know are going to collide eventually...it's a bit like searching for a pattern repeat in a reading experience, you know it's there you just have to find it. When it suddenly jumps out you have an 'aha' moment.
So whilst one past tense thread sees Alexis Sinclair leaving sleepy Devon and heading off for late 1950's London with the maverick magazine editor Innes Kent, the other has new parents Elina and Ted coping, in the present day and often in the present tense, with the arrival of their baby.
Now I have a real problem with novels written in the present tense, I often ditch them within twenty pages, there have to be exceptionally good reasons for my to carry on, so how interesting that it can be done because I didn't even notice it here, Maggie O'Farrell segues into it perfectly.
Artist Elina has given birth to a boy by emergency caesarian section and is struggling; hovering on the brink of puerperal psychosis or perhaps exhaustion, but all very worrying, except film editor Ted, so wrapped up in his own fractured memories and childhood flashbacks since the birth of the baby, hardly seems aware of Elina's distress. Perhaps in an effort to gain control over something... anything, in this new and chaotic existence, Ted heads back to work as soon as Elina comes home with the baby, splicing and editing films into some semblance of order in a way that he'd probably like to be able to do with his own life. Hopeless at containing each others' anxieties I can only begin to imagine what the poor baby must have been feeling like when at four weeks old he still has no name. The attachment is clearly more like detachment, with poor Ted tiptoeing around the edges of idyllic, idealised parenting wherein rests disillusion and nothing really tallies.
'He had no idea that having a baby would entail so much entertaining, so many visitors, so many phone calls and e mails, so many pots of tea to be made, served , cleared away, washed up, that the mere act of procreation meant that people suddenly wanted to come around several times and week and sit in your house for hours on end.'
Meanwhile the past-tense Alexis-Innes thread is building alongside as they make a life together in the changing face of 1960's London, Alexis blossoms and you know that eventually these two threads are going to weave in but not quite how.
I often stop and reflect very early on in a novel now...
Do I want to know more about these characters?
Am I bothered about them ?
Do I care what happens?
Yes on all counts and I had the names and linking arrows darting all over the front page of the book to the extent that it all felt a bit like a literary version of that ball of string game we used to have to 'play' on those multi-disciplinary team building awaydays...which I'll have to explain now I've mentioned it.
I shudder to think that I actually used to do this but it's supposed to demonstrate the complexities of a situation, so the policeman holds onto one end and throws the ball of string across the seated circle to the social worker (I'm tempted to say they drop it but that would be unfair, they have thresholds) who then holds onto their bit of string and throws the ball to the midwife.Catching it with reluctance the midwife holds her bit and then lobs the ball across to the GP who treats it like hot coals, barely lets it touch their fingers before it's thrown back to me the health visitor. I look around for the school nurse who is run off her feet poor thing and far too busy to be there, so ever hopeful I throw it with some force back at the social worker and as you can see there's a nicely tangled web of string developing which the facilitator then draws our attention to.
We all sigh and agree, mission accomplished, visual learning aid achieved, what a tangled web we weave and at least hope it's coffee time.
No sighing with Maggie O'Farrell's book, she tosses her ball of string (and perhaps decide for yourself who or what may be the ball of string) competently hither and thither and slowly I could see where she was leading me via her themes of possession and motherhood, lies and secrets and the awakening of memories and I was really impressed.
I'm equally impressed that writing this has easily recaptured the mood of the book for me too, that makes it a winner.
Footnote :: Amazing what you discover on google in the search for a picture of a ball of string.