I'm cutting back on time spent social networking this year. Not that I did a vast amount anyway but for all the time I spend writing a blog it would still be a drop in the ocean of o'clock compared with the hours that can pass when Twittering and Facebooking, and I want and need that time to read.
I have quietly un-Twittered but then there's still Facebook. Dovegreyreader goes out on there automatically too, but it is also a much less time-consuming and pleasant way to keep in touch with friends and work colleagues. So there I was idly reading late one night here in Devon when a note popped onto one of my posts from Cathy St Germans, of Port Eliot and currently very sensibly wintering in Hawaii. I replied, Cathy replied, I replied and there we were having a lovely world-shrinking 'conversation' ... Cathy telling me it made the news there if the temperature went below 60 degs, me frozen solid, and some of that warmth seemed to come my way as I looked at her pictures of Hawaii.
'Have you read My Old Sweetheart by Susanna Moore yet?'
And I'd really been meaning too, so I nipped to Amazon there and then, picked up a copy for 1p and the world suddenly felt very tiny indeed.
Susanna Moore now lives in New York City but grew up in Hawaii and though I have been able to find out very little about her beyond one 2007 interview, I hope I have discovered correctly that My Old Sweetheart is the first of a trilogy, if so I am very happy about that.
Set in the sumptuously scented location of Hawaii, 'my old sweetheart' is Anna's pet name for her twelve-year old daughter Lily, and it seemed of increasing significance as I read on about this young girl who becomes the parent to her mother, burdened with the anxieties of Anna's distress and eventual mental illness that is slowly revealed as the book proceeds. That pet name somehow assumes the old head on young shoulders, a girl who would try to make things as perfect as she could for the mother who confides in and relies on her...
'...Anna had few secrets from her. This intimacy was,perhaps, Anna's way of shifting responsibility from herself to Lily,for it was certainly Lily who resided in the real world, alert and watchful, while Anna passed her long days on an island all her own.'
Meanwhile husband and father, island doctor Sheridan, remains objective and one step removed from his own emotional responsibilities towards his wife 'the stranded mermaid' and his children, Lily and her younger brother and sister...
'He was affectionate and fair-minded, but these were not qualities particularly adequate to rescue a woman in enormous trouble and the child she had taken along as her companion.'
Set against the unrivalled backdrop of Hawaii with its constants of warmth and the scent of the flowers, gardenia, tuberose, jasmine, pakalana, a scent sufficiently overpowering that even the emotion could be smothered and blanketed and muffled. There is an element of reading in the dark here, in the shadow of something unseen, knowing that all is not as it seems, but Susanna Moore slowly reveals at a slant, with those precious gaps and silences that give free rein to the reader's intuition, quite where Anna's distress may be coming from, what is fuelling it and ultimately, despite her 'little optimisms' were it may lead.
For geographical location destined to give a book its atmosphere, think Kate Chopin's The Awakening and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys for comparable heat. The sheer effort that seems to be required for every emotional response somehow offers a pace to these books that always reminds me of those slow walks on those hot summer days.
I always think as I read a book like My Old Sweetheart that I want to read many more books like this. Spell-binding and measured books with a store of quietly held revelations kept in reserve, that make me gasp a little, novels that countenance no interruption and make you look up to think and then feel quite surprised to find that the world is still there happening around you. This felt like a book of blessed quietness, it has a quality of stillness and fragrance about it, created in part by the heady langour of the heat with its power to oppress and stifle, but also to radiate and infiltrate. There is a certain light that shimmers here, and a moment when Anna and Lily swim to an underwater cave that actually transported me there....yes, holding my breath to dive and everything and feeling that slight sense of panic about getting out again, even if I was sitting here in my thermals.
My Old Sweetheart has been one of those perfectly well-rounded reading experiences giving me much more than a good read, perhaps because it's January and I'm always ready to be transported somewhere warm. On starting the book it did feel as if I was walking on Hawaii's jagged lava fields, there is a quiescent volcano just beneath the surface of this writing which Susanna Moore keeps perfectly in check, but you are left in no doubt that at any moment it could gently erupt. Initially the reading feels sharp underfoot, it's unsettling hard-to-balance reading, but compulsive too. A world I couldn't wait to get back to each time I picked the book up and a writer who I knew I could trust as the secrets slowly seeped out.
There will inevitably be consequences for Lily when she grows up and has children of her own, she has effectively been a mother all her life and to the detriment of her own childhood, and quite where this places her own inner child will take some hard work to discover in the years to come. Lily does her best and I found myself wishing her a much deserved, gentle and happy life as I reluctantly turned the final page.
So a book that comes with two recommends, from Hawaii via Devon to you and just a final tantalizing snippet from Susanna Moore that explains a great deal and makes me want to read the book all over again.
In the very beginning when I wrote the first book, My Old Sweetheart, I had no notion it would be published. In a way what I was doing, because I had come from a somewhat crazy family and I had just had a child, a little girl, I began My Old Sweetheart as a kind of explanation to her—and it’s dedicated to her. So that someday she would, there would be a record of my childhood, her grandmother’s life—my mother died young—and even though it’s fictionalized, what had happened to us.