It is often the case that a delivery van will make the long journey here, down the narrow single-track lanes, to deliver one small parcel of books, perhaps even a single book, and I always feel everso slightly guilty and maybe even more obliged to pay the contents special attention as the poor driver has risked life and limb, tractors and stray sheep, and countless pheasants and foxes to get here. I sign the plastic screen on the clever little electronic gizmo, we exchange the time of day (weather...state of the lane etc) on the doorstep before he (as it is usually a 'he') then does a tight reversing manouevre in the gateway and heads off. We seem to be last on the round which isn't suprising so I often associate these nice parcels with late on a winter's afternoon, and it's a bit like a little Christmas.
So a package of three novels by Kent Haruf arrived from Picador (thank you Picador) a while ago, Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction and even without all that driver effort I really liked the look and the sound of them, but I had no idea who Kent Haruf was... had I heard of him, or was I getting his name confused with others, I really couldn't decide, and where had I been all this time if Plainsong had been published to such great acclaim back in 1999.
'Tough but humane, never sentimental...'
Haruf's descriptions are sublime in their exacting simplicity...'
'Elemental in its power..'
'The most controlled, cohesive novel I have come across in a long time...'
And so it went on, puff after glorious puff so all I could do was put it to the test.
The judging for Fiction Uncovered has had me knee-deep in contemporary British fiction ...no, make that up to my neck, but I had been keeping it boundaried, approaching it in a more work-like fashion than I would were I reading for pleasure, or to write about for here. I had a reading vacancy for something completely different and so I sat down with Plainsong.
Set in the fictional Colorado town of Holt, young brothers Ike and Bobby Guthrie are having to come to terms with the break-up of their parents' marriage. When their mother Ella leaves for Denver, their school-teacher father Tom must raise them alone. Meanwhile, one of Tom's high school pupils, Victoria Roubideaux, finding herself pregnant by a boyfriend now absent, and subsequently homeless when her mother finds out, is taken in and given a home by elderly farming brothers Harold and Raymond McPheron.
This is the small-town American community where everyone seems to know everyone else, two sets of brothers, generations apart who both have to come to terms with loss and change, and in between all the realities and challenges of day to day life.
Tom Guthrie must cope with single fatherhood and also a recalcitrant student destined to fail his studies, but oh what aggravation there will be from his parents if he does...
Young Ike and Bobby, his sons, must cope with life, death, sadness, bullying and the real heartbreaking fears that children have when faced with loss.
Victoria Roubideaux must come to terms with a future determined by a baby.
The McPherons...well the lovely kind, gentle McPherons. I defy anyone not to feel a slight swell of emotion when they offer Victoria an unconditional home out of the kindness of their hearts and then take her to buy some things for the baby. Only the best will do.
And what a stunning book Plainsong is, expecially when read in an atmosphere that allows the quiet to permeate, because Kent Haruf is said to have 'an extraordinary grasp of quiet' and I couldn't agree more. This is fiction almost written as plainsong, no extraneous notes, perhaps just an occasional extra detail to embellish very slightly, but Kent Haruf stops well short of intense, leaving the reader to supply all the emotion. It is to Kent Haruf's credit that at times I felt as I was hovering just above, looking down and watching as a detached onlooker, yet at other times I was right there and living it all. There was a moment, when Ike and Bobby visit their mother having carefully chosen her some gifts, and all I could do was put the book down and tune into Hildegard von Bingen's soaring yet simple plainsong melodies which I had playing in the background.. .more about the wonderful Hildegard to come.
Plainsong is that sort of book and one that for me lived up to every accolade printed on the first three pages, I can't recommend it highly enough.
I think too it is the sort of book I would add to a list of Books I Would Buy For a Friend.
That set me thinking about books about reclusive farming brothers and On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin came to mind along with The Hill Bachelors by William Trevor, neither of which I have read for years, but the premise is always an interesting one.
Then I thought more about Books I Would Buy For a Friend and They Came Like Swallows and William Maxwell came to mind.
I feel sure others will have read Plainsong and I wonder if you agree with me.
And do you have any other books you would add to that list of Books I Would Buy For a Friend....