As The Twig Is Bent

We’re officially halfway through our challenge with this week’s beautiful novel!!

“There was a wood once. Just itself to begin with. […]

Later, someone found it, defined it […]

Used it. Gridded out, like a town, and its quarters named. Then it was cut into rides, hunted, managed, grazed, chopped about, foraged, felled, filled in again. Now it’s a country park […]

And it’s where the runaways go. […]

And the town’s right there, playing grandmother’s footsteps with the wood” (3)

Laura Beatty's "Pollard"

Laura Beatty’s “Pollard”

Laura Beatty, the author of Pollard, lives in historic Salcey Forest in Northamptonshire, a home that undoubtedly inspired many elements of the mysterious, whispering wood in her first novel.

At age 15, the awkward and unusual Anne decides to run away from her home “that hadn’t been one” (30) and find “a patch, […] her plot” (58) among the trees with which she had always felt an affinity. She sets out with nothing but, as she spends time “learning the place, looking at it […] walking, discovering” (65) she gradually gathers the necessities, constructs her home beneath a pollard ash and wages a war of survival against the “iron” (91) winter along with the wood’s other creatures. Although at times the “loneliness” (78) of her new life gets to her, and her voice grows “cracked and rusted with no use” (86), she is rarely tempted to return to the town, where the only landmarks are the battery farm, abattoir, “new estates” and “industry parks” (8). Instead, she appreciates the beauty and seclusion that other “human beings” (153) fail to notice, in the woodland environment and even at the neighbouring rubbish “tip” (77), to which she is introduced by ex-soldier and survival-guru, Steve: “She liked the dump. It fitted her almost as well as the wood. She liked its geography, the simple straight lines of the trailers and sheds, the blocks of the containers, the order of it. A little world in itself” (82).

But Anne’s struggle to survive comes to the fore as civilisation encroaches on her private existence. Information signs “spring up” (153) on familiar tracks; men “carrying clipboards” (154) arrive with plans for cycle paths, roads, treetop walkways and visitor centres; strangers arrive in their droves in the form of “walkers, riders, joggers, cyclists” and even a park “Ranger” (156); words like “officialdom” (157), land “ownership” (162) and “authorised persons” (259) begin to cloud her head. She can sense the “slow suffocation of the trees” (155) and with this, her private existence is thrown into turmoil.

Salcey Forest's Treetop Walkway (the unflattering angle)

Salcey Forest’s Treetop Walkway (the unflattering angle) – inspiration for what happens in Anne’s wood

So this is a novel that highlights the traditional theme of the urban world threatening the rural. The reader is exposed to careless dog-walkers and harmful litterers and ignorant traipsers and destructive youths and arrogant bureaucrats and heartless construction workers, all of whom incite the reader’s negative judgement of humanity for ruining the natural world. Certainly, Anne loathes this cast of characters, fears them, and eventually falls prey to them.

But, untraditionally, that’s not the whole story. Looking deeper, Beatty’s novel is not about Anne at all, or her rural/urban war, but about The Wood itself. The Immortal Wood.

Beatty gives her trees a voice – which they use far more than Anne, it seems – and the power to “witness” (9) everything that happens under their canopy, like a Greek “Chorus” commenting, singing, dancing as tragedy unfolds. But unlike Anne, The Wood “think[s] nothing of [the] nibblers, strippers, choppers” (132) that are altering its shape and Anne’s life; it cares nothing for the individuals it swallows under its shade, for The Wood’s “concern is with life, not the individual” and “there’s always another time, for someone else, if not for [Anne]” (9). The world of The Wood is endless, for it is “good at retrenching […] for every trunk lost” (132) and “looping back on itself forever”, holding on to “some forgotten sense, […] a particular life” (303). Even Anne – whose head is “so full of [the trees’] rustling” and whose own limbs “hung loose and sinewed” (148) at home under the boughs – cannot comprehend this timeless spirit. She “can’t see the wood for the trees” (18) she is always told as a child. The tragedy in this novel is Anne’s alone; the wood will survive, in spirit if not in size. It is the hubris of humanity that believes it can tame nature when, in fact, we are only contributing towards our own downfall.

Pollard Ash

Pollard Ash

I did not expect this novel, which deals so explicitly with rural-urban convergence, to be so original in its form and its plot. Giving trees narrative authority seems a risky move for a debut novel, but the surrealism pays off. In fact, reading this reminded me a great deal of Booker Prize-winning How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman – in very simple terms, both protagonists are outcast from society and victims of state authority; both narratives are filled with bewilderment, misunderstanding and impotent fury; both narrators implicate the reader in systems of injustice; and both novels sound an ironic call-to-arms that clashes with the inevitable, hopeless knowledge that nothing can change.

In Pollard, I think more could have been made of Anne’s conflicts with the state, especially in the final pages. Similarly, I’m not sure if Anne’s relationship with schoolboy Peter Parker was fully effective in providing the novel’s climax. I also think Anne should have been shown to grow even angrier – more violent or more verbal – to contrast with the sing-song placidity of the “Chorus of Trees”. But really, I’m just being picky. This was a fascinating, unusual read and for that I have huge admiration. 4/5 stars.

So next week I’ll be reading Julie Myerson’s Something Might Happen. We’re over the halfway mark by now, and into Suffolk territory!

BEATTY, Laura. Pollard. Reading: Vintage, 2009.

Featured Image: Salcey Forest, Northamptonshire.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mjsullivan/4053668806/

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Concentration Cramp

Michael Taylor's "Linden Woods"

Michael Taylor’s “Linden Woods”

This was a bad book.

I don’t usually like calling books ‘bad’; you’ll notice even the description of my 1-star category on this blog is “not my thing” rather than a direct criticism, such as “truly awful”. That’s because I usually believe that every book is valuable to someone, even if that someone is not me. However, even with that diplomatic mission in mind – even being as objective as possible – this book irritated me because of how poorly written it is.

At the time of writing, the only other book in my 1-star category is The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall (although I’ve been having thoughts about moving Money Can’t Buy Me Love down a peg into that section too) – my goodness, those like Nobel Prize-winners in comparison to this. Well, not quite, but if I could rate this book 0/5 stars, I certainly would. As it is, 1/5 stars is the limit.

That’s it then, really, isn’t it? You might as well stop reading this review now as I hope you’re unlikely ever to pick up Linden Woods by Michael Taylor for yourself, unless it’s during one of your particularly masochistic phases. I can’t even be bothered to describe the plot; it’s not worth it. Some might be interested in my justification though (especially the author, who will probably be appalled to find his average rating on Goodreads plummet thanks to my input. Awkward) so, for the few, here goes:

Castle Hill, Dudley, Staffordshire. Copperplate engraving from 1812.

Castle Hill, Dudley, Staffordshire. Copperplate engraving from 1812.

The novel is set in Dudley which, during the Second World War (the era Taylor concerns himself with here), was part of Staffordshire, in the Black Country. At the beginning of Chapter 2, we get a painfully boring and unoriginal description of the industrial city, “grey with the spoil of coal-mining”, “criss-crossed by railways” and filled with the sound of “the hissing and huffing of mineral-hauling locomotives and the shouts of men at work” (9). We get the odd lacklustre description of the surrounding countryside too, “abundant [in] fern and dotted with silver birches” (110). But apart from that, the art of descriptive writing seems to elude our author. Oh, except for during the sex scenes, when the adjectives and imagery seem to go a little overboard, selling the novel as cheap and tacky due to its lack of artistic worth in other aspects.

There is no comparison, juxtaposition, symbolism or allusion. I couldn’t engage with any of the characters because they were so poorly painted, indistinguishable from each other due to the fact that none of them were allowed an individual narrative voice, so constrictive was Taylor’s hold on his text. I had absolutely no interest in the plot, which didn’t seem to have any rise or fall – on the one occasion, towards the end, when I thought a bit of drama might arise, my hope was quashed as quickly as it had perked up. Quicker, in fact, since after 200 pages it was quite hard to work up any hope in the first place. I wasn’t convinced by the context; war novels are normally fascinating to me because of the emotion, trauma, violence and tragedy associated with that part of world history, but in Linden Woods there is practically no mention of ‘the horrors’ at all – it might as well have been set last week for the amount of escapism it allowed me. As for the romance…Bland. Truly bland. Is that more acceptable than ‘bad’?

Next week I’m reading The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe. Things can only improve! Join me soon again soon 🙂

TAYLOR, Michael. Linden Woods. Surrey: Severn House Publishers, 2007.

Featured Image: Enville Common, Staffordshire, as mentioned in the novel.

http://photogallery-uk.co.uk/4.html