The Watch

In the past couple of weeks I’ve read novels from Dorset and the Isle of Wight (review to follow), counties which often epitomise the idea of the English seaside holiday, where there are “rock pools rather than hot sun, seaweed rather than find white sand” (Webb, 53). Of course, these novels would not have been hugely interesting if they had not challenged this stereotype – and challenge it they did. “Holidaymakers – there were always some” (Webb 46), one character notes, but there are also those who are always unable to leave.

Katherine Webb's "The Half-Forgotten Song"

Katherine Webb’s “The Half-Forgotten Song”

First of all, I read Katherine Webb’s Dorset-based tale, The Half-Forgotten Song. You may remember that I very much enjoyed The Legacy by the same author earlier in the year, and I was not disappointed by my second foray into her work. Much like The Legacy, in fact, this story is made up of two narratives: one situated in the past (memories of the now elderly Dimity Hatcher from several childhood summers) and one in the present, with writer and art-collector Zach revisiting the village of Blacknowle in Dorset, meeting Dimity and uncovering her history for the very first time. Both narratives revolve around one man: the artist, Charles Aubrey.

Zach’s life has gone a little to pot recently: his relationship has broken down; his young daughter Elise has been moved abroad by his ex; his small but precious art gallery in London is dwindling into obscurity; and although he has already drained his publisher’s advance, he just cannot find the time, motivation or material to complete his book on the subject closest to his heart: the life and work of famed 20th century artist Charles Aubrey. That is, until his publisher warns him that a competing writer is close on his heels with a book on the same lines, and Zach realises he had better get a move on.

Zach is desperate to find a new slant on the oft-told story of Aubrey’s life to feature in his book. Who are the mysterious, unknown faces in his paintings? Is any one of his apparent succession of mistresses still alive to tell her tale? Why did Aubrey choose to return with his family, year-after-year in the 1930s, to the same tiny, beachy village of Blacknowle? Possessed by these unanswered questions, Zach shuts his gallery and journeys westward to Dorset, to see if anyone still remembers the artist, and can provide any answers.

Kimmeridge Bay, close to fictional Blacknowle where the novel is set.

Kimmeridge Bay, close to fictional Blacknowle where the novel is set.

To his profound astonishment, it isn’t long until he stumbles accidentally across the real-life, wrinkled Dimity Hatcher – the beautiful ‘Mitzy’ that features in many of Aubrey’s paintings from the period, as well as his so-called mistress. Now, hidden away from the world in her cottage, presumed dead by all other Aubrey-philes, timid Dimity is haunted by her own demons. Zach works painstakingly and tenderly to gain her trust and extract her secrets – but will the truth end up helping or hindering him? Will Zach’s city-born belief that “it’s kind of restful, being surrounded by landscape, rather than people” (160) stand up in the face of Dimity’s pain?

It is through Dimity, most of all, that we get a view of the county’s landscape and outlook. Whether as an old lady or as a poor, fourteen-year-old gypsy scavenger in 1937, Mitzy is absolutely tethered to her locality:

“There were roots indeed, holding her tightly. As tightly as the scrubby pine trees that grew along the coast road, leaning their trunks and all their branches away from the sea and its battering winds. Roots she had no hope of breaking, any more than those trees had, however much they strained. Roots she had never thought of trying to break, until Charles Aubrey and his family had arrived, and given her an idea of what the world was like beyond Blacknowle, beyond Dorset. Her desire to see it was growing by the day; throbbing like a bad tooth and just as hard to ignore” (193).

It is Aubrey who awakens her to the idea of what exoticism might lie outside of Blacknowle. Morocco, where the family also holidays, is as far away as Mitzy can possibly imagine – and she can imagine no further away than “Cornwall, or even Scotland” (113). Each year, as the family comes and goes from the village, Dimity becomes more and more conscious that she “had remained the same, static” (229). But while she sees them with respect and through awed eyes, they envisage her as the embodiment of Dorset simplicity, ignorance and mythical “old magic” (194). In her naivety, she is flattered by Aubrey’s wish to use her as his muse, failing to realise that he will never adore the subject of his paintings as much as she adores him.

Eventually, as the story unravels, Mitzy comes to realise that while Aubrey appreciates her precisely because of her place in the ancient and natural landscape, it is the landscape that also traps her, inhibits her and, in her old age, terrifies her:

“The wind was so strong […]. The gale tore around the corners of the cottage, humming down the chimney, crashing in the trees outside. But louder than any of that was the sea, beating against the stony shore, breaking over the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. A bass roar that she seemed to feel in her chest, thumping up through her bones from the ground beneath her feet […] The smell of the sea was so dear, so familiar. It was the smell of everything she knew; the smell of her home, and her prison; the smell of her own self” (1-2).

Author, Katherine Webb

Author, Katherine Webb

This is a novel about beautiful, terrorising landscapes that are adored by some and loathed by others. It is also a novel that encourages my good opinion of Webb for the way it is written and its suspenseful tone, although the profound, relatable characters present in The Legacy were unfortunately not as present here – I suppose largely because they were either distinctly unlikeable (Dimity) or downright average (Zach). Webb does balances the plotlines between past and present effectively, so that both engage the reader and build tension. In some places, however, I thought the pace could have moved things along quicker – it did occasionally drag. In terms of personal preference, I did not enjoy the subject of the story quite as much as I did The Legacy. Indeed, at certain points I did feel slight irritation that some memories seemed quite contrived or unrealistic – I did find myself thinking such things as ‘she wouldn’t really remember that – it’s only in there to tie up a loose end of the mystery’. So some of the narrative ‘weaving’ could have been more natural. But overall a good (half-forgettable!) book, so 3/5 stars.

As mentioned, I’ll shortly be reviewing the Isle of Wight novel Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift. Stay tuned!

 

WEBB, Katherine. A Half Forgotten Song. London: Orion, 2012.

Featured Image: Ghostly Tyneham, a deserted village in Dorset, near to fictional Blacknowle where the novel is set. It was taken over by the war office in 1943 for military training and never returned to the locals.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/37801007@N07/4875435993/

 

Vital Organs

Benjamin Wood's "The Bellwether Revivals"

Benjamin Wood’s “The Bellwether Revivals”

Most other people who’ve read Benjamin Wood’s The Bellwether Revivals, set in Cambridge, seem intent on comparing it by degrees to A Secret History and Brideshead Revisited, other novels set in elite academic environments. I’m not going to do that – primarily because *SHOCK, HORROR* I’ve not yet read either of those great works. I know, I know; I haven’t read those, I hadn’t read any science fiction or ghost tales or zombie horrors or graphic novels, or indeed many modern novels at all before this blog. What have I read?! But, hey, at least this review might be a little different to the others out there.

Oscar Lowe, “bright” and “bookish” (according to the blurb), escaped his frustrating and unhappy working-class roots early, before finishing school or realising where his thoughtful mind could take him. Now living in Cambridge and working diligently as a care assistant at Cedarbrook nursing home, the shadows of the university’s famous buildings haunt him on every street, reminding him of the world of privilege and academia that he can never be a part of. That is, until he is drawn into King’s College chapel one evening by the sound of swelling music, and meets the beautiful and intelligent medical student Iris Bellwether, as well as her frighteningly arrogant, mad-control-freak, musical prodigy, genius brother, Eden. (It’s a sign of Wood’s brilliant characterisation that I find summing up his characters in a few words nigh impossible.) So begins Oscar’s tumultuous relationship with the wealthy Bellwether family and his insight into the Cambridge circle, leading to love (for Iris), fury (at Eden), wonder (at the family’s way of life), shame (at his own), hope (for brighter prospects), fear (of losing everything) and pain (of knowing he can never truly belong).

King's College, Cambridge (Chapel on left)

King’s College, Cambridge (Chapel on left)

While the plot itself is extraordinarily unpredictable and profoundly moving, it is Wood’s characterisation in particular that blows me away. Every single character’s individuality has been created painstakingly. Through implicit and explicit detail, as though their lives are strains of music on the wind, readers grow to sense their loves, hates, talents, weaknesses, motivations, relationships – some of their secrets remain hidden from us throughout. Each character, however fleeting or prominent their presence in the novel, possesses enough depth to be a fascinating psychological study, and yet is so rounded and ‘real’ that they can’t be pinned down. This is truly an amazing debut, worthy of 5/5 stars.

The character of Cambridge itself is a weighty presence in the novel’s pages, and something Wood admits to having a particular relationship with:

“Like [Oscar], I did not attend the university, but I lived in Cambridge for three years […] Walking around the place, it is difficult to ignore the monuments to history that surround you. It is a greatly inspiring environment for someone who values the importance of learning, as I do, but it is also an overwhelming place for someone who is not an invited member of that world – the colleges are mostly walled off and unavailable to non-members, and there’s a feeling that you’ll somehow never be completed connected with it, as much as you peer in from outside.”

Indeed, the reader is distinctly aware of Oscar’s overwhelming feeling of separation from the academic world that is “lurking, pressing” (66) on every pavement. The “old buildings” (53) incite true fear in the character at times, the “formidable gothic […] spindles” and “giant blackened windows” a sight he loathes for the way they make everyone else feel “tiny, irrelevant, godless” (4). Compared to these formidable, institutional facades, Cedarbrook’s pretty, floral exterior is “like the genial smile of an old friend” (207); this juxtaposition is ironic considering the hope and opportunity that should be associated with the former, against the decay and death encroaching on members of the latter. Suffice it to say that admiration and criticism for the Cambridge environment flow in equal measure.

View over Cambridge

View over Cambridge

As well as the physical environment, it is the class implications of life in Cambridge that make it a unique setting in this novel. Prosperity and privilege are shown to go hand-in-hand here: the “tightness and etiquette” (266) of Cambridge traditions having been established by, and tailored to, the expectations of the private-schooled, the wealthy, the lucky-in-life, they suit Iris and her university clan down to the ground. The students live in a “private world” (18) on these “hallowed grounds” (8) and share memories and experiences from “a private source” (39). Oscar, as a result of his background, schooling, housing, work, and myriad other inescapable nuances of class that shouldn’t matter, but do, is an outsider. So different and, initially, unwelcome, is he to the usual circle that he is treated by Iris’ mother “as if he were one of her abstract paintings that she was training her eyes to appreciate” (100). So the unfortunate peculiarities of the British (or is it only English?) class system.

Johann Mattheson's 'perfect' organ at St Michaelis in Hamburg: both Mattheson and the haunting music of the organ are key to the plot of this novel

Johann Mattheson’s ‘perfect’ organ at St Michaelis in Hamburg: both Mattheson and the haunting music of the organ are key to the plot of this novel

However, through his relationship with Iris (who doesn’t share her mother’s snobbery, her father’s conservative class views or Eden’s sense of entitlement to the same degree) Oscar does begin to find a way in to the world he has previously been walled off from: a world of opportunity, of dreams. All Oscar has known from his childhood are “mouthy teens who […] blocked the smoggy corridors of nightclubs on weekends” (9) and estates where “the houses all looked the same. Square, innocuous brick-piles, clad in cheap grey stucco” (73). Cambridge – the city and the university, inextricable as they are – offers an alternative to this reality of modern, motorway-riddled England, where Oscar can escape with the rest, fantasise about the future, slowly learn to separate himself from his roots and the rest of reality. In doing so, he starts to understand the attraction of large houses and “acreage”, of the “tranquillity” (245) that removal from “civilisation” brings (245). For a time, he plays along with the family life in the manor, as though it’s “some theatre set: a trick house made of paper and paint, with nothing behind it but the brick walls of the stage” (233).

But, for one reason and another, he will never truly belong: his job will call him back to earth with a jolt; disaster will strike and wake him from his fantasy; words will be exchanged that remind him of his roots. No matter how high Cambridge – or dreams of returning to his education – let him float, or how wide his view over the world, he will never be able to have the life he fantasises, or stop feeling “lonely and directionless” (64). His line has been drawn since birth, his class and his choice to leave school early marking his destiny for life. The spirit of Cambridge, like a Greek Fate measuring the thread of Oscar’s life, will not grant him a second chance. Wavering from his destined path now only brings pain, heartache and hopelessness.

Hope, it seems, was only ever a form of madness, a way of temporarily filling a void. Hope, like music with its “swelling harmonies”, is capable of “flood[ing] the yawning space above them” (6) – but only fleetingly, leaving life all the more painful when it departs.

 

Next week I’ll be reading The Queen’s Secret by Victoria Lamb. Can it match up? Join me next week!

 

WOOD, Benjamin. The Bellwether Revivals. London: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Featured Image: Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge.

http://www.wallpaperdownloader.com/bing-wallpaper/images/name/TrinityCollege_20100921