Dear friends and readers,
For years now I have found relief and snatches of some inexplicable gratification when I have landed in a novel I can read anywhere and at any time, late at night, on a train, waiting for a bus, one to carry around with me so as to be a friend. The first four of the Winston Graham Poldark novels worked that way for me. Austen did that for years and years. I am one of those people for whom books are my friends. Such books are not easy for me to locate as reviews are often so distorted (often omitting the very feature that makes the book most worthwhile), it’s difficult to pick out just the sort of thing I’m after.
Well, for the past couple of weeks or so, I’ve had two, have been alternating between P.D. James’s A Time to Be in Earnest and Mick Jackson’s The Widow’s Tale. Tonight I’ll recommend Jackson’s drag-heroine — a term used sometimes when the author is male but personates centrally a female so well that you forget the author is not a female (Colm Toibin pulls this off again and again, e.g., The South, Brooklyn); come back another day for James’s diary-as-autobiography.
The Widow’s Tale is flawed but the truest text I’ve read about what it is to lose a beloved partner-, companion, husband, wife, friend who’ve you been with for a long since I read Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking and Donald Hall’s Without. Nuland’s How we Die, a great book about the experience of death and intense loss, is more like a science sermon, author-as-modern pastor-doctor helping you go through stages of death in order to understand and by doing that accept. Nuland seeks to assuage, Didion and Jackson act out. Jackson has caught what are the real feelings of a person grieving over the death of a beloved partner of many years — at the same time as he makes acceptable comedy. I found myself laughing.
I can talk about it best by pointing to Hilary Mantel’s unfair review for the Guardian.
After recording an initial very favorable response, and describing the novel’s qualities well, by the time Mantel gets to the end, she is dissing the book utterly. I did not realize how harsh it was until I read it the second time — and had finished the novel. My gut response is to say — yes what Mantel pointed to is a flaw at the same time as her hostility comes out of some deep mainstream longing for the sensible (which comes down to enacting the normative).
First where she’s spot on. The novel is coy. Mantel complained we are not told where the widow has escaped to. At first I thought it didn’t matter — the experience was universal or general thought I. We are never told the heroine’s name. So maybe this is realism — like in the 18th century when one had dashes. But when at no time do we learn how John, the husband died, only that it was sudden, that’s too much. That Jackson won’t tell us that deprives him of real content. Widows and widowers think about how the person died, incessantly. Maybe that’s why he had to substitute the affair – where we do learn the lover’s name and the husband’s.
Mantel, however, did not complain about the bringing in of an affair — with one Paul — that she remembers. The affair rang false. I just didn’t believe the character as presented would have done this, and felt or remembered suddenly this was a fiction. It feels like a memoir up to then, like it’s non-fiction. I thought this male author fears not enough is happening, I’ll get bored, he needs to entertain me — or this discourse is too much of one thing which just may arouse contempt and impatience. And that’s what I suggest Mantel’s response ended up being — scornful, impatient.
It ends well — at least I thought so. It becomes apparent that the marriage was not happy. What an irony that she should grieve so anyway, be cut off anyway, shunned, reduced to the widow’s exclusion, the individual’s life with cats. That’s why we are told that she had an affair — and John seemed not to know: they were semi-estranged. Then she was dumped by Paul for a previous girlfriend who had left him, and now she thinks she is seeing him from afar with his new family. It could be, but it turns out not so.
She (I keep thinking of the author as a she) is showing the lengths desperate cut-offness from other people that the world inflicts on widows within a few weeks, at best a couple of months, after the death, is so intolerable. She wanted this to be a family she was deprived of, some group to relate to deeply. It’s when she realizes she’s been following a family she doesn’t know at all that she decides to return to London.
Jackson then cannot resist a mild but effective affirmation as she stands looking out at the water one last time, the sand, remembers maps of the city she is now returning to. Here is the passage which is also representative of the quality and tone of the novel, its stance:
The sand was firm now, and I could hear the sea way off in the distance, booming and roaring. A quite incredible sound. Halfway there, I remember stopping and taking my shoes and socks off, so that I could actually feel the sand, cold and damp beneath my feet. And, another ten or fifteen minutes later, I could feel how the sand had formed into ripples. Could feel the balls of my feet catch them as I walked. And the booming of the waves was an almighty noise now, and you could smell the salt and dampness in the air.
Then suddenly I was at the water’s very edge and cold, cold water was under my feet and rushing round my ankles. Thirty or forty yards out the waves came crashing down and the foam came in, spreading over the flattened water. Came sweeping in all around me.
I still don’t know what I was after. I was all tangled up inside myself. In fact, I think I started to pick over the things I’d been worrying about back at the cottage. Started to rake over the embers of my anxieties. And was doing a pretty good job of breathing some life back into them; – when something happened. As I stood there, watching those huge waves rolling and crashing, at the very end of my tether. Just when I felt that I’d had quite, quite enough … It was as if I had the briefest glimpse of some universal force at war incredible power and infinite grace, which obliterated thought or worry I might ever have. I might almost, in that instant, I finally found myself obliterated — or removed. Which was not the least bit terrifying … And that there might be a place for me in it.
This morning, in the cold light of day, I could rationalise the whole strange experience by saying that, standing before the waves and beneath the stars, I’d simply been overwhelmed or reassured … Or that when one is panicking there comes a point when one’s mind and body have simply had enough, and the panic suddenly runs out of steam. Some chemical is released into the bloodstream … But that’s not it … It was over in a fraction of a second. It was just that I’d had this glimpse of something. Then I was back there, with my feet in the water, clutching my shoes, and wondering what on earth had just gone on.
And she goes back to her cottage, continues her packing thinking when she goes home she will have the goal of getting through each day to sustain her. That’s how it is all right.
I regret the novel didn’t win the Booker, was only shortlisted, but suspect many ordinary readers’ reactions would be worse than Mantel so like the attempt to create understanding for autistic people and more acceptance and help (which has backfired and made the average person use the autistic label for their idea of the wholly unacceptable or monstrous) telling reality will end in hostility, dissing. If more attention were paid to what it is showing it’d do no good. Didion and Hall are respected as they have the cover of non-fiction; Nuland was a physician. Better give the prize to Beryl Bainbridge (which they do one year for a feeble book) after all she knows the right people who will be pleased and praise the prize.