Saturday, 26 September 2009

Historically displaced


'All shall be well; And all shall be well; And all manner of things shall be well' by Tod Wodicka. Now that is an unusual title, and it tells you nothing about the book, though the painting on the cover is very significant as it is the one that Burt carries around in his wallet as if it were a photograph of himself and his son (An old man and his grandson by Domenico Ghirlandaio.)
This is the story of Burt. His life has become so taken up with re-enacting the middle ages that he has reached the point where he hardly lives in the 20th century at all. (At one point he is offered french fries by his german friend and he has not eaten potato for 20 years, it being OOP, 'Out Of Period'.) He meets his wife at a meeting of the historical society where he has invited her mother to speak; it is a turning point in his previously isolated life. So he becomes bound up with her family's history in Lemkovyna, and begins a lifelong war of attrition between his medieval obsession and his mother-in-law's Lemko culture, in which his son Tristan is the battleground. His daughter June opts out of the family by becoming a sci-fi fan who speaks Klingon and is obsessed with geology. Tristan on the other hand, maintains a careful balancing act between his grandmother's culture and his father's re-enactment group, the Confraternity of Times Lost Regained (CTLR).
However Burt is a flawed tragic hero in the true Shakespearian sense. His obsession, originally an intellectual pursuit begins to take over his life. Unless he is forced to go out into the real world he opts to live almost entirely in the 12th Century. Unfortunately his home brewed mead seems to take over his life quite a bit too, and, although the word 'alcoholic' is not mentioned, it has an equally bad effect on his relationships within his family.
At the start of the story his wife has died of cancer, his daughter lives at the other side of the country and his son has disappeared to Poland. Burt is going with a medieval chant group to a festival in Germany but he plans to abandon them to go in search of his son. He seems to know that he is seeking forgiveness but he has been so self absorbed, wrapped up in his history and self-pity for his wife's illness and death, that he is not even sure what he has done wrong. At the same time as his beloved Tristan is trying to escape him, his daughter June is seeking to return to the family home. The problem is, she doesn't know that Burt has sold everything in an attempt to escape the memories of his lost life.
This is a story about history; not just in the literal sense of Burt's obsession, but also how history, both long term and the immediate past, has an ongoing and expanding effect on people. And it is also about how important family history is, often far more than some characters might like to admit. "Families are historical things. ... But they are always happening and you'll never understand them." (p.257) It is the study of this particular family, and how history affects it.
A beautifully written book. I have struggled to write the review because I got so wrapped up in 'The Eyre Affair', such a huge contrast of content and style, that I lost the feeling of what it was that I loved about this book. The opening description of a young girl being closed up in an anchorage was quite shocking, and I suppose symbolic of the way Burt chooses to separate himself from society. It is a slow, quiet book, focussed on the people rather than the action, and with lots of interesting historical detail. Again a book that lets me see inside a world that I know nothing of, so a worthy addition to the list.

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