Monday 17 November 2014

Unbreakable cord

On the spur of the moment I went into town on Friday morning to a lunchtime poetry reading at the Central Library. It turned out to be a very brief affair so I wandered down to the lending library that had not been open when I visited for the beta test and I picked up three new books. I find that I don't browse the shelves very often these days; mostly I have something on reserve and I just go in, pick it up, and leave again, so it felt good to choose books more spontaneously.

'Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful' by Deborah Kay Davies won the Wales Book of the Year in 2009, and interestingly is published by Parthian, who also published 'Everything I found on the Beach' by Cynan Jones that I read last month. It is a collection of linked stories that follows the lives of two sisters, Grace and Tamar, through their childhood and adolescence and into adulthood. Because they are short stories there is no ongoing plot, they are incidents in the girls lives, sometimes about their relationship, sometimes concerning their separate existences. They feel on the surface quite mundane, about the kind of petty incidents and annoyances that fill everyone's lives, told with the minutiae that chime intimately with your own recollections of childhood. They are not tales of sunshine and childhood innocence; the parents and then a younger brother remain shadowy, almost irrelevant, features of their lives. And there are sinister undertones to many of the stories, beginning with Tamar's birth and her mother's utter detachment from her new baby and spiralling downwards from there. In this quote Grace has pushed Tamar out of a tree:

"She wasn't at the bottom of the tree. I searched the undergrowth and saw a scrap of gingham. I forced myself through the blackberry bushes and ivy. My arms and legs were stinging from the bramble thorns. She was still. Lying face down. One of her shoes was missing, her sock was hanging halfway off; her bare heel had a pearly sheen. Her hair was like a little crown standing out. Lying there like that, she looked like a different person. I had to turn her over. I did it with my foot. She made a sound as she rolled over onto her back - half a sigh, half my name, Grace. She had a sharp beech twig impaled in her blue, blue eye. I don't know how far it went inside. I don't think very far. Blood was pooling. There were some torn lime-green leaves on the twig. Her unhurt eye was moving. I think she was looking at me." (p.12. From 'The Point')

Tamar survives this incident, and another when she is lured away up the mountain by a stranger. The benign neglect of their parents does not make for wild abandon, but more weird insecurity, where they are forced together and so despise each other. From 'Fun and Games', it is the indifference that really strikes you:

"After lunch there's a silent, intense struggle to get into her sister's room. Grace, reading aloud, rests her entire body weight against the door while Tamar pushes and grunts from outside. When, suddenly, Grace walks away, Tamar tumbles in and crashes against the bedside table. She hurts her knee, but that doesn't matter. She's there. Climbing onto her sister's bedroom windowsill, she drums with bare feet against the chest of drawers. Stop that, Grace says, without interest, still reading as she does her skirt up. Why don't you go for one of your long walks and never come back? Go and play with a brick, you'd like that. Tamar feels she should continue. Go and kick your own stuff, Grace says. Or I'll kick you. Hard. She picks up her brush and begins to listlessly sort out her hair, still reading." (p.39-40)

The childhood they share leads inevitably to a sense of dislocation and isolation from others: Tamar's stories become futile attempts to find connection while Grace falls inevitably into a marriage with yet another shadowy person:

"Grace is walking down the aisle. Her sister is her bridesmaid. Earlier she had sat on the bench against the pine trees in her wedding dress and waited for her family to be ready. Tamar had come out and sat with her, both of them in their long dresses. Tamar read a magazine. Neither had spoken; they'd just waited. Through the smell of pine Grace could sense her own perfume rising from inside the neck of her dress as her body warmed. She thought about its glowing colour and the facets of light in the darkened bedroom, about the layers of chiffon spread out on the bed. Grace feels she has turned her back on many things. This is the day Grace is getting married, she told the morning garden as she walked towards the beckoning asparagus fern. What she really meant was, Grace is getting away, never coming back. No one else came out to see Grace in the garden. They had stayed inside the house. To Grace her family all looked like more beautiful replicas of themselves. When she kissed them at breakfast, they felt unyielding, chilly." (p.95-6. From 'Negligee')

What I admired was how she manages to get words on the page to describe what would be a momentary flash of memory. This one, from 'Wood', seems to sums up their whole childhood:

"She remembers the liver days when she was a child. The backs of her bare legs stuck to the plastic kitchen seat as she tried to cut offal into small grey triangles. She remembers slipping them through her lips. The liver crumbled like sour dust in her mouth. She smiles as she thinks about Grace retching like a fussy cat, tears flying from her eyes. Both of them getting sent to their rooms again. She remembers the precious one slurping up his soup and soft, floury rolls. Suddenly she wants to eat thin slices of cucumber and ripe tomato; maybe cold smoked fish and wobbly mayonnaise. The odour of the next door's food is the colour of gravy. She looks around for another table." (p.129-30)

The bond between siblings, I assume it is something the same for brothers, is a very subtle thing. You share things with them that you cannot compare to friendship, so there is no surprise when the final story finds the two of them in a cafe, Tamar reciting a recurring dream of a baby being born:

"We are both crying silently. I look around; several people are staring at us. The first waiter who served Tamar is walking towards our table, his eyes fixed almost hungrily on her face. I turn to look back at her. She obviously has no interest in our surroundings. She will not let me go. In the dream you tell me we have to cut the cord, she says. She squeezes me even harder, the now brown of her eyes glittering with tears. But you see, she says, shaking my clasped hands, this cord, we can never break it, can we?" (p.142. From 'Cords')

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