Monday 11 November 2019

A Keeper of Sheep

'A Keeper of Sheep' by William Carpenter was recommended by Juliet over at Crafty Green Poet a while ago and I found a copy on eBay. It tells the story of Penguin who is thrown out of college for attempting to burn down a fraternity house after a gang rape. She goes home to her father's summer house to contemplate her future and finds herself drawn into the life of her neighbour Joshua, an uncle figure who has been part of her life since childhood. She begins to form a friend of her father's new, much younger, wife, but decides that keeping her as a parental figure is preferable. As it gradually becomes clear to the local, rather conservative, community the nature of the illness of Joshua's houseguest tensions begin to rise, and a confrontation is stirred up by some members of the community who wish to profit from draining a local mosquito-ridden marshland area that is part of the communal land ownership. Against a background of evening cocktail parties Penguin begins to feel ostracised because of her growing loyalty to Albert, and in addition has to contend with the increasingly intrusive sexual attention from a local garage owner. 

Listening to birdsong and Albert's avant-garde composition Penguin takes on a philosophical mood:

"So I lay there a long time listening to the thrush and the chords growing more and more discordant until you'd think something would break and I thought what? What more was there to be broken, what in the universe remained to be destroyed? I had been born into a world disassembled by war, then dissected by universal divorce. Now, in this so-called time of peace, it was being eaten by a disease, a disease we thought we could save ourselves from through straight behaviour or armor-plating ourselves with rubber shields, so that only the evil or reckless ones would be exposed. My father was right, though. we're interconnected. As long as one person is suffering from this, we are all suffering. You couldn't protect yourself by being  woman, either, or any kind of division into we the healthy and they the diseased." (p.88)

She comes back to this place, so symbolic of her childhood, and uncovers the adult world in the space of a few months. She seems to test the water as she hops back and forth between her father's house where she is still considered a child, and Joshua and Albert who treat her as a fully-fledged adult. In the spirit of a coming of age story her concerns are both so practical and so metaphysical. I liked her for it, she takes her consideration of life very seriously. 

"I showed Sleezy and Robin the two cots in Dorothy's empty studio. Bondo announced he was going to crash. He shook the sand ritually out of each shoe and organised his sleeping bag on top of the couch. I went to my room and opened Fernando Pessoa.

I wrap myself in a blanket and don't even think of thinking.
Feeling creature comforts and dimly thinking.
I fall asleep with no less purpose than anything else going on in the world.

Robin interrupted my reading by knocking at the door. I said to come in.
- You mean you guys don't even sleep in the same room? Robin whispered.
- It's not that kind of relationship.
- We live and learn, she said. You two looked like the romance of the late twentieth century.
She closed the door. I lay there considering ways to kill Jerry Perera without actually hurting him, thinking about Arnold next door in his endless climb towards death, and wondering what it would taste like to sleep with someone who had just thrown up." (p.253) 

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