Sunday, 27 November 2022

Lost Hands, Lost Husbands, Lost Poems

Ok, this has sat around for weeks and weeks unfinished so I am going to give in and just do yet another half-arsed job.

I had high hopes of 'The Fourth Hand' by John Irving after 'A Prayer for Owen Meany' and while I enjoyed it I was not as invested in Patrick as I was with Owen. It is just weird. He loses his hand in a bizarre accident, and manages for ages without, and then this woman practically insists that he have her dead husband's hand. He becomes obsessed with her. It all gets more weird. But somehow he becomes a slightly better person because of it. Having said that I am going to give you this surreal quote, concerning Zajac (Patrick's transplant surgeon), his son Rudy, and their neurotic dog Medea, because who doesn't love a good game of 'dog turd lacrosse':

"Picking up a dog turd with a lacrosse stick, especially on the run, is a lot harder than picking up a lacrosse ball. (Dog turds come in varying sizes and are, on occasion, entangled with grass, or they have been stepped on.) Nevertheless, Rudy had been well coached. And Medea's determination, her powerful lunges against the leash, gave the boy precisely what was needed in the process of mastering any sport - especially 'dog turd lacrosse,' as both father and son called it. Medea provided Rudy with competition.
Any amateur can cradle a dog turd in a lacrosse stick, but try doing it under the pressure of a shit-eating dog; in any sport, pressure is as fundamental a teacher as a good coach. Besides, Medea outweighed Rudy by a good ten pounds and could easily knock the boy down.
'Keep your back to her - attaboy!' Zajac would yell. 'Cradle, cradle - keep cradling! Always know where the river is!'
The river was their goal - the historic Charles. Rudy had two good shots, which his father had taught him. There was the standard over-the-shoulder shot (either a long lob or a fairly flat trajectory) and there was the sidearm shot, which was low to the water and best for skipping the dog turds, which Rudy preferred. The risk with the sidearm shot was that the lacrosse stick passed low to the ground; Medea could block a sidearm shot and eat it in a hurry." (p.68-9)

'On Canaan's Side' by Sebastian Barry, despite it's rather 'Cathering Cookson' cover style was well up to his usual standard. I have read several over the last decade, my most loved being 'A Long Long Way' back in 2012. I love the connections between the books; this one features Lilly who is the younger sister of Willie Dunne, and when she talked about the death of her brother it bought back for me how I felt reading the other book. Lilly falls for an old comrade of her brother's, but political circumstances contrive to force them to flee to America. She lives her life there, fearful and unwilling to contact her family. She loses two husbands but finds herself unexpectedly with a grandson, who's loss punctuates the book as the story goes back and forth between memories and mourning. Barry just manages to make his characters so strong and you care so much about their trials. Again in this book, minor characters also come through as important supporting parts.
"I can actually see some of these old matters. I am here at my table, but I am also combing my hair in the little room I shared with Cassie Blake, away away there in Cleveland. I am using her beloved rat-tail comb. She liked Sweet Georgia Brown hair pomade, and I can smell it as I sit here, sixty years later. And with the smell is conjured lovely Cassie, her backside up in the air as she dug about in her battered trunk for some elusive bit of clothing.
When I was a young child my father gave me a necklace of my mother's. The first thing a child does with a grown-up necklace is burst the thread. The little cultured pearls poured out on the floor, and made a dash for the gaps between the floorboards. He was able to rescue only a half-dozen, and threaded them back forlornly on the necklace.
The others must still be there, a queer memorial to me and my mother, in the darkness.
A long bit of string and six chastened-looking pearls. Maybe my life is a bit like that." (p.95)

Carol Shields is another author I have read and loved (Unless from 2013 and Larry's Party from 2009) and 'Mary Swann' was an immediate pickup in the charity shop. I was very confused by the last part of the book, but actually it turned out ok. The first four parts tell the story of Mary Swann, obscure poet, from the point of view of four people involved in her 'discovery'. So you get engaged in each of those people, and their connection to Mary and each other. The upcoming 'symposium' is discussed throughout, this is where the book is headed, but other things gradually emerge: are people using her to make their own reputation, who actually wrote the poems, are there more poems to be revealed, and why are all the copies of the original collection disappearing? Then the final part reads as a film script, something I have not encountered in a novel before. It was weird to begin with, but then I liked it, because I was visualising the scenes as they were being described, which was an interesting effect. The American edition is entitled 'Swann:  A Mystery', which gives more hint to the structure of the book. Questions are not answered, but the denouement was still satisfying. I also really liked the (imaginary) poems, several of which are included. I give you this, because the book is (partly) about poetry:

"It always seemed something of a miracle to him that poetry did occasionally speak. Even when it didn't he felt himself grow reverent before the quaint magnitude of the poet's intent. When he thought of the revolution of plants, the emergence of species, the balance of mathematics, he could not see that any of these was more amazing than the impertinent human wish to reach into the sea of common language and extract from it the rich dark beautiful words that could be arranged in such a way that the unsayable might be said. Poetry was the prism that refracted all of life. It was Jimroy's belief that the best and worst not human experiences were frozen inside these wondrous little toys called poems. He had been in love with them all his life, and when he looked back to his childhood, something he seldom did, he saw that his early years, those passed before the discovery of poetry, had drifted by empty of meaning. " (p.86)

I have three from the library to be getting on with, though am half way through 'Go Set A Watchman'.

Stay safe. Be kind. Get to bed early.

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