Review: Sine qua non cocktails (Evenings at Five by Gail Godwin, illustrations by Frances Halsband)

Evenings at Five is a tiny book, about the size of a diary, and scattered with sketches that lend a feeling of intimacy to a story that feels so real I wanted to classify it as autobiography and not fiction when I first read the book. I’ve read it many times since. It has not ceased feeling real and true; it’s the best kind of story – one that catches your breath and snags your heart. But don’t be mistaken, Evenings at Five is not even remotely sentimental. Gail Godwin is a master story-weaver.

Godwin begins, without preamble, with the five-o’clock cocktail ritual. Through actions like Rudy’s “cavalier slosh of the Bombay Sapphire” we meet the man and soon sense his wit and glimpse his moods and passions. We also meet Christina who “would cross her ankles on the Turkish cushions on top of the burled-wood coffee table and train her myopic gaze on Rudy’s long craggy face and familiar form reassuringly present in his Stickley armchair….” Here they connect, nip their tall gin and tonics (on a bad workday or a celebratory one Rudy might sip a scotch) and talk in the intimate way of intimate couples. This is the context in which most of the story unfolds.

The initial sketch shows Rudy’s empty Stickley chair. In fact, all of the sketches illustrate the home and personal things of Rudy and Christina, sans people. We see the “View of below from Christina’s study”; we see many bottles on Rudy’s medicine shelf; we see his downstairs study with the Yamaha grand. (“[H]e bought it the day after he watched Laurence Olivier’s deathbed scene in Brideshead Revisited: ‘What am I waiting for? If not now, when?’”) The home: a companionable room and two studies for a composer and a writer, everything pared down to essentials.

Evenings at Five is about a marriage between two artists (“’ah-tists,’ as the real estate lady who sold us our first house pronounced it”), about loss and grief, loneliness and reflection, and a story of longing for what was. But death is not the end of love; Christina continues the sine qua non cocktails, struggles to cope without Rudy, and reflects:

On some level of consciousness, Christina thought, I must have heard all those years of Rudy’s compositions forming themselves phrase by phrase, probably even note by note, but I told him the truth when I said I didn’t hear, that I was scrunched into some dark soundproof chamber behind my eyeballs, straining for flashes of images that then had to have words matched to them.

And, so, also regret for not being more present and guilt for leaving the hospital.

Perhaps, in the hands of a lesser-skilled writer, Evenings at Five would have become maudlin, given the themes and intense intimacy of the story. In Godwin’s hands, the story sings and evokes authenticity (sorry for this over-used word). As the cover copy states, the novel is “A fierce evocation of what – at some time or another – everyone is bound to endure…An amazing little volume that contains an explosive emotional wallop.”

 

03 Evenings at Five cover

Available through your local bookstore or online: Evenings at Five

 

Review: Where family stories might lead (Palm Trees in the Snow by Luz Gabás; The Bolter by Frances Osborne)

 

Secrets are revealed through old letters and a personal search in Palm Trees in the Snow, as they are in Possession: A Romance (the previous book reviewed). But that is where the similarity of the two stories ends.

Palm Trees is purported to be fiction, but in the Author’s Note readers learn that the novel was “inspired by real events” and informed by Luz Gabás’ father and grandfather’s stories. She writes, “Thanks to their memories, both spoken and written, I knew from a very early age of the existence of the island of Fernando Po and so many other things….” Yet, while the research about place and circumstances feels authentic – Spain’s Rabaltué and the African island – Gabás has difficulty lifting characters and their experiences off the page.

Palm Trees in the Snow is a big ambitious book that was recommended by friends. It attempts to describe Spain’s colonial period on Fernando Po, an island off the coast of Africa, first from a Spanish point-of-view and later the indigenous perspective. The story revolves around two very different brothers, their loves and their children, which makes it a bit of a complicated family saga seen through the eyes of one of the daughters. Unfortunately, Gabás’ characters seldom seem real, the storyline often feels flat, and her sex scenes read like Harlequin Romance. While Gabás has potential for a really good story, she could have used the help of an editor or maybe a reading of Frances Osborne’s The Bolter.

Osborne also sets out to discover family secrets. She succeeds in telling an insightful, page-turning tale. The biography unfolds during a similar African colonial period to that of Gabás’ story, although in this instance England and Kenya.

Like Gabás, Osborne is a granddaughter who discovers her link to a mysterious heritage when she was little more than a child. Idina Sackville was a contemporary of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham (Out of Africa and West with the Night, respectively) but this reference is for context and those book reviews can come another time. Idina Sackville was daring, “her scandals were manifold.” Idira’s behaviour so extravagant, shall we say, she was fictionalized into a Nancy Mitford character; she became Michael Arlen’s Iris Storm, and this year (2017), she appeared as Lady Idina Hay in Wilbur Smith’s War Cry, an adventure story set in post WWI Kenya. Osborne’s challenge was to dig beneath the colourful legend in search of the “whole” woman who was her great grandmother – the black sheep of the family, the woman behind the legend.

Gabás’ ambitious attempt to explore the colonial experience on both colonizers and colonized kept me turning pages despite its frequent textbooklike tone and shallowly-drawn characters; Palm Trees in the Snow is recommended with qualifications. Osborne, on the other hand, creates emotional involvement while her context of the social and cultural values of the time (in both England and Kenya) keeps her storyline focused on character and the pages almost turn themselves; I highly recommend The Bolter.

Books available at your local bookstore or online:

Palm Trees in the Snow

The Bolter

 

Review: “All obsessions are dangerous” (Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt)

“The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time…The book sprang apart, like a box, disgorging leaf after leaf of faded paper….Under page 300 lay two folded complete sheets….They were both letters in Ash’s flowing hand….

I bought Possession: A Romance, by A. S. Byatt (previously read) from the Friends of the Library. It sat on the bedside table, unopened, for a very long time, passed over by others somehow less intimidating. The sepia-tone cover suggests historical romantic – a time-mottled face and dried flowers with just hints of colour – a moody Victorian or Rossetti feel to it. The book is thick, the type small, and the paper thin. It won the 1990 Booker Prize.

The first few pages reflect the denseness I anticipated and I wonder why I continue to read. Then I become curious about draft letters researcher Roland Michell finds in the Reading Room of the London Library and about the man who “borrows” them, not to mention curiosity about their Victorian author and mysterious recipient. I recall my decade working in an English Department, the petty politics, the egos, and the ambitions. I keep reading enjoying the satirical insights, the analysis of Victorian poetry, and the sense of so much hidden in time and shadows, obscured beneath the surface of things.

Two stories weave together: a Victorian-era story of two (fictitious) poets and an illicit love, along with a contemporary pair of academic researchers thrown together by their interests and passions. In both stories, place shifts from London to Lincoln, to northern moors and to Brittany – all atmospheric. Contemporary characters inhabit the lives of the poets that possess them, like alter-egos:  “…it is the constant shape-shifting life of things long-dead but not vanished.” The past is very much alive, the boundary of time blurred. We experience Victorian angst and mores, classics and myths, legends and fairy tales against a backdrop of contemporary intrigue and suppressed desire.

The sleuths move through time and place, crossing a variety of thresholds and being restrained or repressed within others. Byatt writes, “We are defined by the lines we choose to cross or to be confined by” (431). This, perhaps, expresses the overriding theme of the novel.

Overall, Byatt has a bit of fun with stories, poems, and literary criticism and the push to publish, not to mention letters (from intellectual-to-frenzied) in which she wraps Possession. Is this a detective story wrapped in literature, or a literary story wrapped in mystery?

Possession is not a book for everyone, but for those who like period novels and sleuthing, it is a very satisfying read. Its brilliance requires thoughtful patience and a couple of summer days sitting, perhaps, on shady Victorian verandah.

 

Possession-A Romance

Available through your local bookstore, or in a different edition online: Possession