Autumn Rounds – Jacques Poulin (tr. Sheila Fischman)

Autumn Rounds was my first foray into the works of the Canadian author Jacques Poulin, and I enjoyed it so much that I’m keen to explore more of his work, which like this one has been published by the excellent Archipelago Books.

Autumn Rounds is a subtle, beguiling novel about books and nature, a meditation on forming connections and finding love late in life that has the feel of a travelogue, both charming and melancholy at the same time.

Our protagonist is an older man called the Driver whose job involves lending books. He has a milk van now converted into a bookmobile, and he makes three trips every year, visiting the small villages between Quebec City and the North Shore. No longer in his prime, this could very well be one of the Driver’s final trips during the year.

The book opens on the eve of the Driver embarking on his summer tour. He hears faint notes of music drifting into his room, and when he heads out for a walk, he comes across a motley crew of performers – musicians, acrobats, jugglers – putting on a show on the streets for the audience. But then he chances upon Marie, the group’s manager of sorts, with “a beautiful face like Katharine Hepburn’s, a mixture of tenderness and strength”, and the attraction is immediate prompting them to strike up a conversation.

The Driver is entranced by Marie and her troupe, and they in turn are enamoured by the idea of a bookmobile, and soon an agreement is reached wherein the troupe will follow the same route taken by the Driver on his summer tour. The Driver arranges for a school bus for Marie and her crew for the purpose of this trip and they are all ready to set off.

While the Driver’s bookmobile and the school bus broadly halt at the same villages, they are not always together during their journey. Sometimes, the Driver would arrive at a village and find the band members already present putting on a show, at other times he is the one to reach first always looking to spot Marie.

Meanwhile, at the villages, the Driver enjoys meeting the network leaders who drop off previously borrowed books and collect new ones for their readers. Occasionally, individual readers pay the Driver a visit with the sole purpose of borrowing books. The Driver is a kind man; he lends the books to all sorts of readers and does not make a big deal about books not returned, his motto is to not deny any one the delights of reading.

That’s really the basic premise of the books and what makes it such a joy to read is the burgeoning relationship between the Driver and Marie, it is so nuanced and understated, really beautifully rendered. The conversations between them are the most striking feature of this novel; the two share a spontaneous connection fuelled by common interests as they discuss books, life, Paris and the iconic bookstore Shakespeare & Company, and the majestic landscapes unfurling around them…and it’s immediately obvious to the reader that they are steadily falling in love, a relationship replete with possibilities even when both are a little past middle age.

The power, bliss and comfort of books is one of the central themes of the novel. At every village where the Driver stops and meets the network coordinators, we are given an enticing glimpse of the books chosen – some are well known works such as The Little Prince, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, others are a slew of French poets, a few titles are in French, not yet translated but fascinating nonetheless.

“With the row of windows, it reminds me of the sun porch that we had when I was a child. That’s where I discovered books. It was a very special place.”

He described the long sun porch with the bookshelves at either end, the wicker chairs, the small desk, and the row of windows with a shelf underneath where you could rest your feet. The porch was closed in winter and opened again in the spring, as soon as the sun was warm enough. He’d spent part of his childhood reading in that room flooded with light, sitting in a deep armchair with his feet resting on the window ledge. And over time, because the sun had brightened him and warmed him while he was reading, his mind had associated light with books.

“That’s why I wasn’t surprised later on when I saw Shakespeare and Company in Paris one autumn evening, with the golden light that came from the books and spread into the blue night. It confirmed what I’d known since I was a child. Do you understand?”

Occasionally there are streaks of anxiety and melancholia that come to the fore. The Driver is at times consumed with ‘dark thoughts’ and confesses some of his fears to Marie. He frets about growing old and increasingly feels that he can’t cope with a body that is gradually on the decline. There are even moments when he feels utterly lost, but he finds comfort in talking to Marie who patiently hears him out. There is one particular set piece where a young reader asks for books that he can’t provide (“a book that answers questions on why we live, why we die”), an encounter that deeply disturbs him.

The vibrant landscapes of the route between bustling Quebec city to the remote North Shore is suffused with the texture of a travelogue, it pulsates with the atmosphere of an alluring road trip punctuated with impromptu picnics.

While he was recounting these stories the landscape had changed. The narrow paved road was now squeezed in between the sea and a hill that was getting steeper and steeper. The tide was out and Marie was driving very slowly so as not to lose sight of the sometimes strange rocky formations that bristled from the sandbar. At L’Anse-Pleureuse they drove off Highway 132 and went to a rest stop along a river, on the road to Murdochville. They chose the picnic table closest to an embankment covered with closely mown grass that sloped gently down towards a lake; it was just a small lake formed by a dam on the river but the water, which was very calm, was emerald green.

The Driver stretched out on the embankment near a tight clump of birch trees, while Marie sat at the table to write postcards. Gradually some black clouds gathered above them and a breeze that heralded rain made the leaves of the birches and the surface of the lake shiver.

Autumn Rounds, then, is an ode to the simple pleasures of life – leisurely picnics on sandy coves or by the lakes; simple food and good wine; enjoying hot mugs of coffee in a cabin full of books; reveling in unexpected friendships and simple conversations.

After a fifteen-minute wait, a boat came to pick them up and they went back to the campground in Percé. Contrary to their usual prac- tice they ate in a restaurant that night, took a long walk, and went into some stores; Marie bought herself a blue sweater with a hood. They took boundless pleasure in doing little things together.

Inside the van the air was cool and damp, so they burned some alcohol and made hot chocolate. Again, they drank their chocolate sitting on the floor, facing one another and with their backs against the shelves of books.

It’s a bittersweet, quietly powerful novel, a soothing balm for the soul, and there’s something about the goodness and kindness of the people within its pages that touches the heart. Very much recommended!

Trespasses – Louise Kennedy

I first came across Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses when it was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards this year, a stellar list that also includes Audrey Magee’s brilliant novel, The Colony. Trespasses is Kennedy’s first novel and it is an impressive debut indeed, prompting me to immediately purchase her short story collection, The End of the World is a Cul de Sac.

Trespasses is a sensitively written, gut-wrenching tale of forbidden love and fractured communities set during the Troubles.

The setting is mid 1970s Northern Ireland, a small town a few miles away from Belfast. Our protagonist 24-year old Cushla Lavery is Catholic, a school teacher by profession and in the evenings volunteers as a bartender at the family pub now managed and run by her brother Eamonnh. It is an agreement between brother and sister that while he takes on the responsibility of the day to day running of the pub, Cushla takes it upon her to look after their mother Gina who is quickly transforming into a raging alcoholic.

It is during one of her evening stints at the pub that she first meets Michael Agnew, a Protestant barrister defending IRA criminals, who subtly comes to her rescue when she is at the receiving end of some unwelcome, loutish behaviour of one of the regular customers. Nothing much happens on that particular evening and things go on as usual, but Michael leaves an impression on Cushla; she is entranced by his personality and instantly attracted to him.

But there’s a problem. Not so much the age (in his 50s, Michael is more than twice Cushla’s age) but the fact that he is a Protestant when Cushla is Catholic – the difference in faith a critical explosive factor at the height of the Troubles when such unions were deemed unthinkable. As if the stark contrast in religious background were not enough, Cushla and Michael come from different socio-economic spheres; in terms of wealth and class they are poles apart. Michael is sophisticated, cultured, discerning, wealthy and privileged. Cushla has a working class upbringing with none of the panache and style so synonymous with Michael’s social set.

There are other complications. Michael is married with a grown up son. Despite it all, Michael and Cushla are increasingly drawn to each other and under the pretext of teaching the Irish language to him and his circle of friends, Cushla begins to see him frequently. Ultimately, they embark on a whirlwind, torrid affair; an illicit relationship that has to remain a secret at all costs given the highly charged, volatile political environment and escalating tensions all around them.

The Northern Ireland troubles form a potent landscape against which this love story plays out, where people are judged by their identity at birth and religious affiliations; they are defined by what they are and not by what they do, the dangers and limitations of being pigeonholed imminent with no room whatsoever for nuance.

That the violence has become a part of daily life and has been deeply ingrained into the psyche of ordinary people is disturbingly evident in Cushla’s classroom as well. Part of the syllabus requires a discussion of current affairs and many of the chapters begin with the students matter-of-factly narrating the latest incidents of violence, bombings, and death as if disconcertingly they are a natural part of daily life.

Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a seven- year-old child now.

Enmeshed into these storylines is another sub plot – one of Cushla’s students Davy McGeown comes from a family that has regularly been the object of ridicule and racial slurs in the neighbourhood further complicated by his parents’ mixed marriage – the mother is Protestant while the father is Catholic. While their small town is reputed to be much more tolerant than the big Irish cities, the spectre of hate is never far behind and the McGowan family often bears the brunt of this hatred (culminating in a brutal attack on the father who is left to die) so much so that acts of kindness towards the family increasingly begin to be viewed through a prism of suspicion.

As the novel progresses, these various threads and storylines merge and move towards a conclusion that is truly poignant and heartbreaking.

The novel throbs with a panoply of themes – forbidden love, the unbridgeable wealth and class divides, the austere unforgiving face of religion, divisive politics, sudden eruption of violence intertwined with the mundane, a sense of communal harmony driven by small acts of kindness…but more importantly the devastating impact of protracted hostility and simmering tensions on a community that is already on tenterhooks but is desperately trying to live normally. The title feels apt given that in so many ways the book is an exploration of the consequences of crossing rigidly defined boundaries and venturing into unchartered territories.

Kennedy’s characters are wonderfully drawn and fully realised; they feel so authentic and real and she has expertly depicted the complexities of their personalities further elevated by the difficulty of their situations. Cushla is a respected, well-liked teacher, caring and popular with her students. However, the assurance and self-possession she displays in her professional life is not always mirrored in her personal life where she often feels out of depth. Her strained relationship with her mother Gina, a bitter and resentful woman, is exacerbated by the latter’s incessant drinking and Cushla is at her wits end when it comes to tackling this problem.

The one thing that Cushla and Gina have in common is a sense of community spirit as they go out of their way to assist the McGeowns during their period of crisis, actions that will ominously come back to haunt them.  

Michael Agnew’s persona is also excellently conveyed – passionate about his cause, intelligent, empathetic and vulnerable. It would be easy to dismiss him as a cad – he is after all a married man having an extramarital affair, but it is to the author’s credit that despite his flaws it becomes difficult not to feel for him. Michael is clearly in love with Cushla even when she remains doubtful of their relationship which has doom written all over it, and the class differences do not bother him in the way it troubles Cushla.

The steady unfurling of their relationship is beautifully rendered by Kennedy with all the doubts, longing, passion, complications, fears likely to form the substance of such a secret liaison; how Cushla is often consumed by yearning for Michael, periods of silence when she hears nothing from him, the pressing need to keep their affair a secret and yet the excitement fueled by its very danger, not to mention the conflicting emotions rooted deep within her of how unalike they are in many ways. At some level, Cushla aspires for a better life, the kind led by Michael and yet she can’t help feeling like an outsider in the company of his upper class friends.

A slow meal, lulls between courses when he asked to see the wine list and noisily sloshed their recommendations around in his mouth. She thought of the lunch at Easter that degenerated into a row, how little they cared about what they ate, the crumble untouched amidst the main-course plates. Her gut burned with want. That she might get away from her family, her mother, and be with this man.

Sounds she could feel on her skin. His voice. Silver tinkling against porcelain. Corks popping. He said the last time he ate here Stanley Kubrick was at a table in the corner. He had been in Dublin filming Barry Lyndon. The IRA sent him a death threat, ordering him to leave in twenty-four hours; he left in twelve. Maybe there were too many scenes of redcoat encampments, he said, British soldiers tramping around Ireland, Union Jacks billowing behind them. His actor friend, the man who was in A Clockwork Orange, said some of it had been filmed by candlelight and it looked like an Old Master. Michael couldn’t wait to see it. The chiaroscuro. The slowness of it. We’ll come back when the film is released, he said, go to see it in one of the big cinemas. We can eat here again, maybe in the winter when they serve wild things.

We’ll.

Trespasses, then, is a nuanced, gorgeously written tale of a passionate sensual affair, of ordinary people trying to lead a normal life amid extraordinary circumstances. A richly layered and brilliantly observed novel written with care and a lot of heart, this is straightforward, linear storytelling that has nothing showy about it; its biggest strength are the characters that wonderfully come alive on the pages. Suffused with an air of tenderness, quiet anguish, compassion, fragility, and aching sadness, this is a novel that leaves a lingering impact long after the final pages are turned. Highly recommended!

Ethan Frome & Summer – Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is one of my favourite authors as can be gauged from the number of books I have reviewed on this blog – The Custom of the Country, The House of Mirth, Old New York, and The New York Stories. Her best novel in my view – The Age of Innocence – I had read pre-blog, and one I hope to reread and review in the near future. But this post focuses on Ethan Frome and Summer, two novellas that boast of the same emotional depth and intensity as her New York novels and stories.

ETHAN FROME

Ethan Frome is a brilliant, dark, wintry tale of doomed love set in a remote New England town, a starkly different setting from Wharton’s classic, old New York.

When the book opens, we are in Starkfield, Massachusetts; a bleak, remote town characterized by winters so bitterly cold that they only accentuate a person’s sense of loneliness and isolation. Our narrator is a young man, visiting Starkfield for a short period on some urgent business. On his way to the post office driven by Harmon Gow, his glance falls upon the pitiable, weighed down profile of Ethan Frome for the first time…

It was there that, several years ago, I saw him (Frome) for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the “natives” were easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed: it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of a lameness checking each step like a jerk of chain. There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was surprised to hear that he was not more than fifty-two.

He also notices other features on Frome’s face, features that indicate a hard life lived, but with meager explanations provided by Gow, the aura of mystery around Frome only deepens. For instance, we learn of a red gash across Frome’s forehead which in the past is a result of an accident or a “smash-up.” We are told that accident had also “shortened and warped his right side”, so that it was an effort for Frome to take the few steps from his buggy to the post office window.

Information on Frome from the residents is cryptic, not shedding much light on the extent of his calamity or the reason for the defeated expression on his face (“That man touch a hundred? He looks as if her was dead and in hell now!”).

An unexpected offer from Frome to drive our narrator to his workplace on a particularly stormy, snowy night followed by an invitation to his home gives our narrator a clearer picture of Frome’s tormented past, a tale that the narrator then communicates to us readers (“It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story…”).

Rewind back twenty-five years and Ethan Frome is a young, strong man barely making ends meet.  Harbouring dreams of pursuing studies in science, those plans are thwarted by his father’s death and a host of misfortunes thereafter. Forced to subsequently take care of his mother as well as the family mill and farm, Frome becomes tied down in Starkfield with no hope of escape.  Meanwhile, the mill and farm hardly contribute much to the income, reducing the Frome household to a perpetual state of penury.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Zeena, Ethan’s wife, a hypochondriac, who for the most part of the day is to be found lying in her bedroom beset by a host of illnesses, for which she is on a quest to find a cure. These treatments are an additional burden on Frome, who is struggling as it is to get through the days. It is easy to discern that Ethan and Zeena are estranged in a way, Zeena’s continuous whining and complaining begins to take a toll on Ethan.

In this bleak, despondent household comes Mattie Silver like a breath of fresh air…to Ethan. Mattie is Zeena’s cousin (not closely related), and she finds a place in the Frome household to help Zeena with the housework and to do most of the heavy lifting because of Zeena’s lack of strength. This arrangement works to Zeena’s advantage – she can keep Mattie without paying her because of the latter’s father’s unsavoury past which left him heavily indebted to Zeena’s extended family and relatives.

Mattie is a lively, sensual, joyous young woman and Ethan falls head over heels in love with her and relishes the moments he can spend alone with her, however, frugal. It would seem that after traversing a darkened, suffocating tunnel of poverty, thwarted ambitions, and a dead marriage, he would finally embrace a spot of brightness at the end of it, a slim chance for happiness. But a little domestic mishap destroys that sliver of hope and as if life wasn’t already hard enough for Ethan, a cruel twist of fate in the final pages delivers the ultimate crushing blow.

Ethan Frome, then, is a devastating tale of a wretched marriage, a romance nipped in the bud as well as a brilliant character study of a man defeated by forces beyond his control, and the cruelty of fate.

It’s a very atmospheric read where the weather plays a dominant role in shaping up the lives of the principal characters. The bleakness of the harsh cold winters that gets under your skin, the feeling of being cut off from the world as heavy snowfalls blanket the region transforming it into an expanse of white, only heighten Ethan’s loneliness compelling him to make a bad decision of marrying Zeena. Indeed, Zeena was brought in to nurse Ethan’s ailing mother but once the mother dies during one such deep winter, he mistakenly believes that marrying Zeena is a better alternative than spending the rest of his days alone in this remote town where the cold is so unforgiving.

The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations.

Ethan’s plight is heartbreaking and poignant all the more so because of his gentle, helpful personality which unleashes a wave of sympathy and sadness in the reader. And he finds himself at the mercy of Zeena who while is not always physically around because of being locked up in her room, is nevertheless perceptive about the goings-on in the house in her absence.

Wharton’s writing is impeccable as ever, her vision for this novella is unremittingly bleak but she infuses such depth in her characters so as to make the narrative utterly compelling. A slim novel with a big impact.

SUMMER

Summer is also set in a New England town but during the blazing days of summer with Wharton herself calling this sensual, sensory novella the “hot” Ethan. Often considered a companion piece to Ethan Frome, this novella is a tale of a young woman’s sexual and social awakening.

Our protagonist is Charity Royall, a young, attractive woman residing in the small, puritanical town of North Dormer with her guardian Mr Royall. The book opens with her emerging from the Royall house on a translucent July afternoon where “the springlike transparent sky shed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village.” Her glance falls on a young man who rushes to retrieve his hat which has fallen in the duck pond, a man she has never seen before…

As he ran to fish it out the girl on lawyer Royall’s doorstep noticed that he was a stranger, that he wore city clothes, and that he was laughing with all his teeth, as the young and careless laugh at such mishaps.

We learn that Charity has been residing in North Dormer since she was five years old. A dull place, remote from everything else, she sometimes wonders what people from other parts of the world could possibly think of it. Charity realizes that her worldview is very narrow when for the first time she travels by rail to the nearby bigger towns of Hepburn and Nettleton. Having experienced the pleasures of theatre and fancy glass plated shops in those towns, Charity begins to feel increasingly disillusioned with her claustrophobic life.

That journey makes her realize that there’s a bigger world beyond, and this unleashes a thirst for information. She takes advantage of her position of a library custodian to read as much as possible, but soon the sheen of Nettleton wears off and Charity once again settles into her present staid life.

But then comes along the young man, Lucius Harney, and once again that wave of discontent rises in Charity as she is forced to admit how small and limited her existence is.

Meanwhile, Lucius Harney is residing with Mrs Hatchard (they are cousins), and has arrived in North Dormer because he is interested in the architecture of this town. On his visit to the library, he notices Charity for the first time and is so struck by her beauty that he willing to brush aside Charity’s ignorance of the requirements of her job.

After some misunderstandings between the two, Harney and Charity embark on a passionate affair that unfurls over the course of a hazy, languid summer.

All her tossing contradictory impulses were merged in a fatalistic acceptance of his will. It was not that she felt in him any ascendency of character – there were moments already when she knew she was the stronger – but that all the rest of life had become a mere cloudy rim about the central glory of their passion. Whenever she stopped thinking about that for a moment she felt as she sometimes did after lying on the grass and staring up too long at the sky; her eyes were so full of light that everything about her was a blur.

Meanwhile, there’s Mr Royall with whom Charity has a very complicated relationship. Sort of like a father figure to her, Mr Royall is also prone to spells of debauchery and he makes no mistake about his romantic interest in Charity with hopes of converting their relationship to that of husband and wife. Thus, Charity’s feelings are transformed overnight from pity to contempt when Mr Royall first makes his inclinations clear.

Wharton’s depiction of a sultry, languorous summer is so evocative, the portrayal of an Impressionist painting setting where the romantic and sexual relationship of Harney and Charity plays out. For a girl like Charity whose social sphere is so restricted, her affair with Harney is sort of a rebirth and she is drunk with joy. The two arrange to meet secretly and regularly at a secluded empty house to spend time together, and while North Dormer would consider this arrangement scandalous (“She had lived all her life among people whose sensibilities seemed to have withered for lack of use”), Charity simply does not care (“She had always thought of love as something confused and furtive, and he (Harney) made it as bright and open as the summer air”).

She was always glad when she got to the little house before Harney. She liked to have time to take in every detail of its secret sweetness – the shadows of the apple-trees swaying on the grass, the old walnuts rounding their domes below the road, the meadows sloping westward in the afternoon light – before his first kiss blotted it all out. Everything unrelated to the hours spent in that tranquil place was as faint as the remembrance of a dream. The only reality was the wondrous unfolding of her new self, the reaching out to the light of all her contracted tendrils.

Summer, then, is a bold, beautiful novella, not just of a woman’s sexual awakening but also of class differences and the paucity of choices available to women. From the outset, Charity is made aware of her origins, a fearful place called the Mountain whose residents are steeped in poverty and allegedly lack morals. Mr Royall makes no qualms about deriding Charity’s mother, branding her a loose woman. Having never met her mother or even visited the Mountain, to Charity it’s a place that signifies menace and terror but at the same time she remains a bit curious.

In sharp contrast, Lucius Harney is a cultured, well-educated man and in the course of their passionate tryst, Charity often realizes how out of depth she is with a person of Lucius’ class – she is pretty enough to attract him, but naive and unworldly otherwise. Charity also experiences jealousy whenever she thinks of her peer or rival Annabel Balch, who may not be as stunning as Charity, but has the benefits of class and privilege that are beyond Charity’s grasp.

As with Wharton’s novellas, in Summer too, there is an undercurrent of darkness that lurks beneath the façade of a joyous, carefree, sizzling summer and Charity’s fate is sealed in a way that may not be as cruel as the one dealt to Ethan Frome, but still a situation that suggests an uneasy compromise.

TO CONCLUDE…

Ethan Frome and Summer and deviate from the Wharton’s New York novels in many aspects – both these novellas focus on the working class set in provincial towns as opposed to the wealthy upper and middle class milieu of New York. But in terms of the weight of emotional power they remain on an equal footing. Both these tragic novellas are potent in the way they depict repressed desires that have far reaching consequences on the fates of their protagonists.

Mrs Caliban – Rachel Ingalls

Mrs Caliban was one of the books I had carried with me to a much needed holiday in Goa; the beach, the waves and the leisurely pace of the hours stretching before me only enhanced the joy of reading this terrific book.

About twenty pages into Mrs Caliban, Dorothy Caliban is busy in the kitchen making preparations for dinner. Fred, her husband, has invited a colleague over and the two are in the living room discussing work. This dinner having been sprung on her last minute, Dorothy makes it clear that the party will have to make do with spaghetti and salad and Fred relents. It’s a very ordinary scene – a housewife bustling about in the kitchen, cooking and assembling dishes, but suddenly this very ordinary moment is transformed into something extraordinary. Dorothy whirls around and sees an amphibian creature, a frogman, barging into the kitchen.

She was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.

This is the very same frogman who has escaped from the research institute he was imprisoned in with repeated warnings given over the radio on how violent he is since he had killed two scientists while breaking free. After the initial flash of shock and fright, Dorothy regains her composure and offers the frogman some celery since he is ravenous and later installs him in a room downstairs, a place that Fred barely visits, and thus a secret Dorothy can keep till she figures out what to do next.

On the strength of such a wonderfully novel idea, Mrs Caliban, then, is a tale of the disintegration of a marriage, love and sexual freedom, grief and loss, friendship and betrayal, and the re-invention of a woman having hit rock bottom.

Our protagonist is Dorothy, a housewife residing in the suburbs of California stuck in a stagnant, loveless marriage. With the unexpected death of their son, Scotty, during a routine operation as well as a miscarriage thereafter, Dorothy is tormented by grief and despair. Her relationship with Fred has reached breaking point. Resentment brews between the two as they silently blame each other for these twin tragedies. The sense of hopelessness has reached a stage where both are too tired to even divorce. And so they stumble along…staring into an uncertain future.

During those days there were times when Dorothy would lean her head against the wall and seem to herself to be no longer living because she was no longer a part of any world in which love was possible.

Dorothy’s days are filled with household chores, frequent shopping trips, cooking meals; tasks that lack variety and signify mind-numbing tedium. The demarcation between days seems blurred pushing her into a state of apathy. A part of her is even aware that Fred is sleeping with other women, but she is now indifferent. She does derive some joy from her friendship with Estelle, a divorced woman with two grown-up children, and the two women often spending time together chatting about themselves and their lives, discussing their problems and providing each other emotional support.

Whenever she was with Estelle, Dorothy became louder, more childish and happier than when she was with anyone else.

But when one day, Larry, the frogman, lands in Dorothy’s kitchen, her life alters unexpectedly and in ways she has not imagined.

Dorothy is aware of Larry’s history from bits she has gleaned from the radio news. Having been captured from the Gulf of Mexico, Larry had been installed at the Jefferson Institute of Oceanographic Research as a specimen for scientific analysis and study. Rebelling against the continuous ill-treatment meted out to him, Larry manages to escape but not before he kills two scientists on his path to freedom.  The institute brands the incident as murder, for Larry it’s an act of self-preservation.

The reader immediately senses the perceptible shift in Dorothy’s circumstances;  a chance for excitement, love and adventure…a development that pushes her head above water, breathing new life into her, just when she was slowly and steadily sinking.  As Larry and Dorothy embark on a passionate affair, her world begins to light up, the days are suffused with colour and there’s a sharp clarity to the way she views the people and situations around her.

There, up in the sky, she noticed for the first time a gigantic mounded cloud, as large and elaborately moulded as a baroque opera house and lit from below and at the sides by pink and creamy hues. It sailed beyond her, improbable and romantic, following in the blue sky the course she was taking down below. It seemed to her that it must be a good omen.

What makes Mrs Caliban unique is not just its unusual premise but also how rich the novel is in terms of themes explored. We learn about the gradual disintegration of Fred and Dorothy’s marriage, and decline in Dorothy’s mental health exacerbated by the death of her son and the miscarriage. It’s a loss she is left to grieve alone; their marriage left in tatters leaves no room for the couple to help each other through this difficult time.

Another theme touched upon is the beauty of new ways of seeing and perceiving things. Being an aquatic creature, his new surroundings are a novelty to Larry. But as Dorothy begins to view the world through Larry’s eyes fuelled by his questions on basic human behaviour and traits, she is forced to think a lot and even question many of the things that she otherwise took for granted or about which she didn’t much care previously.

The novel is also radical in the way it questions gender roles. The Calibans find themselves ensconced in traditional gender stereotypes – Fred earns the income, while Dorothy’s role is reduced to that of a housewife following the same unvarying routine day in and day out. But that changes with the arrival of Larry. With no qualms or knowledge about the pigeonholing of roles, Larry is more than willing to chip in and learn to perform a slew of chores, easing some of the burden off Dorothy. Mrs Caliban is an exploration of love and sexual freedom; Dorothy’s affair with Larry is a revelation to her, and makes her feel alive after years of being trapped in an airless marriage. At a time, when women were expected to put up with their husbands having affairs, Dorothy refuses to follow what’s expected of her by society, choosing instead to seek some modicum of happiness in the manner she deems fit.

Furthermore, the novel is a statement on how society perceives outsiders with contempt and suspicion rather than compassion, inclusiveness and understanding. We are shown how narrowly defined and restrictive the definition of “normal” is, how anything outside that constricted space is immediately looked upon with venom, violence and hate. Being an amphibian man, Larry is branded  an outcast by the scientific community as well as the general population, a creature to be captured and tortured, rather than accepting him for who he is and treating him with more respect. Thus, despite being a tender, caring man, often Larry finds himself pushed into the corner by aggressive behaviour of the people around him and compelled to use violence as the only form of self-defense.

Above all else though, Mrs Caliban is a tale of the re-invention of a woman, her journey from a state of abject depression to that of rejuvenation and self-discovery – an evergreen theme which also forms the essence of another novel I read and loved recently – Tessa Hadley’s wonderful novel Free Love.

Within the broader strange outline of its plot, the novel has an interior logic all its own. In fact, Mrs Caliban is a testament to Ingalls’ excellent storytelling ability that she is able to blend the fantastical with the mundane to greater effect and on the strength of her assured writing the reader is willing to be led along in whichever direction she takes us. The foreword by Irenosen Okojie in my edition highlights how the book has influenced several people in the fields of art and culture – Guillermo del Toro’s award-winning The Shape of Water, particularly, is a prime example. In a nutshell, Mrs Caliban is an excellent novella, a magical, subversive fairytale and its themes of gender stereotypes and the isolation of people who don’t fit in remain relevant even today.

Free Love – Tessa Hadley

I had never read Tessa Hadley before and was all set to begin with her earlier novel The Past widely considered to be the best entry point into her work. But the best laid plans often go awry, and her newest novel Free Love is what I wanted to read first simply because I was fascinated by its premise. Anyway, long story short, I loved this novel.

Set in the 1960s, Free Love is a beautifully constructed novel, a sensual exploration of love, passion, liberation, sexual awakening, and new beginnings.

The book’s protagonist, Phyllis Fischer, is a 40-year old stylish woman, comfortably married and settled. Her husband Roger has a plush job in the Foreign Service and the couple has two children – Colette (the elder one), and Hugh.

When the book opens, the Fischers are all set to welcome their guest who they have invited home for dinner. The person they are expecting is a young man they have never met before – his name is Nicky Knight and he is the son of Roger’s close friends. The Fischers have a well-appointed, cozy home, artistically decorated by Phyllis who has a flair for these things and is now well ensconced in her suburban life. In contrast to Phyllis’ flighty, flirty personality, Roger is more stable and well-grounded, but the couple seems to get along fairly well. They do have their disagreements though. One point of contention revolves around their son’s education. Roger believes that a stint in a boarding school will go a long way in shaping up Hugh’s character and career, while Phyllis sees no reason why his current life must be disrupted.

Phyllis is close to her son, but shares a volatile bond with Colette, her awkward but intelligent teenaged daughter. In terms of physique, Colette is ungainly but what she lacks in looks, she more than makes up for in intelligence.

Her father’s intelligence was so much stronger than her mother’s, Colette thought; yet it was the slippery labyrinth of her mother’s mind – illogical, working through self-suggestion and hunches according to her hidden purposes – which was closed to Colette, and therefore more dangerous for her.

And then there is Nicky, who has not turned up at the Fischer residence yet. Nicky does not look forward to the evening at all; he has merely accepted the dinner invitation on his mother’s insistence. He finally announces his presence at the Fischer home, terribly late, just when the family has already started dinner without him. Nicky, with his revolutionary bent and left leaning outlook, is contemptuous of the world in which the Fischers move, their bourgeoisie living and staid, conservative ideas. Dinner is a fraught affair with Nicky openly airing his radical views, and while Colette remains sullen throughout the meal, Roger is keenly interested in what Nicky has to say.  Phyllis is her old, flirty self but suddenly becomes self-conscious when Nicky inadvertently makes her feel her age.

It’s only when the party embarks on a bizarre expedition to retrieve a neighbour’s son’s slipper from the pond that things take a quick and unexpected turn. Nicky and Phyllis kiss passionately setting in motion a chain of events that will throw the Fischer family life upside down.

What had been unthinkable yesterday, now felt inevitable and necessary: she saw that she was capable of being two contradictory things at once, wife and lover. The two sides existed as separate sealed chambers, both were necessary to her, only she had the key to both – how could that harm anyone?

Phyllis and Nicky, enamoured with each other, become immersed in a passionate affair, despite the significant age gap. For Nicky, with a trail of desultory, half-hearted relationships behind him, sex with an experienced woman like Phyllis is a revelation. For Phyllis, whose sex life with Roger borders on the awkward, the affair with Nicky is bracing and gives her a sense of liberation.

His lascivious uninhibited gaze was as arousing, almost, as if he touched her. She had never been seen like this before, or allowed herself to be seen, without any ironic deflection: not with Roger, nor that other man. Getting his pleasure, Nicky was so heedless and unconstrained – so that she, too, was unconstrained, and didn’t care how he saw her. Married love was too kind, she thought, it hovered on the threshold of this knowledge and never went inside, never took the necessary liberties.

But what is the price that Phyllis will pay for this newfound sliver of freedom?

Free Love, then, dwells on the themes of reinvention, the thrill of new experiences, new beginnings, rediscovering oneself, defying conventions, and a woman’s choice to carve out an identity for herself separate from family.

Phyllis becomes increasingly drawn to Nicky’s bohemian world which is a stark contrast to her dull, orderly existence where beauty and polite conversations take precedence over ideas and new ways of thinking.

As the novel progresses, Phyllis’ relations with her family, unsurprisingly, undergo a sea of change; with the children, particularly, it reverses. Her son, the apple of her eye, disapproving of the path Phyllis has chosen, becomes increasingly estranged from her. Colette, visibly shaken by the breakdown of her family, feels unmoored and adrift, and yet slowly begins to bond with her mother. Roger is angry with Phyllis for throwing him into an embarrassing situation, and puts on an impenetrable exterior that only alienates his children. Struck by the difficulty in communicating his feelings, he struggles to cope, but then finds solace in an unexpected quarter.

Based on the premise alone, Free Love could easily have been a run-of-the-mill kind of a novel, but it is not…it’s quite the opposite. The maturity and elegance of Hadley’s writing lends the book a special quality, and there’s something deliciously luxurious about her prose that makes it a pleasure to read, the sort of book that you can just sink into.

The characters are well-developed, fully realized…they are flawed and deeply humane as they struggle to navigate an uncertain future fuelled by the disintegration of their old world. Various facets of their personalities – desires, fears, hopes, secrets – are so sensitively presented, but Hadley never judges them. The point is not to dwell on their faults, as much as it is to delicately depict the differing perceptions of each of her characters as they grapple with a common dilemma. Hadley’s warmth, wisdom and understanding are on full display here as she beautifully renders the turmoil raging in her characters’ inner and outer lives.

In a nutshell, Free Love, is a profound meditation on the importance of a meaningful existence, and how that definition can mean different things to different people. Highly recommended.