My, what a busy, busy week that was! Very Richard Scarry-esque. BUT, I did get to read two amazing books!
THE DEVIL’S HIGHWAY (GREGORY NORMINTON)
Uff, reading this the day after the UN report on climate change was released was MUY, MUY fuerte. This had been on my to-read list for a while due to the intriguing set-up: three timelines, ancient Britain, modern Britain, and futuristic Britain. An ancient Briton boy encounters a Roman solider, a traumatised war veteran confronts an archaeologist, and a band of feral children make their way through a burning landscape, a world set aflame through (presumably) global warming (this section is narrated in the first-person plural – very cool). And throughout there’s reflections on the definition of human progress, the relationship with the landscape, what it means to be British, violence and kindness, migrants and displacement, the appeal of terrorism and jihadism, the changing nature of human spirituality, from earth-focused to book-focused… I was reminded of Cloud Atlas and The Buried Giant. This… was exactly my cup of tea!!
The three narratives are literally “connected” by the Roman road that gives the book its title, The Devil’s Highway. As one character comments, “One place is lots of places if you just wait long enuf.” It’s all very cleverly done. It reminded me of what first fascinated me about linked collections – how scenes in different timelines can echo each other. The way a flint tool reappears, for example. Or the different ways we spend our time (like hunting and foraging vs. stacking groceries at the co-op). It all becomes quite powerful – a scene near the end involving blind people had me in tears. And I NEVER cry when reading!! (Though it’s happening more frequently lately – Station Eleven also had me weeping). What’s especially impressive is that this book is SHORT. Barely 200 pages! I find this INCREDIBLY impressive – that the book has been cut down to the bare, naked essentials.
I found the historical part particularly fascinating. The way the Romans viewed the Britons, as savages who used wood and mud, while the Romans brought roads and progress. The presence of feminine gods, the relationship with animals, the importance of physical objects like sticks and stones… all very Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The far-off past is as alien as another planet, innit.
This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.
“She can understand the allure of cutting your own path. Who wants to follow a straight official route when everything in nature loops and circles?” (55)
“What’s the point? If everything gets buried again?”
The girl shrugs. “It’s progress,” she says. (123)
“Had he such a thing to lose: an essence that survived death? If so, could it rise from any bonds that earth could make for it? His enemies, every one of them, had a soul. The young fanatics chasing him: so long as he could stand and manage a stick, he would not hesitate to kill any that came his way. There would be no honour in it: they were not worthy adversaries. Yet the druid that found a calling for them, an exalted purpose. Who, in their stultified tribe, had done the same? Only violence stirred the blood. It was a spring that never ran dry. Perhaps that was why the empire existed, pushing ever outwards to keep the rage of its young from turning against home.” (180)
SIGHT (JESSIE GREENGRASS)
Jessie Greengrass is probably one of my favorite contemporary writers now working. God, we are blessed to have her in our midst! I loved her short story collection, and Sight, her first novel, is filled with so many gems. I underlined so many sentences I don’t even know where to start!
Sight, similarly to The Devil’s Highway, is a “broken” novel in the sense that it doesn’t exactly follow a straight path. We have a first-person narrator, a young woman trying to decide whether or not to have a child (though we know very early on that she does, so this definitely isn’t a will-she-or-won’t-she plot). We see memories of her mother’s death, childhood summers spent with her analyst grandmother, and visits to museums with her partner. And interspersed throughout are these sort of mini-essays (or “digressions,” as the author herself has called them), about significant moments in medical history. The discovery of X-rays. The first Caesarean. And the years Anna Freud spent in analysis with her father.
This is another short book – 200 pages. Short books FTW, baby! I don’t have a kid (obviously), nor have I been in the position of having to nurse a parent (yet… no comment :((( ), but nevertheless I found the passages about these two “life milestones” incredibly affecting. The book continuously discusses how having a child is like having an extension of yourself, and yet, the child is definitely “not” you, and that the definition of adulthood is moving away from one’s parent, which can feel like a horrible irony. “Growing up,” the narrator says, “is a solitary process of disentanglement from those who made us,” (58) an the scenes where she and her mother clean the house after her grandmother’s death is a vivid depiction of this. What does it mean to grow up, to become an adult? How do we “see” inside ourselves, understand ourselves? How is it possible to we can be so hidden from ourselves, that we can possess so little understanding about why we do the things we do? (Man, don’t get me STARTED on this…!) What can the past tell us about ourselves; what can we learn from it; and how do we protect those we love (like our children) from it? How do we balance the routine of a long, meandering, domestic days and try not to be feel frantic about the BIG PICTURE? Is the only way to know something is to live it?
There’s an amazing clarity in the writing here – I was reminded of Knausgaard’s essay writing, and Ottessa Moshfegh at times (namely due to the surly humour, which really MAKES the book). It was so freaking nice, as a young woman, to read a book about motherhood that is thoughtful, balanced, and reflective, as opposed to being all like CHILDREN = LOSS OF ARTISTIC FREEDOM FOREVER. God, this was such a good read. Can’t wait for her next one.
“This is what we all do, after all, this striving to make sense.” (103)
“I want only what I think we all must want: to come off as better than I ought, more generous, more sure – kinder than I know myself to be; but I want also to be known, to be counted and to be excused. I can’t have both. The thought of it makes me surly and resentful.” (62)
“What are we if not a totality of days, a sum of interactions.” (85)
“[I read] because the act of reading was a habit, and because it was soothing, and, perhaps, from a lifetime’s inculcated faith in the explanatory power of books, the half-held belief that somewhere in those hectares upon hectares of printed pages I might find that fact which would make sense of my growing unhappiness, allowing me to peel back the obscurant layers of myself and lay bare at last the solid structure underneath.” (36)