No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, May 13, 2006

#44: As Meat Loves Salt -- Maria McCann

It's nearly a week since I finished reading this novel, but I still can't really make up my mind about whether I liked it or not.

It's a compelling read, on the whole. Set during the English Civil War, it's the first-person narrative of Jacob Cullen. When the story opens, he is a man-servant at Beaurepair, a Royalist estate somewhere in the south-west of England. A body has just been found in a pond in the estate, and Jacob -- unbeknown to those around him -- is the killer.

Jacob's betrothal feast goes horribly wrong and, with his fiancee Caro and his brother Zeb, he flees Beaurepair, ending up in the New Model Army. There he meets Christopher Ferris, an idealistic fellow who dreams of establishing a Digger colony and living free on common land.

The greater part of the book deals with the relationship, the powerplay, between Ferris and Jacob. Gradually, the reader begins to see things in Jacob's narrative -- and in his character -- that Jacob himself isn't aware of. Ferris, though, seems to understand Jacob better than he understands himself: Ferris understands the violent temper, the 'devil of mastery' that overcomes him from time to time. Ferris, I suspect, sees more clearly than Jacob (who's prone to self-delusion). Yet Ferris is not without blame. At each turning-point, it's at least partly his influence that guides Jacob down one path or another -- paths that ultimately lead to an unexpected, and unhappy, outcome.

There are aspects of this book that didn't endear it to me. The Civil War isn't a period I'm overly familiar with, but the historical detail was convincing: however, at times it seemed to overwhelm the actual story. (I'm not sure if this is an issue with the pacing of the novel itself, or just my impatience with any scenes that didn't focus on the protagonists!) And some of the deliberately archaic language -- 'frighted', 'methought' and so on -- was obtrusive: authenticity is all very well, but not if it detracts from flow. Use of period language is a tricky thing to balance, though.

Jacob is a marvellous creation: compellingly dreadful, criminal, and borderline insane, and yet blind to so much that his self-image is quite another matter. McCann's characterisation -- not only Jacob but Ferris, and Ferris's aunt, and various Diggers and other revolutionaries -- is stunning. I want to read more.

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