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

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

#75: The Minotaur -- Barbara Vine

Unusually talkative, Ida said to me in the kitchen that she wouldn't mind things being worse as long as they were different. ... "Sometimes I think I'd do anything for a change," she said. (p. 282)

It's the Sixties, though they are not especially Swinging in rural Essex. Kerstin Kvist, 24 years old, Swedish, has taken a position with an aristocratic family to care for their son John -- in his late thirties but with the emotional range of a child, the result of schizophrenia -- or so it's said. Kerstin is determined to help John, and manages to form a bond with him, and with his sisters Ella (who likes pink: everything in her room is pink) and Winifred (who is engaged, so there). Their mother Mrs Cosway is dry and disapproving; the oldest sister, Ida, quite worn down by the strain of living in a dark, decaying mansion miles from anywhere. There's a fourth sister, Zorah, who married an elderly millionaire and is now a merry and glamorous widow, arriving suddenly in her Lotus and zooming off without warning.

And soon after Kerstin arrives at Lydstep Old Hall, another stranger comes to the village: Felix, a disreputable (but soon to be famous) artist, with an eye for the laydeez and especially for Ella. Winifred, engaged to be married to the Rector, disapproves. Kerstin, who has a boyfriend with a flat off the Portobello Road, doesn't trust Felix. And John is happy in his maze -- a maze of books -- and with his facility for numbers, and in sitting and staring at beautiful things, like the Roman glass vase in the drawing-room.

Kerstin, trained as a nurse, gradually becomes convinced that John is not a lunatic or a schizophrenic, but merely suffering from Asperger's Disease (which nobody in 1960s Essex has heard of). She can't help feeling that the 'sleeping pills' Mrs Cosway insists on him taking are detrimental to his well-being. And she's determined to help him regain his faculties, his life ...

The Minotaur is a book full of foreshadowings, hindsight, rationalisation. There's a framing narrative, a chapter at each end of the book set 'Now', in which Kerstin meets a member of the family and is reminded of those distant events. She keeps a diary (in which she also sketches) and that becomes a matter of considerable importance towards the end of the book -- though the narrative is not in diary form, and it's clear that even with hindsight Kerstin doesn't always understand what is going on around her.

I liked the oppressive gloom of the novel, the sense of something about to happen, the vague mythic overtones, the psychological drama acted out between members of the family and those unfortunate enough to come within their reach. And I'd say it wasn't just John who had Asperger's.

#74: Kindred -- Octavia E. Butler

I don't have a name for the thing that happened to me, but I don't feel safe any more. (p. 17)

Dana finds herself thrown back in time to 1815, to encounter a distant ancestor Rufus, whose life she seems destined to save over and over again. Because otherwise what will become of her?

Simple premise, vastly complicated by the fact that Dana is Black and Rufus is white, the son of a Southern plantation-owner; that Dana is a modern woman (though for 'modern' read '1976', which feels like a very long time ago when one reads a novel set partly in, and written in, the mid-Seventies) and Rufus is a racist, sexist, elitist product of his time. That Dana's husband Kevin is white, too, and when he time-travels he ends up complicit in her oppression, becoming increasingly like the white men who represent all that Dana is not.

And Dana herself finds she's increasingly a part of the violent, unjust past: that every day she's less an observer, more accepting, another step closer to being what any Black woman in the South must be, a slave, a less-than-human. Every day she has more respect for her Black ancestors and their powers of endurance, their strength. Butler's depiction of Dana's emotional journey -- very much shown, not told -- is masterful: the reader understands more of Dana's situation than anyone in the novel.

Dana's very much a victim of apparently-random weirdness: there is no objective reason for the time-travel, and none (except ... justice? punishment?) for what she suffers on her return from her last trip. Has she changed the past? It's certainly changed her.

Compelling, disturbing, powerfully-written: I understand why it's a classic.