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

Sunday, August 01, 2010

2010/57: Spiderweb -- Penelope Lively

When Stella contemplated her own progress through time and space, she saw lines -- black lines that zig-zagged this way and that, netting the map of England, netting the globe ... and sometimes these lines crossed one another. The intersections must surely be points of significance -- these places to which she had been twice, three times, many times, but as different incarnations of herself, different Stellas ignorant of the significance of this site ... Stella thought of those spiderwebs that form an airy complex density of minutely connected strands. Her space-time progress was something like that, the whole thing shimmering with these portentous nodes at which the future lay hidden. You walk blindly past the self that is to come, and cannot see her. (p. 19)

Stella Brentwood has lived in Greece, Egypt, Orkney, Turkey: as an anthropologist specialising in kinship networks and lineage patterns, her work has taken her to many different countries, though she's never felt part of the cultures she's observed. Her mission has always been to understand, not to belong. Now, retired, she's bought a cottage in Dorset, and is determined to put down roots. She speaks to the local history society; she acquires a dog.

Down the lane are her neighbours, the Hiscoxes: confused grandmother, silent dour father, two lawless and sullen teenage boys, and Karen Hiscox, who manages and manipulates her way through life. "Their mother could cope all right. She coped everyone else into the ground. She coped them out of her way." (p. 160) The boys are, effectively, rootless and without history: they don't even know where they were born, or where they lived before they came to Dorset. They provide a unified viewpoint that's very different to that of Stella (who they term 'the old woman'), even when they're narrating the same events.

The novel builds slowly, a series of vignettes and memories. Stella, for the most part, reexamines her past: she has no regrets, but she looks back wistfully on times of happiness. Despite her inclinations, her life is not a 'self-contained capsule'. Her dead friend's husband, with whom she's never really connected, pops round from time to time. Judith, a lesbian archaeologist, uses Stella's house as a refuge from domestic strife. Meanwhile the Hiscox boys expend their energy in surviving their mother's verbal attacks, mercurial temper and mutable truths. Sometimes, for light relief, they set fire to litter bins.

Stella, the eternal voyeur, doesn't find it easy to root herself in the oddly claustrophobic rural life she observes. When the Hiscox boys' chaos -- and her friends' lonelinesses -- intrude into her new life, she's cornered. A choice must be made.

I liked Spiderweb for its keen-eyed, unsentimental portrayal of a woman growing old alone without regrets: I recognised in it some aspects, and a specific incident, from my own experience, which I found at once unsettling and redemptive. (It wasn't unique: it wasn't us.) It's a beautifully-written novel, and the sense of growing menace counterbalances the brightness of Stella's memories, and sits well with the green gloom of muddy lanes.

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