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

Friday, December 31, 2010

2010/85: The Amethyst Child -- Sarah Singleton

"I shall tell you what Amethyst children are like ... and you tell me if this matches up. First of all, they feel out of place. They see the world in a different way to ordinary people and they are so acutely aware of the problems we face they want to be part of changing it. They are creative people who have difficulty fitting in with anyone else and they have different aspirations. They don't like conforming ... they have psychic and spiritual powers ..." (p.34-5)

Amber is a teenage girl with Goth tendencies and a long, dull summer ahead of her. Then she meets Dowdie, an unconventional girl from a commune who challenges her nice middle-class assumptions and beliefs, says that Amber's different from the others (instant win!) and introduces her to charismatic James Renault, leader of the commune. James confirms that Amber is an Amethyst Child, 'part of a new wave of consciousness ... chosen to incarnate in these difficult times because they will lead us into a new era' (p. 54).

Amber is hooked: yet her natural caution (she bemoans her lack of bravery and aversion to risks) prevents her from becoming fully immersed in the world that Dowdie, James and the rest of the community are inviting her to share. She's also distracted by another new friend, Johnny, who has a DeviantArt account and creates artwork of Amber that reveals another side of her she didn't expect.

Despite the packaging, this isn't a dark fantasy: it's a gritty real-world story about trust, friendship and betrayal, with elements that could be read as fantastic or simply as delusional. The main narrative is framed and interrupted by an account of a police interview, which keeps the reader guessing as to what's gone wrong.

Singleton's writing is lovely and lyrical, and she sketches Amber deftly, avoiding stereotype whilst making it clear that she isn't quite as unique as she'd like to be. Johnny is fascinating and will make an excellent romantic hero when he grows up a bit. And Dowdie, perhaps the most rounded and individual character, is rough-edged and not always likeable. All three characters experience significant change: what's considerably rarer is that their parents, families et cetera are also changed by the events of the novel.

2010/84: The Crossing Places -- Elly Griffiths

"Marshland is very important in prehistory ... It's a kind of symbolic landscape. We think that it was important because it's a link between the land and the sea, or between life and death."
Nelson snorts. "Come again?" (p.24)

First in the Ruth Galloway series of archaeological whodunnits. I discovered this quite by chance: Anne and I went to the Bodies in the Bookstore event at Waterstones, back in the summer, where we paid £5 each to hang out with authors and drink decent Chardonnay. We also got goodie-bags: this was in Anne's, and I nabbed it because I like marshes, prehistory and the Norfolk coast.

Dr Ruth Galloway is a successful academic, single at nearly forty, living alone with two cats on the edge of the north Norfolk saltmarsh. She's called in by brusque, no-nonsense Northerner DC Harry Nelson to examine a body that's been found in the marsh. Nelson hopes that it's the body of Lucy Downey, missing for ten years, whose case he's still obsessed with. Ruth disillusions him: the remains are those of an Iron Age sacrifice.

But as Ruth gets drawn into the Downey case -- and another local child, four-year-old Scarlett Henderson, goes missing -- she begins to discover a web of lies, deceit and bad behaviour that seems to be centred on her mentor and hero, dashing Scandinavian archaeologist Erik Andersen. What really happened at the henge excavation ten years ago? What's happening out on the marsh now?

There are anonymous letters with a distinctly mythological tone; there's a druid, Cathbad (not his real name); there's the student who died in prison after (possibly) being framed by the police for a murder; there's a gruesome corpse on the doorstep, some fascinating observations on Iron and Bronze Age archaeology (though I'm unable to find any corroborative evidence for ancient North American timber being discovered on the Norfolk coast). Despite some irritations -- Ruth's obsession with her weight, though she's not what I'd term obese; DC Nelson's improbable ignorance of carbon 14 dating; the fact that the whole book's written in the present tense, a form I don't find as appealing at novel-length as I do in short stories -- The Crossing Places really gripped me, and I'm looking forward to reading more by this author.

NB Not all single people are (a) sad and lonely (b) psychotic.

2010/83: The Mermaid Chair -- Sue Monk Kidd

We sat in a globe of light, the smell of burning everywhere, and no one considered how a fire blazing right there beside the water might affect a woman for whom fire and water meant nothing but tragedy and death, a woman who could not look seawater in the face, who'd boarded up her fireplace. We were blinded by nostalgia for the woman she'd been before all of that. It makes me weep now to think how hard Mother must have been trying that night. (p. 243)

Jessie is forty-two, happily married but restless now that her daughter has gone to college. She has spent over thirty years blaming herself for the death of her father, killed instantly when a spark from the pipe she'd bought him ignited the fuel line on his boat.

Turns out her mother Nelle has also been blaming herself for Jessie's father's death -- and perhaps with more reason. Now madness seems to be creeping up on Nelle, despite the concern and care of the monks for whom she cooks. Now Nelle has cut off her own finger. Jessie, summoned to Egret Island -- the small island off the Carolina coast where she grew up -- has to deal not only with her mother's secret fear and guilt but also with her own.

The story's mostly told from Jessie's point of view but there are passages in other viewpoints: Brother Thomas, the monk to whom Jessie is drawn and with whom she explores the peaceful solitude of the marsh; Hugh, Jessie's husband, a successful psychiatrist who finds recourse in his professional skills. These add to the narrative, especially Brother Thomas -- whose voice gradually becomes that of Whit, the person he was before he was a monk.

The Mermaid Chair explores infidelity, despair, crisis of faith, mental illness and death: it also examines how a happy life may become a claustrophobic one, and how the limits of that life can be pushed at. Kidd's portrayal of island life -- the small community, the beauty of the natural world, the restrictions of geography -- is at once mirror and contrast to the emotional arc of the story: mirror because claustrophobic, contrast because Jessie's inner despair (or possibly just desperation) finds solace in the friends she left behind and the slow easy rhythms of life on Egret Island. And by the end of the novel she's made a commitment to the most important person in her life: herself.

This novel receives a lot of praise from readers who've hit a similar point in their own lives. I wonder how many of them find solace in the blunt reality of acceptance:
I had come to the irreducible thing, just as I had with my father, and there was nothing to do but accept, to learn to accept, to lie down every night and accept. (p.315)