I’m reading from the Impac and Folio Prize Longlists and decided that a couple of shorties (i.e novellas) would help the #tbr20 cause along quite nicely.

I’ll start with Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation, which appears on the 2015 Folio Prize longlist.  I heard so much about this upon release last year.  Reviewers fell in love with it one after the next and I can certainly see some of the charm.  The story, to be truthful, is nothing outstanding – a domestic drama of courtship, marriage, parenthood, adultery. It’s the manner of the telling which lifts this novella beyond ordinariness.   Like the jigsaw on the dustjacket, this story is told in fragmentary pieces that need to be put together to form the bigger picture.  Fortunately the fragments are chronological, so it’s not too difficult to piece them together.  

Told from the wife’s point-of view, I read the collection of small, concise paragraphs like a collection of memories jotted down in a notebook: a memory about the husband, her child, feelings interspersed with philosophical bon-mots. The ebbs and flows of a long-term relationship reflected in all honesty: that time of initial discovery,  fondness,  love, happiness, familiarity, sadness, disillusionment, bitterness, counselling, reconcilation. At the moment of greatest difficulty the narrative switches from first person (I, we) to third (the wife, the husband) to denote estrangement and distance.  The concision of thought lending an at times poetical melody to the text.

Some have described it as postmodern, an adjective shared with Kristina Carlson’s Mr Darwin’s Gardener, which is longlisted for the 2014 IMPAC prize. This is a much more complicated prospect; its ambition to depict the collective mind of an English village during the advent of Darwinism.   Set in Darwin’s home village of Downe, Darwin remains off page, leaving them to his gardener, Thomas Davies;  a grief-stricken widower, with two young children, who eschews religion and adheres to his employer’s theories.  Unsurprisingly he takes his comfort from nature.

He is both distanced from and surrounded by a multitudinous and at times motley cast of characters.  The village drunk doctor, the publican, the grocer, a book group, a would-be author,  the wife-beater, the do-gooders, the gossips.  We see them at home with all their imperfections, we see them grapple with the questions that Darwinism has brought to their faith, we see a microcosm of society and we need to pay attention. I haven’t read a review of this book that hasn’t used the adjective polyphonic because that’s what it is. Ofttimes the villagers act like a chorus, each having their say in a single scene, not always explicitly and individually introduced.

I can’t say I did pay the necessary attention (despite the publisher’s warning that this book needs to be read slowly and savoured). There’s no doubt that I would benefit from a second reading, to pick up on what I missed first time round. This is an incredibly detailed and quiet text, and I’m not the most attentive reader of those.   Still I came away with positive impressions.  It’s clever, thoughtful, sympathetic to the foibles of human nature and open to the restorative power of nature.  Perhaps a little less sympathetic to those not accepting of Darwin’s theories. The criticism implicit in the portrayal of their flaws? I can’t quite make my mind up about this. Hence the need for a second reading of an admirable historical portrait in  fine, nuanced translation from Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015)

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