Both novels are shortlisted for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and both focus almost entirely on the experiences of their main protagonist as well as paying homage to literary history. Apart from that, they are as different as different can be.
Jo Baker’s second novel, A Country Road, A Tree, follows the Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, from Ireland to France, where he chose to stay during the Nazi Occupation, forced eventually to flee Paris and go underground when he became involved with the French Resistance. Not for Beckett the easy option – he could have sat the war out in neutral Ireland in safety, had he so chosen. But he returned to France to his partner, Suzanne and remained there until the end of the war. It is commonly accepted that these are the years that formed the writer. Although Beckett published prior to the war, his works thereafter are those which Earned his reputation as a modernist master.
Baker has chosen to chart these formative experiences in third-person present tense. Thus the reader walks, runs, flees with Beckett through his trials. I’ll admit this didn’t work for me in the early pages, the Irish pages, if you will, which I found slow and stultifying – much as Beckett found his Irish village in real life! (Mission accomplished then, writer!) Following the outbreak of war, life becomes much more intense as Beckett and Suzanne are forced to flee the Gestapo to seek sanctuary in the Zone Libre. The hardships, deprivations and dangers on the road accumulate into a pulse-raising read and, at one point, survival depends on finding a meeting point on a country road, by a tree. (Just thinking about the chances of waiting by the wrong tree, makes my blood run cold.) When they do find a safe-ish haven, Beckett jeopardises it through his incapacity to resist more resistance work.
Suzanne’s frustrations are entirely understandable – by this time they have been through hell. She is worn out with stress and grief. Beckett is able to detach/distract himself from everyday realities (fatigue, hunger, cold, distress at the ever-increasing loss of friends) through his writing, Suzanne has no such luxury. Their relationship becomes strained, and it appears that another choice of Beckett’s at the end of the war might just be the end of them.
The novel ends, however in January 1946, with the words This is where it begins. Beckett is sitting down to distill his experiences into his first post-war work. His writing is about to free itself from its pre-war influences, including that of James Joyce. Just like the winter coat that Joyce gave Beckett, and which kept him alive during his time of tribulation, Joyce’s exuberance and linguistic excesses have had their day. Now that he is wearing a coat of his own, Beckett is about to become his own writer.
The cover of Francis Spufford’s debut, Golden Hill, gives a good indication of what is to follow. Gentleman in 18th century garb fleeing over the rooftops, with a larger than life female overseeing the action. And indeed that is the era to which Spufford transports us; his plot a homage to the picaresque tales of Henry Fielding, albeit with Fielding’s wordiness pared down – somewhat – for 21st century readership.
There’s only one word to describe this novel – it is a riot!
It’s 1746 and Mr Smith arrives in New York with a promissory note for 1000 dollars. But his arrival is unexpected and the merchant who is to cash the note is suspicious, particularly as Smith refuses to give any details regarding the nature of his business. He agrees to wait for six weeks for his money – it’s not a hardship, he has 4 golden guineas to tide him over.
The novel follows the course of those six weeks, which become a time that Smith is unlikely ever to want to repeat. Firstly he is robbed, forcing him to live on his wits, although they are not the sharpest a fictional hero ever possessed. Secondly, thirdly and fourthly – suffice, he suffers an extraordinary conspiracy of circumstance, adventure and tragedy, and his life is endangered more than once.
He also falls in love with Tabitha, the Dutch merchant’s daughter, a spirited girl though entirely jaundiced by the limited options available to her. This manifests itself in her cruelty to others, her biting tongue and her bad temper. And yet this world is not without its opportunities. Smith understands that she is not the proverbial bird in a cage. She is the bird and the cage. Will she find the courge to fly from the cage of her own making?
There’s honestly never a quiet moment as Smith negotiates his way through post-colonial New York, never able to make a move (good or ill-advised) without the whole village (for New York was still that small at the time) knowing of it, and celebrating or shunning him in the morning. I’m making a huge assumption here in that I believe Smith’s tale to be entirely fictional, the historical detail of Spufford’s novel consisting of his almost Hogarthian portrait of the society of that time. It’s meticulous and unflinching. But never dull. How can it be when Spufford uses card games for high stakes, steamy encounters with buxom actresses and duels to advance the plot?
There is a more serious nature to Smith’s business, but he keeps his secret – secrets, actually – until the very end, thereby obtaining the last laugh. And Tabitha? Well the girl, who wants more than anything else to control the plot, also plays a hidden role in all of this. It’s a brilliant twist and that’s all I’m saying.
Time now for a tough decision as these are both very fine novels.
I loved the immediacy and the humanity of A Country Road, A Tree, the present tense finally winning though and I felt all the anxieties of Beckett and Suzanne as they sought to survive in a hostile world. I was in that world with them. The novel also taught me things I didn’t know, About Beckett, in particular, and I may now consider reading him.
I never felt that emotional connection to Golden Hill. Whether that was because I was reading an e-book, I can’t say, but I was always an observer. And yet, writing this review, looking beneath the surface of the entertaining plot, I begin to see other literary merits adding to the cleverness of an already clever novel.
So, on the basis that my head almost always rules over my heart, Spufford advances to the next round of my tournament.