BOOK REVIEW: THE WALLED GARDEN BY CATHERINE DUNNE

This sensitively written account about the healing of the relationship between a dying mother and her daughter is compelling. Catherine Dunne’s fine-tuned descriptions and imagery draw the reader right into the context and setting of her story:

Listening to the uneven breathing of the frail, elderly woman [her mother] beside her, Beth hoped it wasn’t already too late for her to feel beyond the years of sharp exchanges, the slow foxtrot of anger and disappointment that had kept them at arm’s length from the other, dancing to the same old tunes.

The narrative follows Alice through a series of small strokes that leave her increasingly incapacitated. Reconciliation, she realises, will have to come in the form of writing letters to her daughter while she still has the capacity to do so:

God alone knew how long she had left. Now, she was going to give Him a run for his money.

Her daughter, Beth, finds the letters whilst sitting at her comatose mother’s bedside. It is through them that we learn about the background to their estranged relationship; of sacrifices made; of hurts, disappointments and misunderstandings. There is no sentimental soppiness about these letters. Rather, readers are more likely to identify with aspects of their own relationship with their parents or children: life is not always easy.

Alice concludes that:

It was time she apologised to her daughter for holding on too tight, for making hoops of steel out of bonds of love. Mothers and daughters needed ties that would give a little, would bend and stretch with generosity, not break and unravel at the first tugs of defiance and misunderstanding.

As the narrative unfolds, we learn more about the relationship between Beth and her brother, James. Like her, he has domestic troubles of his own to contend with. For now though their focus remains on their dying mother.

I found this novel to be a quick, satisfying read that has left me with a lot to ponder about in its wake. My paperback edition was published by Picador in 2000.

A LIGHT READ

On occasion a very light read is in order: a novel that introduces you to characters, places and situations far removed from your own. A novel that will give you a ‘lift’ when you need one. Roisin Meaney’s It’s that Time of Year fits the bill perfectly.

The right ingredients are there: Annie, the central figure, who has fostered numerous children during her working years. She invites three of her former charges to her wedding. Although they do not know each other and live very different lives – they all love and respect Annie and wouldn’t miss being with her on her special day.

There is Julia, a successful songwriter and singer living in a luxurious apartment in Paris. Her fame was unexpected, but now she is unable to compose either the music or lyrics needed for her next CD: For the first time she’s seriously blocked, and it’s terrifying. What if she’s lost whatever ability she had? What if she never manages to write another song? How will she find a way through this blank wall?

Then there is Steph, living in Spain and now thinking about Ireland: The thought of it, of seeing it again, prompts a small rush of nervous excitement. She knows exactly how long it is since she left – but why does she leave Spain so furtively?

The third of Annie’s former charges to be invited to her wedding is Eddie the chef: Dark shadows under his eyes, the whites bloodshot, the strain showing of too many late nights and rushed meals, and not enough money. He dreamed big, but still has a long way to go. Is he following the right path towards future happiness and success?

First they need to celebrate Annie’s marriage to the man she has loved for practically her whole life. At 61, her dream comes true … but, there is the impending sale of her house, unexpected snow, and lingering concerns about her three ‘children’.

We learn about the strong friendship between Annie and Cora; about building trust; how apparent disasters can shake us out of a rut; and about the inherent goodness of people. This quick and light read is bound to banish the blues, leaving you with a more benign view of the world.

I leave you with the quotation at the start of the story: Your heart knows the way. Run in that direction – Rumi.

BEWILDERMENT – Richard Powers

Richard Powers does not need the accolades plastered on the beautifully designed cover of his novel, Bewilderment, published by Hutchinson Heinemann in 2021.

It is an astonishingly wonderful read that takes us through what could be a bewildering array of journeys with the easy guidance of a master storyteller, who keeps the reader on track throughout by sticking to short and manageable routes.

We explore unbelievable worlds on planets way beyond our ken; relationships that are deep and entwining; the long-term effects of both politics and the economy on the environment; as well as shortcomings of conventional education:

The father and son regularly fall foul of education rules and battle with the idea of Robin being home-schooled as a possible solution. He [Robin] was calm as a skiff on a windless pond. I was capsizing. I wanted to shout, Give me one good reason why you can’t sit in a classroom like every other child your age. But I already knew several.

As the narrative unfolds, we explore the short-sightedness of some laws; the ethical boundaries pushed by scientists ever eager to find out more and to gain funding for their projects; as well as the intrusion of media in its many forms in a bid to satisfy the ‘hunger’ of the public mass for the unusual and interesting events of life – no matter how short-lived or what impact this might have on the individuals concerned:

There was a planet that couldn’t figure out where everyone was. It died of loneliness.

Throughout this bewildering array of paths, is the love of a father for his unusual son which supports his determination to do his best for him whilst trying to protect him from the worst this planet has to offer:

I never believed the diagnoses the doctors settled on my son. When a condition gets three different names over as many decades, when it requires two subcategories to account for completely contradictory symptoms, when it goes from non-existent to the country’s most commonly diagnosed childhood disorder in the course of one generation, when two different physicians want to prescribe three different medications, there’s something wrong.

I highly recommend this novel that will open your mind to all sorts of possibilities and leave you pondering deeply over the way it ends.

THE RUNAWAY HORSES – JOYCE KOTZÈ

Given my interest in the plight of the horses used during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), it is not surprising that I was drawn to the title of Joyce Kotzè’s debut novel, The Runaway Horses. It is billed as ‘a saga of love and betrayal during the time of the Anglo-Boer War’, but do not expect a soppy romance or even a tale of swashbuckling soldiers. This is the story of ordinary people caught up in an event much larger than they could imagine.

There is no doubt that the Anglo-Boer War has had a long-lasting impact on South Africa. The country abounds with battle sites, war graves, blockhouses – and stories. We know about Magersfontein, Paardeberg, Elandslaagte, the Treaty of Vereeniging … we are painfully aware of the concentration camps, the burning of farms and the pitting of the Boers against the Brits which tested human relationships to the full; splitting families and friendships; causing hunger and distress; and in the end even causing rifts among those Boers who had fought so hard and long for the freedom of their country. The country is also swathed in cosmos flowers, blackjacks and Khakibos as reminders of this period of bloody conflict!

As the war dragged on and took its toll among the Boers, there were the hensoppers – people who had lost so much that they couldn’t see much point in fighting anymore and who wanted to go back to their burnt-out farms and start again. There were the verraaiers – people who, for a variety of reasons, gave up the fight and joined their former enemies. Who knows, perhaps they too simply wanted the fighting to stop so that they could rebuild their lives. There were also the bittereindes – people who had fought so long and so hard, who had lost their farms, their families, and their compatriots yet felt the very act of simply giving up would have made all those sacrifices for nothing. Then there were the British soldiers: how did they feel about sowing such widespread destruction and opposing an untrained and under-armed foe? Did they even understand what they were fighting for?

In the saga of The Runaway Horses Joyce Kotzè provides a broad sweep of soldiers on both sides of the divide from before the war began right through until its end. To create a reality her readers can identify with, she focuses on a fictitious family which is a truly South African mix of Boer and Brit. An English woman marries a Boer and becomes a valued member of the Wintersrust community, while her sister marries into minor British gentry – their children get to know each other well, little guessing that the time would come when they would find themselves on opposite sides of a war that would tear through large parts of South Africa. Kotzè’s characters become so believable and easy to identify with that the tragedy of this conflict boldly comes to the fore as the saga unfolds to portray this difficult period with insight and empathy – readers are caught up in the way in which the strong bonds between the cousins are tested to the limit during the war.

Mixing the action with historic figures such as Jan Smuts, Paul Kruger, Christiaan de Wet, General Kitchener, Lord Roberts and others help to create an authentic background to the development of the war. The author provides vivid impressions of the countryside where battles were fought as well as well-chosen details of clothing, mannerisms, and cameos that breathe life into the soldiers on both sides as well as the women left on the sidelines. By doing so, she brings into sharp focus the conflicting emotions felt by individuals on each side. James Henderson, for example, finds himself at the mercy of both his loyalty to Britain and his compassion for his Boer family.

So real are her descriptions and the careful development of her characters that the author successfully reflects the reality of the history of many South African families that are intertwined with the Anglo-Boer War both at the time and in the aftermath.  She does this by successfully portraying what life was like for the Boers on commando as well as the harsh conditions experienced in the concentration camps. It is story that remains with the reader long after the book has been closed for the last time as we reflect on the complex history of South Africa.

THREE UPLIFTING BOOKS

Among the many books I have read recently are these three that remained in a pile – clearly awaiting further attention before being put away. All three are worthy paying closer attention to.

Mark Forsyth’s The Horologicon is possibly one of the most delightful gifts I have received for a long time. I have always enjoyed words and find it fascinating to delve into the etymology of interesting words, so the idea of exploring the ‘lost words’ of the English language holds great appeal – so great an appeal that I couldn’t keep them to myself and ended up reading this book to my husband!

The day’s jaunt begins at 6 a.m. waking to an alarm clock and then checks in every hour of the day until midnight, when we make too much noise upon returning home before finally falling asleep. Why oh why have we lost words such as splashing our faces with a gowpen (a double handful) of water in the morning? Then there is the hour between one and two, called the amell, when we take time off from our labours to enjoy lunch. Once the sky obnubilates (darkens) we turn our minds to plans for the evening, which might include having supper, drinking, wooing and so on before stumbling home. If you enjoy words, this is an absorbing, light-hearted, and very informative read.

Having thoroughly enjoyed skipping through a day while discovering new words every hour, I needed no persuasion to borrow A Short History of Drunkenness by the same author.

What a treat! From the prehistory of drinking, we visit Sumerian bars, peep at Ancient Egypt, attend a Greek Symposium and drink with the Ancient Chinese. We explore the Bible, find out about the Roman Convivium, make our way through the Dark Ages, and go drinking in the Middle East. We then find out what the Viking Sumbl is and visit a Medieval Alehouse. Mark Forsyth tells us about the Aztecs, the Gin Craze, Australia, and takes us to a Wild West Saloon. We also visit Russia and learn about the Prohibition. This is another marvellous romp through the history of how people have over-imbibed from the Stone Age to the present – with plenty of read-aloud passages to entertain.

In a completely different vein comes the end of your life bookclub by Will Schwalbe.

This is a second-hand book which has languished near the bottom of my to-be-read basket since before Covid-19 reared its head and ruined our social lives. Even the bright golden affirmation that it is a The New York Times Bestseller didn’t move me for all of those months. I picked it up and returned it, turned my back on it – shunned it completely. Who wants to read about someone dying of pancreatic cancer when our entire world as we knew it was being turned upside down – or so I thought! Some books, I find, simply wait patiently until I am in the right frame of mind.

Of course it’s not about his mother dying – rather this simply forms the background to the focus of the book which is on the many books Schwalbe and his mother read and discussed during the period before she dies. It is a fascinating account of what they read, their differing views of books, and how each of these discussions led onto talking about some of the more difficult issues in their lives. As he puts it, he and his mother formed a sort of two-member book club during this time – and what a lively book club it turns out to be!

Apart from the books, both fiction and non-fiction, they read, there is an inspiring thread of the dignity with which his mother faced her illness: Mom’s appointments [for treatment sessions] were usually first thing in the morning – she liked to get them over and done with so she could get on with her day. Even when she was feeling “really not great”, Mom always took care with her appearance.

They argue about books, have different opinions about issues and deal with her having exhausted all the traditional chemotherapies – enough you might think to turn you off. Not a chance with these two: he points out that Mom taught me not to look away from the worst but to believe we can all do better. The Appendix lists their reading material – it is satisfying to go through it to see what you might have read and to note from it what you would still like to read.

So, no fiction this time but three uplifting non-fiction choices to blow away any Covid-variation blues.