I’m less behind with #20booksofsummer than it looks, but I’m way behind on reviews.
Margaret Laurence is one of the unsung giants of Canadian fiction. The afterword to this edition of A Jest of God is by Margaret Atwood, who acknowledges her own artistic debt to Laurence. The novel concerns Rachel Cameron, a primary-school teacher who has found it impossible to follow her older sister’s lead and flee small-town Ontario for marriage and the city. Tethered to an aging, passively demanding mother, and rapidly approaching middle age and spinsterhood, Rachel’s only real friend is Calla, a fellow teacher. When a man she remembers from childhood comes back to town for the summer, they embark on an affair that, although it doesn’t end happily, gives Rachel the courage and self-confidence she needs to change her life for good.
The interesting thing about Rachel is that her defining characteristic is a terror of embarrassment. She’s not even generally embarrassed by the things she does; she’s too much in control of herself; but other people’s weaknesses, humanity, foolishness, lack of control or inhibition, can bring her to tears of shame. It is as though she’s emotionally stuck at thirteen, consumed by humiliation at the slightest imperfection. It’s a perfect metaphor for her life: still living at home, still at the whim of a parent, she might as well be a teenager. It threatens her relationships before Nick, her lover, comes to town; her shame after attending an evangelical meeting at Calla’s church nearly destroys the friendship between the two women (and Calla, we know, is a woman not without courage in facing her own life). Although Rachel has to face a crisis of a nature which I tend to find irritating in fiction (no more for fear of spoilers, but go read my review of The Illumination of Ursula Flight), in her case the need to make a decision is removed by fate, or rather by plotting. In a way, this was frustrating; in another, it felt necessary, because the romance with Nick, although positioned as being central to the book, really isn’t. It is simply the tool that Rachel needs to lever herself out of one life and into another, which, by the end, she does, an effort described in prose that is both moving and beautiful.
Isabella Tree’s husband, Charlie Burrell, is the owner of Knepp Castle, in Sussex. Up until the year 2000, Isabella and Charlie were still attempting to make the estate profitable through traditional farming methods. But in that year, they spoke to a tree expert about the state of the Knepp Oak – a tree so old it was likely fully grown when Elizabeth I visited the park – and his advice, together with the steeply declining profitability of traditional farming, even when subsidised, pushed them into the idea of rewilding their land. (“Rewilding” is a contentious term. The aim is not to have an aim at all, but rather to cease the intensive human management of a landscape and see what happens. Because Tree and Burrell did retain a certain amount of control by introducing old native species, or approximations thereof, like Tamworth pigs and Dartmoor ponies, and because the “original state” of the historic English landscape is not at all certain, Tree is not very comfortable using the word, but she admits it is probably the best one we have at the moment.)
Wilding is an excellent book: richly informative not only about what we do and don’t know about English landscape (very little; evidence for heavy forest cover in prehistoric and medieval Britain, Tree demonstrates, is at best partial, and has often been interpreted partially, by historians and archaeologists with ideological axes to grind), but also about the characteristics of particular species in a landscape (she explains the benefit of the Tamworth pigs rooting in rich soil by the side of their drive, the incalculable long-term effects of leaving low-lying land uncultivated to create aquatic habitats, even the virtues of the humble dung beetle). She is also never less than honest about the hard pushback that these schemes generally receive from the neighbours. Most of the land surrounding theirs in Sussex is farmed, and English farmers in particular tend to be strongly antipathetic to “wasting” good land; there is a national narrative about being an island, and the hazard of food shortages, and the need to make every inch of ground productive in some way, which she unpicks with skill and sympathy, if also frustration. But what she also conveys is the utter shortsightedness of this approach, the dead end into which English and European farming in general is running at full speed. Above all, she is passionately specific about the benefits of rewilding schemes to land health, biodiversity, and the health (and economies) of the humans who live around rewilded areas. Wilding is a seriously important book on an urgent topic, and it is also highly readable. It ought to be put into the hands of agriculture ministers and rural funding bodies, as well as those of interested civilians.
Sometimes the circumstances under which you read a book are so flawlessly matched that the book and the environment meld together in your memory, and you know you’ll never be able to remember one without remembering the other. I’m so pleased to have read my first Mary Stewart under such circumstances: prostrate on a Saturday in the middle of a heatwave, window wide open, spooning raspberry sorbet into my gaping mouth, refusing to move from the bed except to go make more iced coffee. This Rough Magic, which is set on Corfu and involves a witty, spirited failed actress, a ruggedly handsome grumpy man, attempted and actual murder, smuggling, currency market inflation, abduction, and a dolphin, could not have been a more perfect read for that particular day. Our heroine, Lucy Waring, is the aforementioned failed actress, a failure about which she is quite sanguine: she knows she’s barely third-rate on the stage, though she turns out to be an excellent dissembler when it comes to enticing a known murderer on a day trip.
Any initial skepticism I might have had about Mary Stewart dropped away within minutes of starting to read: she’s very funny, an effect mostly achieved through use of pitilessly accurate similes, and the liberal sprinkling of references to The Tempest throughout the book adds a lot of charm. The mystery, and the villain, are genuinely chilling and villainous; so often in books of this vintage the stakes feel absurdly low, the evil underdeveloped, but here Stewart conveys a sense of real menace and cruelty, while keeping the melodrama under control. An excellent introduction to her work; I look forward to continuing with The Ivy Tree and The Gabriel Hounds. (This is much to the satisfaction of my colleague Faye, who wrote her PhD on Stewart and is probably the world expert on her work.)