The Dollmaker, by Harriette Arnow

cover

Every couple of years or so, a contemporary publisher “rediscovers” a classic. Most successfully, this happened to Stoner back in 2013. Now it is the turn of The Dollmaker by Harriette Simpson Arnow, a 605-page doorstop that reads like something half its size, about the struggles of hill farmer Gertrude Nevels as she adjusts to life as a factory worker’s wife in WWII industrial Detroit. Vintage has just reprinted it, with their inimitable red spine, and if there’s any justice (which, of course, there rarely is), it will see a renaissance like Stoner’s.

It is essentially a novel about culture clash, and about being uprooted. Gertie Nevels is our point-of-view character and heroine: the book opens with her giving her youngest child, Amos, a tracheotomy by the side of the road, while a US Army officer hems and haws about the propriety of giving her a lift to the doctor’s in town. We thus learn two things about Gertie almost immediately: one, she is fearless, not especially sentimental but a mother to the core and completely certain of her own strength; and two, she is a very good carver. She refers to what she does as “whittlin”, but the Army officer notes it as artistic skill; she whittles a tube for her baby’s throat to complete the tracheotomy, a detailed and fiddly piece of work, without trouble. (Dialogue throughout the book is written in Appalachian dialect. Instead of seeming like authorial mockery, this allows Arnow’s characters dignity whilst constantly reinforcing their identity: we can never forget that these are hill people, country people, people to whom urban, 20th-century America is alien.) Gertie is utterly confident in her own demesne. She is strong; she can dig and plant potatoes on her own, chop and haul wood, milk the cow. Her husband Clovis’s periodic absences hauling coal in his truck are not a problem; she is tall and broad, a farmer’s daughter and a sharecropper, and you immediately understand that she could run an entire small farm herself with little difficulty.

The outbreak of war has had a huge impact on their community. (One of the best scenes in the book comes early, when the women of the settlement gather at the general store-cum-post office to await the mail, delivered by ancient Uncle Ansel and his donkey; Arnow beautifully but quietly conveys the crippling anxiety of a community composed almost entirely now of women, some of whom have already lost sons or husbands, others of whom are desperately praying that today isn’t the day they lose theirs.) When Clovis has to leave for a few days for his army fitness assessment, she’s not too worried—surely the army won’t take a farmer?—but then he disappears for weeks, and when she next hears from him, he’s moved to Detroit and found work in a factory. Gertie’s appalling mother (drawn with the same pen as Gwendoline Riley uses on her character Neve’s mother in First Love, a whining, carping, manipulative horror, only in this case with added God-bothering) guilts her into joining him, so she gives up her hope of buying the Tipton Place, uproots her children, and takes the train north.

Almost immediately, it becomes clear that they’ve made a mistake. Reading the Detroit sections of The Dollmaker while flat-hunting alone in London is an astonishingly resonant experience; Arnow describes cramped conditions, poor ventilation, smells, dirt, noisy neighbours, and—most critically for Gertie—an almost total lack of nature. Living in the city creates other disconnects: their furniture and car, Gertie is horrified to discover, have been bought “on time” (credit), and every month seems to drive them further into debt. A block of wood that she has brought with her from home, which she intends to carve into the image of a Christ, is often abandoned for days or weeks at a time: Clovis thinks she can make money selling dolls to women and children in the neighbourhood, and she gets commissions for crucifixes and jointed dolls from wealthier people—her neighbour’s husband’s boss, amongst others.

Money is so constantly in short supply that efficiency, and profit, begin to take over Gertie’s work. She doesn’t want them to—one of Arnow’s strengths is her ability to convince us that Gertie is an artist through and through, not because of any airy-fairy beliefs about the integrity of creating, but because she was born to it, born with the skill and the need to practice it—but Clovis is insistent. The purchase of a jig saw, which enables Gertie and her children to cut pre-drawn two-dimensional shapes out of wood, speeds up the production considerably, but it comes at the expense of hand-carving, and therefore of art. The Nevels children, most of whom adapt speedily to their new circumstances, delight in their “home factory”; it throws Gertie into despair and depression, knowing as she does that the need to pay the bills will trump, every time, the need to make something beautiful and meaningful.

Gertie’s problem – one of Gertie’s problems – is that she is inarticulate. She’s an artist, but a visual, physical, active one; she carves and whittles, hoes and hews. Words don’t come easily or naturally to her. Nor do they come naturally to Clovis, a mechanic whose “tinkering” is the source of mild mockery in their small community. Gertie and Clovis love each other, clearly, at the beginning of the novel, even though they don’t have the words for it; by the end, they barely speak to one another, and have been changed out of all recognition by the new community in which they live.This inarticulacy combines with inherently patriarchal attitudes to create a code of conduct for women that seems designed for their misery: at one point, Clovis becomes anxious when he thinks Gertie is in pain, mostly because she has apparently never given any indication of being physically hurt or ill throughout their entire married life. Though it’s never stated (like so much else in this book), we can surmise that Clovis’s obliviousness to his wife’s ability to feel pain – despite her having given birth at least five times – is partly down to that female code that doesn’t let you “trouble” your husband.

One of the tragedies of The Dollmaker is that it’s a portrait of a marriage which could, in other times, have ended in divorce, as the two parties realise they are simply too dissimilar in what they want and value in life. As it is, Gertie is stuck. By the end of the book, whether she loves him or not doesn’t even matter: she must keep producing, keep paying the rent, keep her children in shoes. The block of wood that she tries to make into a Christ is sometimes mistaken for a Judas; it’s a fitting uncertainty for a book that shows us so brutally how sacrifice can also be betrayal.

Bailey’s Prize Longlist Reading 1: Tremain, Atwood, Omotoso

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Minor spoilers ahead.

The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

9781784700201Gustav Perle lives in Matzlingen, Switzerland, with his beloved Mutti. The second World War has just ended. His father, Erich, is dead – a hero, his Mutti says, but Gustav doesn’t know anything about him, not why he died or what he was like when he was alive. Gustav adores Mutti, but she spends a lot of time ignoring him, or crying. When Anton Zwiebel joins the local kindergarten, Gustav has a friend for the first time in his short life. The rest of Rose Tremain’s poised and beautiful book is dedicated to the story of Anton and Gustav’s friendship, and to the story of the truth of Erich and Emilie Perle’s marriage.

It has been said that The Gustav Sonata is about neutrality, and it is, sort of, but the word I thought of most when I was reading it was “caring”, which is another way of talking about neutrality. The book is intensely focused on care: giving care, receiving care, in the sense of love and attention, is at the heart of Gustav and Anton’s relationship. It is also Gustav’s problem. He is pushed into adulthood early by a lack of care from his mother Emilie (who tells him frequently as a child that he must “master himself”); he is forced into a caregiving role vis-à-vis Anton by Anton’s parents, who are kind to Gustav but surprisingly willing to place the burden of Anton’s emotional well-being on a pre-adolescent’s shoulders. Meanwhile, Gustav’s family history is characterised by a generational withholding of care: Emilie, his mother, was constantly chastised and neglected by her mother, Irma, and the book’s second section, on the Perle marriage, charts the decline of care between two people in a way that illuminates everything about Gustav’s life. Meanwhile, excessive care damages people: Anton is hurt by it – his major adult relationship is passionate, but deeply abusive – and the affair between Erich Perle and his boss’s wife is unhealthy in its obsessiveness.

Tremain plants her thematic seeds carefully and tends them throughout the novel, so that resonances spring up at you as you read. Switzerland’s political neutrality, the destructive neutrality of one human being towards another, and Erich Perle’s rejection of official neutrality in order to save refugees are all tied together. Tremain writes like Kate Atkinson: her prose is accessible and clear without making the treatment of her subject light or superficial. The ending could, I think, be more delicate and also more believable: there is never any sense of sex in Gustav’s life, either before or after the final revelation of Anton’s love, and I think it is a disservice to deny him this. If it’s intentional, it isn’t leaned on enough to make the intention clear. But this is a question of verisimilitude versus thematic coherence – whether something is entirely believable versus whether it reinforces the novel’s general concerns – and so my reservation is pretty minor.

Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

29245653Atwood’s novel is the fourth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that seeks to “retell” some of the most famous of the plays as novels set in the present day. Some of these have been more successful than others; Atwood’s, I think, is the best so far. The reason it works is because she fully acknowledges the existence of The Tempest inside the world of her novel, which frees her: she doesn’t have to pretend, like Jeanette Winterson and Howard Jacobson, that the uncanny similarities between her characters and the plot of Shakespeare’s play is mere happenstance. She can delve right into those parallels, explore them explicitly, instead of making us wonder why no one in the book has yet noticed how unlikely this all is.

Her Prospero is Felix Phillips, a disgraced and deposed theatre festival director now going by the name Mr. Duke and teaching a theatre course in the local prison. Miranda – brilliantly – is dead (because the late plays are all about dead daughters, losing daughters, coming to terms with grief); she died of meningitis as a three-year-old, a horribly plausible scenario. After twelve years of living in hiding from his former associates, Felix chooses his method of revenge: he will stage his own production of The Tempest at the prison, and take down the men who betrayed him—now high-ranking politicians—along the way.

Whether this revenge fantasy would actually work or not (and I admit it would rely heavily on excellent timing, which usually doesn’t work out in real life), you have to admire the way Atwood takes on the play. Felix walks his convict players through The Tempest with a thorough thoughtfulness that I found genuinely illuminating. It might, I suppose, be considered a little academic, but the tone is always that of an interested and informed person talking to other interested people; Felix neither talks down to nor bamboozles his actors, and by extension, he doesn’t do these things to us. The Tempest is a play uniquely well-suited to prison. Felix and Atwood allow us to watch the dawning awareness, among the convict-actors, of the story’s relevance, and it is a gorgeous, shiver-inducing thing. The only major concern I had was when Atwood ventriloquised the rap songs that the actors invent to make the play more contemporary: would it sound like a White Lady Author “doing” street? Answer: sort of, but mostly, I think, because raps look awful written down. When I did them in my head, they…well, they worked. Though I don’t envy whoever does the audiobook.

The Woman Next Door, by Yewande Omotoso

cover

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are next-door neighbours in an upmarket area of Cape Town. Hortensia is black, married to a white British husband; Marion is white (and racist, which we’ll learn about later.) They are eighty years old, they have both run successful businesses—Hortensia as a textile designer, Marion as an architect—and they hate each other. The Woman Next Door is an account, if not quite of how they become friends, then of how they come to hate each other a little bit less.

Marion’s racism is breathtaking. She’s a woman of her generation—apartheid was her normal. Her housekeeper, Agnes, is a black South African who is expected to eat from separate containers and use separate (and inferior) toilet paper. Agnes spends no energy in contesting any of this; she simply, quietly, gets on with the business of being a real human with some level of agency. When Marion eventually discovers that Agnes has stopped using the toilet paper bought for her, she is shocked and dismayed, until Agnes reveals that she’s simply paying for her own bogroll. But Marion’s relief is shortlived: it turns out that Agnes has started buying better-quality stuff than Marion allows herself. This scene is the sort of thing Omotoso excels at, the delicate dance of social oneupmanship. She tells a little bit too much more than she shows, though I think that’s a common misstep with social comedy.

The biggest stylistic hiccup with The Woman Next Door is the occasional register clash, or what feels like it. Omotoso uses words like “peeved” and “messed up”, which sound either euphemistic or childish, or both, and represent a linguistic cautiousness I wouldn’t expect from two old women who, we’re told, can “cut the legs off people” with their words. In general, on the sentence level, this book isn’t going to set you aflame. I do think its political content is sly and significant; the kinds of people who will read a book blurbed by Helen Simonson are not necessarily going to respond well to polemic, but Omotoso does slip in commentary. There’s a subplot about reparations in the form of a land claim (which I’d have liked a lot more of) and another about the descendant of a slave who lived on the farm where the neighbourhood now stands. I’m pleased that these points are present; they might find an audience that would otherwise have missed them. It’s also a book about old women, and about friendship, and we don’t get many books about old women; as Naomi said, more please. I like it fine, and will probably recommend it to quite a few bookshop customers. I’m just not sure it’s a shortlister.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and EricThe Gustav Sonata is published by Vintage and is now in paperback; Hag-Seed is published by Hogarth and is available in hardback; The Woman Next Door is also published by Vintage and is also now in paperback.