Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin

I found Father Melancholy’s Daughter a compelling but challenging read, partly because of the protagonist’s ability to get under your skin.

Father Melancholy is Margaret’s father, the Rector of St Cuthbert’s in a small town in Virginia. The novel follows Margaret’s attempts to formulate herself through an understanding of her parents that circles most intently around the period of her mother’s departure. Her father suffers from periods of depression that he calls going behind the black curtain – hence the nickname Father Melancholy – and her mother, much younger than her father, vivacious, energetic, suffers under his failure to be the perfect religious hero she had imagined.

After the death of her mother, Margaret becomes the helpmeet for her father, nourishing him through his periods of depression. Margaret allows her own needs to subjugate to her father’s and to others as well. Her need to fulfil obligations and to behave appropriately is behaviour that being a Rector’s daughter has encouraged, but it is also something that is innate within her. She lives through other people as much as she lives for herself and the book is really about her journey into selfhood, into a recognition that she needs to find her own story, her own path through life that embraces her proclivities. As a reader, I sometimes wanted to encourage her to find this path faster, to embrace some carefree youth and there are moments when it feels as if she is going to make similar mistakes to her parents. This makes the book uncomfortable to read, but for all the right reasons: Margaret feels very real.

It would be difficult not to be drawn into Margaret’s analytical and imaginative mind. There is a sense of scholarship and emotion that is unusual and enticing. In a strange way it’s like reading a female, and thankfully less arrogant, Remembrances of Time Past. Over the course of the book we watch a young woman emerge out of girlhood. Despite the potentially trite nature of such a narrative, this feels like a hard won achievement shared with the reader, especially as Gail Godwin’s descriptions of grief are so overwhelming (I found myself crying through most of the last one hundred pages, you’ll see why if you read the novel).

There is also an obsession with old monastic life, mystics and medieval texts that fits beautifully with Margaret’s life as a Rector’s daughter, but also as a contemplative being. The way in which literature and religion attempt to make sense of what it means to have an inner life combine in the narrative of Margaret’s life and almost turn writing into a religious act of faith. To search for some kind of truth about the self and about the world is a precious pursuit. Even her mother’s old artist friend, who seems to steal her mother away, understands art in very similar way.

To truly do credit to Father Melancholy’s Daughter would require more study and more pages than I care to cover here. Perhaps it is best to say that this is one of those rare novels that really forces you to undergo the protagonist’s experiences. Whilst that may not always be easy or even wished for, it makes Father Melancholy’s Daughter an extremely powerful novel that turns time upon itself in a way that reminds me of A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, only Father Melancholy’s Daughter does it more quietly and in a less dramatically self-conscious way. There is an aesthetic to Father Melancholy’s Daughter, an otherworldly quality that lends Margaret’s story the romantic glow of remembered youth. I would thoroughly recommend it.

Next week I’m reading The Machine by James Smythe, followed the week after by The Trick Is To Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway, and then This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes. Please do suggest books for future weeks.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

I decided to read A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing mostly out of a sense of curiosity. I admit that I was sceptical; I was nervous of form outstripping sense and becoming a gimmick. It seemed to me that a book that decides to tackle inner-narrative in a Finnegan’s Wake make language new way, could be only one of two things: a publisher’s attempt to claim literary ground, or a truly interesting and engaging novel. I’m delighted to say that A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is definitely the later. Suddenly stories of it taking nine years for the book to be published make sense.

This isn’t a novel for those looking for an easy read. This is a book that disjoints language and hones new turns of phrase. Our unnamed narrator tells us her story from the womb onwards, and though disjointed language is expected from a baby, I did expect a more pronounced shift towards conventionally constructed narrative as she grew older. Though the language did not shift in the way I expected, I felt better able to navigate it as the novel progressed and was delightfully struck by the novelty of phrasing this rendering of consciousness allowed. Despite the difficult subject matter, of a brother’s illness and disability, a father’s desertion, a mother’s anger and an uncle’s abuse, the narrator’s story is quite literally beautifully told. For example, when her uncle starts his harassment with awkward questions, asking if she believes in hell, her response makes clear that difficult flood of confusion and gratitude that flows from his attention: ‘Blood swirl and swirl. My thud cheeks up.’ Lovely conflations of thought, feeling and word fill the world of the book and though they create an intensity not all readers will enjoy, I couldn’t get enough of them.

This linguistic playground feels fresh but in truth, A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing is only a pioneering novel if you haven’t read William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf or Toni Morrison or Marie Darrieussecq or Elfriede Jelinek or Zeruya Shalev. But the beauty of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is that it tries to take the representation of our inner-narrative flow even further, reworking the intense story of sexual mania, where a woman seeks to be sexually assaulted, violently abused in order to drown out a sense of her own worthlessness, in order to feel full of something even if it ends up being shame. Unsurprisingly we hear the echo of her early words: ‘Our empty spaces where fathers should be. Whenabouts we might find them and what we’d do to fill them up.’

If it weren’t for my desire to hear more of the language, I might have been frustrated with some of the plot turns. Even the narrator is aware that her own pain is common, that many others suffer in life, but the self-awareness is fleeting and though we can see that she isn’t selfish, that her desire to be dragged through the mud in name and reality to return to her cancer-struck home beaten and dishevelled is more than, but also a justified, call for her mother’s attention, her endless return to self-destruction is frustrating. In one way, this shows how involved we become in the narrator’s life; such behaviour would be frustrating from friends and relatives in real life. When the novel ends – and I won’t entirely give it away – I am disappointed. For me, there are confrontations the protagonist has yet to face and these possible confrontations might leave me less frustrated. The ending feels too easy.

However, these are the quibbles of a reader with a book that is thoroughly stimulating. How often do you reach the end of a novel and want to reread it? This is the sort of writing we should be encouraging and endorsing: brave, intelligent, unrelenting. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a deserving winner of the Goldsmiths Prize 2013 and hopefully will find itself on more than the Folio Prize shortlist this year.

Next week, I’ll be reading Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin, followed by The Machine by James Smythe, short-listed for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award. Suggestions for following weeks would be very welcome.

The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers

I had not read any of Carson McCullers work until now and reading The Ballad of the Sad Café made me wish I had. The quiet clarity of her writing and her ability to observe such different characters has obviously influenced many of the American writers that I have read. I hear echoes of her voice in the edited Carver, in Flannery O’Connor and in Alice Munro. This is the kind of writing that makes you want to pick up your pen regardless of how good the outcome.

The greatest part of the book is taken up with the story ‘The Ballad of the Sad Café’. Behind the circus of the café with its manly cross-eyed owner and its hunchbacked resident, is the sound of the chain gang building modern American with a wistful, heartfelt chorus. There is something of this eerie resonance that plays throughout the collection. McCullers stories are not given straight-forwards resolutions, but show the complexities of human life as reality impacts upon our hopes and dreams. Our need to delude ourselves, our difficulty in mapping emotion onto reason, is revealed and responded to with breath-taking care.

Whilst I of course preferred some stories to others, The Ballad of the Sad Café is a remarkable collection whose reflective qualities made me think of Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’. I’m not going to summarise the stories because I would urge you to read the book yourself.

Next week I’ll be reading A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, then Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin.

The Drift by Hester Musson

The Drift is a painfully beautiful account of one man’s interrupted life. George Howarth is a physicist living in 19th Century London, ripped into the 21st Century by the accidental turn of one of his experiments. What follows is his quest to return to the past and then to grapple with his present.

Through a deftly crafted prose, elegant with a Victorian turn of phrase, we are immersed in George’s confusion, seeing our modern world through fresh eyes. And alongside George’s story lies H G Well’s The Time Machine. A gift from his wife, teasingly trying to encourage him to spend more time with his wife and son, George awakes in modern day London clasping the book in his hands. Once again our time sits judged, only this time against Well’s imagined future. None of these comparisons are dwelt upon, but they linger in the mind praising certain social reforms – the emancipation of women – and feeling disappointed in the absence of others – the hope that scientific discovery might herald a different social order but discovering a more confused version of what already existed. At least the haunted feeling George suffers is not physically manifested in anything like the Morlocks of Well’s imagination: humanity has not changed. Perhaps that is cause for relief and sadness.

George was an atomist, one of the first trying to prove the gaps existing within the supposed building blocks of nature. An interest in the forces of nature that separate and draw together, that exist across dimensions, positing the possibility of existing in two places at once, makes a kind of science of coincidence. George enjoys unnoticed mirroring of actions unaware, until much later in the novel, that he has unknowingly been surrounded by relatives since his arrival in the 21st century. And even though we might be tempted to enjoy a sense of meaning in the attraction of blood to blood, that too is questioned. Perceptions of connection are more important.

Why then, has The Drift not been published?  Sadly, I think modern publishing’s leaning towards fast-paced books rather than carefully unfurled novels is the answer. The Drift has a clear and intriguing plot, but it is not revealed at the kind of pace many publishers seem to prefer. But you don’t need pace if character can carry you (think of Orlando or The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis), and George can. What will he do? How can he find purpose again? Nor do you need pace if you can appreciate precise and alarmingly elegant prose, such as: ‘Sound became careless of boundaries in the dark’ or ‘Tiredness, unexpected, brushed his bones with lead’. And this is not to say that the book lacks pace, it is just meted out at a rhythm more in keeping with George’s pre-fibre optic century.

I don’t want to track George’s journey across continents or map out the affections of his wife, so terrifyingly questioned by George in his interrogation of the past. I want someone else to pick up the book and find out for themselves. This novel has a depth and breadth of human interest that harks back to the literary work of science fiction and should be considered in its whole as a book about what it means to be human, about how we exist in the face of futility, how we forge connections in the knowledge of the spaces between us. ‘The universe was a sling, flinging its history far across itself.’ In the end it doesn’t matter who we are, but how we are for those brief moments we are conscious of our time in this particular world. And I am reminded of Borges’ story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ where parallel worlds and times resonate upon the present like a labyrinth, evoking the endless possibility of the universe and our presence within it. How could such considerations be resisted? Someone should publish The Drift!

If any of you know, or happen to be, an agent or publisher who might be interested in reading The Drift, let me know.

Next week I’ll be reading The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers, followed by A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, then Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin. Further reading suggestions are always welcome.