The English Country Estate

Peculiar Ground     Lucy Hughes-Hallett     (2018)   

Walls: perimeter walls, border walls, the Berlin Wall, walls between persons, walls between peoples, the wall around the Garden of Eden, walls of inclusion, walls of exclusion, the walls of Jericho that came tumbling down. Walls both solid and figurative are found everywhere in Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s fascinating foray out of biographical writing into fiction. 

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The “peculiar ground” of this novel’s title is a fictional Oxfordshire estate, Wychwood, a country house and huge expanse of land surrounded by a high rock wall. Readers drop in on the construction of this wall in 1663, with a first-person narrative by John Norris, the landscaper who is rearranging the terrain all around the estate, creating a British version of Eden in conjunction with the building of the wall. We get fully settled in at Wychwood, meeting the owners, the many people who tend to the owners and their property, and the mysterious and possibly magic-making groups who glide through the surrounding forests.

Then Hughes-Hallett whisks us away to 1961, the year when a barbed-wire fence is suddenly erected one summer’s night in Berlin, and armed guards are posted to keep East Berliners from heading to the West. The British reactions to this actual Cold War gambit are the backdrop to an extensive update on the Wychwood estate and its twentieth-century inhabitants. The wall around the pastoral paradise of Wychwood still stands, in glaring contrast to that threatening one in Berlin. Or is it so different?  Various assemblages of outsiders visit, invade, or otherwise challenge the enclosure of Wychwood as the narrative moves to 1973 and then to 1989. We meet direct descendants of characters from the 1663 segment of the story as well as new blood. But tragedy can visit in the twentieth century just as in the seventeenth.

Perhaps I was especially taken with Peculiar Ground because of its embrace of the seventeenth-century tradition of poems in praise of country homes. Ben Jonson initiated this subgenre in 1616 with “To Penshurst,” written to curry the favor of a wealthy patron of the arts. I found many echoes of this tradition in Peculiar Ground, with Hughes-Hallett’s sumptuous and specific descriptions of the verdant British landscape. Horticultural references slide right on over into other descriptions. A lord of the manor tells his lady, “I will cover you with Brussels lace, as the roadside is covered with a froth of flowers this Maytide.” (423) In the twentieth-century section, a dress is made of “bias-cut Liberty lawn covered with convolvulus, silvery-green pleats like the chitons of Athenian caryatids.” (102) When a young female character visits her aunts, she loves “to feel the slithery fineness of face powder in a gilded round cardboard box . . . to sense the odd peacefulness of their house, where no one had to be decisive or busy, or do anything other than exchange fragmentary quotations from the works of unfashionable poets, and wonder aloud when it would be time, finally to throw out the dusty arrangements of dried flowers.” (123) Such sentences made me stop and revel.

Peculiar Ground has so many layers—walls, gardens, magic—that it demands the close attention of the reader. I put bookmarks at the pages with the map of the estate and with the dramatis personae so that I could turn back frequently. But the reward is a richly detailed portrait of a particular and peculiar place on Earth. There are also morals to be found, especially for the current international political situation, in which refugees and other migrants face walls both literal and metaphorical. Check out John Norris’s comment during the plague of 1665, when the gates to Wychwood are locked: “Here, those suspected of being diseased are kept without the wall. In London they are kept walled in.” (386) As the plague threat retreats, the lord of Wychwood speaks condescendingly to his underlings, inadvertently summing up, “It is not upon heaps of stone that our safety depends, but upon the loyalty of our friends.” (429). 

If you like Peculiar Ground, you might want to read Edward Rutherfurd’s The Forest (2000), another British saga about magical woodlands. And on this side of the Atlantic, see my review of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (2016), set in the forests of Canada and the northern United States. For different fictional approaches to Berlin and the Berlin Wall, see my reviews of Here in Berlin by Cristina García (2017) and Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2015/2017).

A Family in Distress

In Caddis Wood     Mary François Rockcastle     (2011)

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With prose that is reminiscent of the writing of Barbara Kingsolver, Mary Rockcastle takes her readers into the forests and meadows of the upper Midwest for a plaintive story of a long marriage.

Carl Fens is an architect who’s put in long hours away from his family as he’s built a stellar career. Hallie Bok has raised their twin daughters while trying to keep her hand in with writing poetry and teaching. The couple have suffered more than their share of sorrows, the details of which are revealed over the course of the novel:  the early and sudden death of Carl’s father, the departure of Hallie’s mother when Hallie is young, a near-fatal accident involving one of their daughters, the death of a son-in-law. In flashbacks from old diaries, we learn that the previous owners of the family’s bucolic retreat lost a son in the Korean War. Readers need to keep track of all these side issues as the main plot unfolds.

In this main plot, Carl, at age 61, starts exhibiting unusual and troubling neurological symptoms. As part of Hallie’s search for a diagnosis, she inadvertently brings to light a near-affair that she had ten years previously, when she and Carl were briefly estranged. Carl and Hallie have to come to terms with this revelation at the same time that they’re dealing with Carl’s deteriorating health and his major new architectural commission involving redevelopment of a toxic waste site.

The backdrop for most of the novel is the Caddis Wood of the title, a magical place in northern Wisconsin, the site of the family’s second home. Here are just two examples of Rockcastle’s lyrical descriptions:  

“[Hallie] rests her eyes on the late-summer glow of the meadow. The midday grasses are on fire: crimson bluestem, golden switchgrass, straw-colored sideoats grama. Blazing among the bronzed, stiff clusters of goldenrod and yarrow are hearty sunflowers and dogtooth daisies, coneflowers still in color. She sighs happily and drinks from her water bottle, loving the persistence of summer, the way it hangs on in the fading, somnolent heat.” (45)

“At the top of the hill overlooking Echo Pond, she gazes gratefully at the incandescent surface. Another week and the feathery larches will start to yellow, but not yet. Trees cast their shadows on the stippled surface. Water striders and whirligig beetles zigzag merrily.” (214)

A few scenes take place on Captiva Island in Florida, and this oceanside setting is also depicted lovingly: “Dozens of pelicans, more than Hallie has ever seen, are diving headfirst into the sea. When they surface, their beaks shimmer with silver, wiggling meat that is swallowed whole or spilled into the sea. Gluttonous gulls fight over the leftovers. A group of scarlet ibises land next to a crane, red legs aglow in the sunlight, and poke their long saffron beaks doggedly into the sand. The water shivers and pops as if charged with electric current.” (126)

After many heartbreaking life events, the family members in this novel still manage to treasure their time together and pursue their goals. The daughters of Hallie and Carl are named Cordelia (as in Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear) and Beatrice (Dante’s guide through heaven in his Divine Comedy). Perhaps these names are meant to point out that, despite tragic experiences, we can all find our way to happiness.

Books in Brief, Part 2

I haul eight or ten books home from my local library every week. About half of those don’t get my attention past the first few pages. A couple of others may get a cursory scan through selected chapters. The remaining two or three books I read, relish, and review fully. Some of the books that don’t make the cut for a full review end up in a Books in Brief post. Read on!

Idaho     Emily Ruskovich     (2017)

The terror in this novel lurks deep within, and it is revealed ever so slowly. The novelist is highly skilled in describing the rugged landscapes of northern Idaho and in exploring the perspectives of multiple characters at multiple time points. In short, this is an excellent novel. But the crime that sets the plot in motion is so horrific that I simply had to stop reading about a third of the way through. If you don’t have problems with nightmares from scary books, you may like this one.

Here I Am     Jonathan Safran Foer     (2016)

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This novel is exasperatingly self-referential, long (571 pages), and long-winded. I can see the brilliance of much of the writing, but the author swaggers with his own importance too much. For example, Foer constructs many descriptive lists. When Michael Chabon employs this device, he illuminates his subject. When Foer does it, he suffocates his subject. There’s a lot of discussion of the politics of Israel, and I hoped that would redeem the story, but it didn’t. I gave up less than a quarter of the way through.

 

The Sleep Revolution     Arianna Huffington     (2016)

I’ve read a lot of books and blog posts on the subject of insomnia, and as I paged quickly through The Sleep Revolution I recognized all the standard assertions:  lives too fast-paced, blue screens too ubiquitous, dinner too late, snoring too loud, pills too dangerous. If you need to be convinced that you should seek more healing sleep, you might want to read this entire book. Otherwise, turn to chapter 9, “What To Do, What Not To Do.” Among the many sleep tips summarized in this chapter I found one I may try: extended bedtime meditation rituals. Huffington helpfully lists guided meditations for sleep in her Appendix B. Her Appendix D, on mattresses, doesn’t mention the best resource I’ve found: sleeplikethedead.com

Living with an Anomaly

Miss Jane     Brad Watson     (2016)

In this delicate yet intense novel, Brad Watson tells the life story of Miss Jane Chisholm, who comes to terms with a serious genital birth defect. Miss Jane was born in rural Mississippi in 1915, so her case is indeed difficult, since there was no medical remedy for her condition at the time. Still, Miss Jane approaches each phase of her life with determination and optimism, despite the disappointments in love and career that are imposed by society’s reaction to her disability.

Watson’s starting point for research on this novel (as he explains on his website) was the life of his own great-aunt, who was born with a genital anomaly that was only vaguely alluded to in his family. Watson finally figured out what his great-aunt’s condition must have been, and in the novel he doesn’t shy away from explaining the physical issues, revealing pieces as the story progresses. These medical facts are usually in dialogues, with the local doctor (who attended Miss Jane’s birth and follows her case), speaking to Jane. Watson pulls the narrative out of the realm of the bizarre into normality, breaking down barriers that separate people because of their physical characteristics.

The reader comes to respect Miss Jane for her courage and to love her for her sweetness. Both as a child and as a woman, she’s beautiful in appearance. Men are attracted to her, and she must make decisions about how to handle their attentions, as she also finds ways to work around her incontinence.

The lush natural surroundings of Miss Jane and her family are described with striking language. For example, here is what Miss Jane’s mother sees as she sits on her porch, worrying about her daughter: “Late fall blackbirds swept in waves to the oaks at the yard’s edge, and their deafening, squawking, creaking calls, the cacophonous tuning of a mad avian symphony, drew the grief-borne anger from her heart, into the air, and swept it way in long, almost soothing moments of something like peace.”

I can’t help comparing Miss Jane, to Middlesex, the 2002 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, which is a very different story about living life with a genital anomaly. In Miss Jane, the continuing advice of a kindly and knowledgeable doctor softens the suffering that Jane inevitably goes through. In Middlesex, the protagonist lacks this support.

The American South has often been a literary location for sadness, beauty, and extraordinary events under the graceful drooping Spanish moss. You’ll find those qualities in Miss Jane. And be sure to watch for the peacocks, which the author tells us (in the Acknowledgments) were added on the suggestion of his young granddaughter.