Friday, 20 December 2013

Mr B's Reading Year, Two: 'The sea is still beneath our feet'

For Ginny Cook Smith, her father's thousand acres has been the bedrock of her life in Iowa, the ground upon which her life, and the lives of her two sisters, Rose and Caroline, and their families has been built. However, early in the novel, her description of 'tile', the plastic tubing that has drained the soil and made it fit for crops, indicates a hidden instability underneath the universal currency of land:  'I was always aware, I think, of the water in the soil… the sea is still beneath our feet and we walk on it.' It is only later in life that Ginny becomes aware of the possible link between the nitrates draining into their well water and the five miscarriages she has suffered, but the image of the underground lake lingers. However, it is also the deep roots of this novel in a particular type of community and its affiliation to the land that allows it to escape both melodrama and the accusation that it is simply a poor reworking of King Lear. Although the parallels with Lear are, in one sense, obvious - the plot hinges on Larry Cook's division of his farm between his two oldest daughters after he cuts the youngest out of his will - I found that as I read I forgot the links with the play and that obvious references failed to occur to me until after I'd finished reading. This is obviously a good thing; and testament to Smiley's excellent writing that incidents that could have seemed grotesque or ill-fitting in a modern-day retelling, such as 'Gloucester's' blinding or Goneril's rumoured poisoning of Regan, worked seamlessly within Ginny's narrative.

Ginny and Rose share the memory of a tormented childhood under Larry's watch, especially after the death of their mother, and Smiley deftly conveys the pain they have both concealed while resorting to very little direct detail from either of this sisters. It is, indeed, one of Larry's mismemories as he descends into madness that provides one of the most vivid images of the past, when he tells Caroline about a brown velveteen coat she once had: 'You didn't like it either, nosiree. You didn't want any brown coat and hat. You wanted pink! Candy pink. You had it all worked out in your mind about that pink velveteen, and you took a pink Crayola to that coat, too!… Your mama had to spank you then for sure!' Ginny, who overhears this exchange, cannot bear it when her father brings this story up again in a court case, after the tables have turned and Larry believes that Caroline is the only daughter who is on his side. Confronting him with the fact that he has reshaped their past, she shouts, 'Daddy, it was Rose who had the velveteen coat! It was Rose who sang! It was me who dropped things through the well gates!' This brief thread demonstrates a number of things about Larry's relationship with his daughters; that he can continually reinvent himself as the loving patriarch, focusing on their mother's light spankings rather than his beatings; that he prefers to forget his daughters' existence rather than recognise what he sees as their disloyalty; and that despite recognising his abuse, Ginny and Rose remain desperate for their father's love.

Despite knowing the plot, I have not read or seen King Lear, and now I would like to see it with this very different take on the story fresh in my mind. Smiley's choice to humanise the two older daughters is not merely a cheap switch in perspectives but allows her to explore the tale afresh, rebuilding it from within to consider the entrapping effect of family ties. Near the end of the novel, Ginny escapes for a few years to an anonymous life working in a highway restaurant, which she loves because of its freedom from the fixed routine of the seasons and of the farming day that she has known all her life: 'there was nothing time-bound… the traffic kept moving. Snow and rain were reduced to scenery… the noise was the same… I saw this as my afterlife, and for a long time it didn't occur to me that it contained a future.' But she is ultimately pulled back by the ties that binder, haunted even by the family that never existed, as she considers when thinking of her lost children 'I see one of my five children on the street, an eleven-year-old, a thirteen-year-old, a fifteen-year-old, a nineteen-year-old, a twenty-two year old' and also of her 'dead young self.'

This novel is relentlessly bleak, and not one I found easy to read or tempting to return to. Smiley's comparison to Icelandic sagas is apt, and there are certainly echoes of the modern Icelandic classic, Halldor Laxness's Independent People, which is also one of Smiley's favourite novels. A Thousand Acres demonstrates the deadweight of land ownership and of fierce family expectations as strongly as Laxness's tale of Gu├░bjartur J├│nsson. Annie Proulx has also drawn on Icelandic inspiration in her tales of rural Wyoming in Close Range. But there are also reminders of Alice Munro's ability to evoke a life in the space of a few pages. I have known about Smiley's work for a long time, but never read anything by her before this; I'm glad to have read it, although I might not read it again.

This book was the second I was sent for my Mr B's Reading Year. My dad is a great fan of Jane Smiley, so I was pleased to be given a reason to finally try one of her novels, and I remember him relating the story of King Lear to me after he read this novel when I was a young teenager! 

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