26 November 2018
My strongest impression was of a fractal. In other words, a structural design where each part echoes the character of the whole, with a similar pattern recurring at progressively smaller scales. But not like Russian dolls because each of those doesn't intertwine with the others. Here, in contrast, the elements interlace, as well as reflect.
It's a story that has all sorts of stories inside it. There are the stories of different characters: Max, Harriet, Zeph, Molly. In the early chapters, their lives touch. Zeph turns up in Harriet's English class. Harriet and Zeph have both lost their mothers. Max is entranced by Zeph's painting in the underpass. Molly and Max meet at the parents’ night and, of course, she begins to connect with both Harriet and Zeph in quite different ways in her class.
Then within the story, there are more stories - and the concept of stories surfaces and resurfaces. Max and Harriet telling each other stories about her mother. Molly introducing folktales to the class. People here have inner story worlds too, as dreams press in. Max is disturbed by the dystopian story vividly created on the television screen that intrudes painfully, uncomfortably at least, into the utopian other Eden he's tried so hard to create for his bereaved granddaughter.
Another fractal layer is writing. We watch Harriet begin her writer’s apprenticeship, having claimed ‘writer’ as a life goal. In Molly's classroom, there are all kinds of writers, including reluctant and disengaged ones.
Right from the first chapters, I enjoyed the sense of things incubating and going to happen, always a lovely sensation as a reader at the start of a book! Max has created a cocoon for Harriet, as an understandable way of supporting her when she first came to him. She’s stretching towards independence. But it's also his own cocoon we learn. He's made a cocoon, a retreat, an Eden, we are told. For many of the characters, “something that's been dormant is stirring” now. Of course, the implications are clear. An insect needs its cocoon. Then it breaks free, discarding it and leaving it behind, shredded and empty. Retreats are for review, regrouping, re-energising and then re-emerging. And Eden, despite its loveliness, proved an impossible place to live. Adam and Eve left when the snake brought reality to them.
Another interleaving element concerns the imagery. This is a book that opens painted in light and dark. There are storms outside and cosy warmth inside. Every era has its shadow side, Max reminds us. Sometimes this darkness manages to penetrate from the outside into the world where our characters live. The gloom of moods descends on Harriet, on Zeph and on Max too. Dreams and stories carry dark shadows. The forest feels emblematic - a place where shadowy monsters, danger and even death lurk. The forest is encountered in Molly's living room and in Harriet's favourite stories. Zeph’s chilly warehouse is a similar world of fog, shadows, darkness, snakes and skulls. I think we're going to need the talisman of Grandma Metcalfe's red Ruby brooch, as we venture onwards! Because venture these people will. There is no doubt of that. They will go out into that forest and tackle what they find there because “you look for what's in the dark. That's what writers do”. It's also what all of us do, writers or not, when we go forward towards that dark edge of the map to those unknown territories marked ‘there be dragons’ -- because we are inexorably drawn towards, in Molly's words, “the mystery of things”.
The challenges and tussles of teaching English to a large group of adolescents felt incredibly familiar and took me right back to when I stood, much like Molly, at the front of the class, with the sense of being poised on the edge of something that could be exciting or a total disaster! Even the fact that she's practised beginnings since her fraught first year reminded me of having done exactly the same. The other challenges too felt real and familiar. Here I mean the never ending abrasion where the imaginative and creative work of an English teacher comes up against the assessment system and its requirements.
The contrast between logical thought and all that cannot be approached in rational or scientific ways is situated here. Books are windows, we learn, through which our characters can see and know and experience more about the world, as we readers are doing with this.
As I read into Part A, I felt I was coming to know more deeply now the various worlds hinted at in the title of the book. I found myself mapping these along two lines, the horizontal and the vertical. Across the horizontal axis, I began to note all the different worlds that the characters belong to and are even trapped within, like Zeph. Molly herself is aware of this. Her students leave her and go to another lesson and then another. “And then out into the world, vastly different worlds, some of them more captivating than anything she can generate, or more demanding, or more distressing”. Harriet has begun to see that, through her relationship with Molly, she is being pushed into the forest, not really sure what she's going to encounter in this new and darker world.
On the vertical axis we have all the things sketched in that are within our conscious realm of attention, but then below that there is everything that is working on us unconsciously. “ …beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves. They're not only jewels but also dangerous jinn abide.” The contrast between logical thought and all that cannot be approached in rational or scientific ways is situated here. Books are windows, we learn, through which our characters can see and know and experience more about the world, as we readers are doing with this.
Then there is the contested question of the real world and what that means. Much of this is summed up by Max in the truly wonderful piece of faux Spinoza that he sends off through the ether to Molly.
This is a book about the very many interdependencies and ways that the worlds of our imaginations and of our unconscious and of our yearnings and aspirations collide with the world of facts and verifiable rationalities. Yet the book is full of hope that one can find a synthesis – a still point in the turning world where ‘life feels good’ and that’s enough.