When nights were endlessly snow filled and heavy with honeysuckle
This is a beautifully written, elegiac book, nodding both at Virginia Woolf and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours
Set during the course of one day in the present it largely focuses inside the dreamy, languid mind of family archivist Julia, and also dips backwards and forwards over more than a hundred years of her family history. Julia’s great-grand uncle, over a hundred years ago was a Polar explorer, and she is attempting to write his history and that of his wife, Emily. Later generations from Julia’s family also swim in and out of focus.
Sackville has been compared to Rachel Cusk – I find her a much warmer and more tender writer. Her evocation of time and place, her inhabiting of the real visceral world, whether the freezing cruelty of that snowy landscape, the stultifying world of Edwardian womanhood, or the sensuous aromas of a cooking dinner, are beautiful and precise.
This is not a book at all for those wanting page turning plot-filled moments. Though there are some surprises along the way, the focus is on the interior stillness of isolation and connection whether from, and with, the other, or from and with the landscape and time itself.
The high, elegiac, dream-like quality is also the novel’s Achilles heel. As the novel progresses there arose, in this reader, a desire to shake the characters out of their languor. To a man and woman, everyone seemed trapped in slo-mo with even the most dramatic characters and moments suspended and given equal weight and importance with a piece of fish accidentally dropped on the kitchen floor by the cat and stepped on by our dreaming and intense central character. Profound and beautifully intense though all this was, it needed the grit and gristle of fast forward to set against the perpetual freeze-frame.
I did indeed like this book, but it held its delicacy unremittingly for too long, and needed a more gritty, engaged sense of drama in order to fully engage the reader with the characters. Pearls get their lustre and smoothness as a response to grit! I hope in future work Sackville can just get a little bit of edge into her sensitive writing
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