An ordinary life: Always far above the ordinary
Several of the comments from readers in her publishing house, refer to Forbes’ writing as dreamy, dream-like. For me, it is the reverse. It is writing which awakens the slumbering reader from their soporific state, into noticing, into being present.
There came a point, fairly early in the book, when I suddenly sat up and said `Yes!’
The central character Katherine, a wife and mother of 4, is married to George, a dependable, good man. They live in Northern Ireland. It is 1969. This means some shattering events are just over the horizon.
The book opens with a small, alarming event, which unsettles Katherine enough to send her memory spooling back to an earlier time, 20 years ago, when she was a young woman with a beautiful operatic singing voice, and perhaps was at a major fork in her life’s road. In 1949 George is already courting her, but she meets Tom, a far more volatile curious character who makes her feel dynamic, touched with glamour and vitality.
The shape of the book is to take us between the then of 1949 and the now of 1969 and see how that became this, and the intercutting structure allows the reader (like 1969 Katherine) to hold both.
My `Yes!’ moment came at the recounting of a meeting in a café between Katherine and Tom
The large doors leading into the tearooms from the foyer swung backwards and forwards as people bustled in and out. Nearby, a high-spirited couple chatted about a film they had just seen. Other people were looking out for the arrival of friends. Four young women sitting together chimed together like a carillon, their words ringing around them. One woman sat on her own just to the left of the doorway, every so often lifting her head to view those coming and going. She twisted her teacup on its saucer, occasionally tipping it to peruse its contents. As she lifted the cup to her mouth, small drops of tea fell onto the saucer like brown baby lemmings falling into a shiny white sea. Never before had she seemed so aware of the detail of her surroundings. Never before so keenly as this.
My `Yes’ moment wasn’t just the delight of a couple of `awake, reader’ images which helped me to really `see the moment’ – that ringing carillon of voices, and the wonderful lemmings image – it was the realisation here was a writer doing a lot more than `painting the scene’ – here was a writer inside a character in an altered state of consciousness. It is Katherine who is awake, not the writer putting some description in place to make the scene real for the reader.
Katherine, at this point, demonstrates the `aliveness’ Tom brings her by the quality of her noticing.
I was reminded, wonderfully, of a couple of lines from a Yeats poem, Vacillation where `awakening’ suddenly happens:
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
Forbes had thrown me into Katherine’s experience by this sudden description of the character’s vision.
I was nicely heading towards surrendering to Forbes’ writing, there had been other little jolts to take me out of my own reality and into her fictional world, but from this point, I flung up my arms and said `okay, I capitulate to your book; resistance is futile’
As the book progressed, however, it became more and more clear that Forbes’ horizons with this book were expanding into all sorts of areas. What she does, in effect, is take the weft and warp of a quite ordinary life, and makes the day-to-day reality of it both three dimensional and paper thin, so `this real’ is but a cloak for the beauty or terror of the world – sometimes both, which lies thinly hidden by the material world. There are some wonderful, unostentatious descriptions of how we move through a world of solid things, the `stuff’ we surround ourselves with, anchoring and grounding us in the here and now.
She is very definitely a writer of poetic sensibilities, something I value very much – I don’t by this mean necessarily lyrical writing – poetry can be full of harsh, stark violent imagery – its that sense of proper perception, of not being satisfied with the superficial cliché, of a choice of word after word which has weight, resonance, solidity.
How does she do this? Dunno, guv, it’s a mystery, I can’t see her joins, her mastery of her technique is fine enough so that the reader can’t spot how she is doing what she does.
One chapter (amongst many) really stood out for me. A simple description of 3 little girls going off to play beside the blackberry bushes. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland is trembling on the edges of fast escalating sectarian violence. I read this chapter, from inside the head of Elsa, Katherine’s youngest child, and was almost permanently sick with anxiety and terror, during the reading of it. And yet, terror of what? Nothing concrete, nothing nameable, only that Elsa was close to the thin boundary of `ordinary reality’ where we normally try to live, in unawareness of the fragility of it all.
This is a first novel. The cover has reviews from the great and good, in praise. And in (I finally realise) a nice sense of the ordinary, page after page of breathless praise from all the people in the publishing house who read this book. Initially I read the praise of these named, but unfamous people with some cynicism.
That changed, when I fell into Michelle Forbes’ textured, powerful, tale of a life, like all ordinary lives, far less ordinary
And, in a world where thicker and thicker, heavier and heavier books become the norm – Forbes’ needed no red pencil to her less than 250 pages, slim, rich, easy read, deep read, novel.
I received this as an ARC from the Amazon Vine programme, UK