Huntin’ Shootin’ Fishin’ and a much marrying man.
Naomi Wood’s cleverly structured novel, dipping backwards and forwards in time between 1920 and 1961, and set in America and Europe, is the story of not so much Ernest Hemingway – though he is the character who runs all the way through, but his 4 wives, Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pfeiffer, Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh.
The way the book is structured, divided into four sections, one for each wife, but within each section sliding times and places backwards and forwards, nicely illustrated Hemingway’s serial affairs. A marrying man who would pretty quickly be sliding the next wife into place whilst declaring undying love for the current one.
And curiously, several of the wives and ex-wives were friends or became friends.
Wood’s book grew on me, becoming most interesting (unsurprisingly really) when wife number 3 (Martha Gellhorn) entered the fray. Two reasons for this – Gellhorn is the wife who comes across as most modern in sensibilities – as of course, she was a writer and journalist and war correspondent herself, an independent woman unwilling to settle for being just someone’s wife as an identity, even if (perhaps especially if) that someone was such a huge and outwardly dominating character and writer as Hemingway. So, not only is Gellhorn more defined as herself, rather than defined by her man, but the trajectory of the book is also becoming darker, as the lauded writer is clearly heading ever more deeply into self-destruct, and the cracks in his undoubtedly charming and charismatic veneer are becoming deep and obvious, taking the slide down to self-destruction
Wood’s writing is assured, spare, well-crafted and doesn’t hang about and indulge itself. She paints pictures with strong, bold verbal strokes, and keeps the reader moving on, engaged in action.
Fife’s house is splendid. Heads stud the walls: impala, kudu, oryx, their long horns magnificent and as hard as bark. When the shutters are open a breeze comes into the house from the Gulf carrying in the scent of tamarind, frangipani, banana.
Sometimes it feels as if the house is all moving air
I held off from being completely surrendered to the book as something in Wood’s style which was a strength – those clear, bold, surface strokes, was also its flaw – I was held off from a sense of really feeling from inside any of the characters.