Well, I hope you’ll still be having a wander around Shiny New Books, but that won’t (of course) stop me writing reviews here on Stuck-in-a-Book – although they may quieten down a bit when Issue 2 starts to loom! (Incidentally, we’re keen to get lots of bloggers writing pieces for us – contact me on simondavidthomas[at]yahoo.co.uk, or all of us at info[at]shinynewbooks.co.uk if you’re interested.)
And onto a book that I’ve been reading for about six months – As For Me and My House by Sinclair Ross, kindly given to me by… someone. I think Thomas at My Porch – certainly he is a huge fan. Am I? Hmm. I don’t know. This is one of those cases where I know the book is very good… but I didn’t very much enjoy reading it.
As For Me and My House (1941) takes the form of a woman’s diary from provincial Canada – but Diary of a Provincial Lady this is not. True, Our Vicar and Our Vicar’s Wife are the central characters – Philip Bentley and his (anonymous?) narrator wife – but that’s where the similarities end. Basically, the narrator’s life is miserable. The small town is rude and ungrateful for the hard work her husband does. He, in turn, has lost his faith and wishes he were a painter. They are poor, their marriage is rocky, and dissatisfaction soaks every word of the novel.
He’s a failure now, a preacher instead of a painter, and every minute of the day he’s mindful of it. I’m a failure too, a small-town preacher’s wife instead of what I so faithfully set out to be – but I have to stop deliberately like this to remember. To have him notice me, speak to me as if I really mattered in his life, after twelve years with him that’s all I want or need. It arranges my world for me, strengthens and quickens it, makes it immune to all worlds.
Well, as you can see, the writing is beautiful. There is a deep and emotional richness to the way Ross writes. I’m not sure it benefited from being in the diary format – it would have worked equally well, and probably rather more convincingly, simply as a first person narrative – but he certainly offers a fully-realised voice. Just as convincing are the husband and (later) sort-of-adopted son, although I wonder if Ross intends us to believe the narrator to be as perceptive as she seems.
Here’s another beautiful, dispiriting passage:
The sand and dust drifts everywhere. It’s in the food, the bed-clothes, a film on the book you’re reading before you can turn the page. In the morning it’s half an inch deep on the window sills. Half an inch again by noon. Half an inch again by evening. It begins to make an important place for itself in the routine of the day. I watch the little drifts form. If at dusting time they’re not quite high enough I’m disappointed, put off the dusting sometimes half an hour to let them grow. But if the wind has been high and they have outdrifted themselves, then I look at them incredulous, and feel a strange kind of satisfaction, as if such height were an achievement for which credit was coming to me.
That rather aptly describes how it felt reading the novel. Melancholy piled on melancholy. It swept through all the pages, in every sentence, almost in every word. The more I read, the more I felt outdrifted by it. I don’t demand novels of unswerving cheeriness, but… surely life isn’t as bad as all this? (“But a man’s tragedy is himself, not the events that overtake him.”) It was wearying. Beautiful, but wearying.
Of course, I read As For Me and My House as someone who has lived in a vicarage for many years, and whose father is still a working vicar (and mother a working vicar’s wife). I am well aware that it isn’t always easy – that some parishioners can be difficult or aggressive or ungrateful. In this novel it is the purportedly faith-filled whose hypocrisy stands out; in real life, it is just as likely to be the thoughtless atheist who tells you he’d like the church to burn down, or the teenager who thinks the vicar’s sons are fair game to shout abuse at in the street. But Ross gives only the tiniest mention (in Mrs Bird) of the positivity that comes with the profession. The strangers who are kind to you as soon as you arrive in a new village, the people who selflessly give up their time to help with kids’ events and so forth. There is a world of literature bemoaning the claustrophobia of the small town – which needs to be balanced by how really lovely it is when people all know each other, care for each other, and let nobody go lonely.
Part of this seems like I just wish that Ross had written a different book. But I think I could have really loved this one if there were a bit more balance – something more to alleviate the melancholy and hopelessness. As it is, I do admire As or Me and My House. Ross is unarguably a brilliant writer. One I’d definitely recommend to sturdier souls. And maybe my soul will be sturdier next time I try this one.