Sometimes something rather special comes along. Granted, it didn’t start very well – but from the second word onwards, The Bestowing Sun is something worth talking about.
Let me be clearer. I asked Flame Books (see the sketch…) to send me a review copy of Neil Grimmett’s novel The Bestowing Sun for two reasons – firstly, the cover; secondly, it is set in rural Somerset. As someone who calls rural Somerset home, I was intrigued to see how it would appear in fiction. And the first word of this novel is “Mommy.” Nobody in Somerset has ever, does ever or will ever use that word. Tsk.
But the other few thousand words are great. The novel focuses upon two brothers, William and Richard, who grow up together in a farming family, with parents Herbie and Madeline. From the outset, from the earliest age, William is obsessed with his art, with the creation of art and the presentation of humans as their nature truly is, in paintings. Richard is his stocky, sensible brother who can’t understand this perspective, how it absorbs and controls William. Towards the beginning, William unveils a painting his parents commissioned him to create, of the family posed around the kitchen table:
‘Richard had grunted and struggled to his feet the moment the cloth uncovered the canvas, Madeline gave a small cry and clasped her hand over her face. Herbie took the painting without a word or a look at William and carried it off. William has not been able to find it since though, as now, he was haunted by it.’
Without describing the painting, or telling us what the family saw in their portraits, Grimmett shows the striking effects of William’s works, and the discords they spark in his relatives.
What follows is akin to a retelling of The Prodigal Son (would I be wrong in thinking the title a pun?) – one of the most beautiful parables in the Bible for demonstrating God’s love and grace, and one Our Vicar always calls The Forgiving Father rather than The Prodigal Son. In The Bestowing Sun it is a lengthy absence on William’s part – to a crumbling marriage, alcoholism and self-destruction (all of which we see very early in the novel). I wasn’t fond of the harshness and coarseness of the language in this section, until I realised what Grimmett was doing. As William makes his way back to the farm of his childhood, initially as an address for bail, we feel not only his longing for home. The reader (at least, this reader) longs alongside him for the softer, more beautiful language – the gentle characterisation that so exactly depicts fraternal rivalry and buried attachment; parental pride and hurt; the tarnished bewitching qualities of Selina – a girl both brothers loved and neither can forget.
In some ways, the path of the plot is not unpredictable, but that is scarcely the point. The final chapter of this novel is so beautiful, a touching harmony of art, family and prodigality – though with none of the soppiness of that sentence, I must add. Grimmett’s great achievement is writing a beautiful novel which is never pretentious and certainly never lachrymose. Quite the reverse. These are plain-talking rural folk, after all. I think the combination of artistry and rurality is best demonstrated in this realisation from Richard: ‘But how. he suddenly thought, does one fool an artist’s eye? It would be a bit like someone showing him a sick or weakly calf and expecting him to carry it back from the market.’