'What I do is me: for that I came.' G M Hopkins

Saturday, August 17, 2013

My Father's House by Bethany Dawson

Have you ever looked into the pages of a book and glimpsed your own reflection? Of course she denies it’s me, but there I am, peering out from between the lines once in a while. In one chapter I’m licking my finger and lifting crumbs from the table; in another place I am stepping across the room to wipe the top of the record player, unable to resist the lure of dust.

In My Father’s House, as the Hanright siblings gather in the old farmhouse to clear their collected memories, they enter a room referred to as Narnia. In our house, one of the ones in which my daughter Bethany grew up, there is a small room above the return which can only be accessed through a door at the back of the wardrobe. At the time we built that part of the house the children were immersed in the chronicles, so Narnia was an obvious name. It is a treasure trove filled with boxes of books, toys, old clothes and things we might need some day. It’s in the book, and we love that it is because it grounds the novel in our shared family experience.
The similarity, however, ends there. That is the wonder of this debut novel. Bethany is able to get inside the head of a middling aged man, accurately portray the heartache of an alcoholic’s family and take the reader right to the bedside of the dying, without having been present herself at the deaths of her grandparents. How can this my child become someone else entirely inside her own head, and when I read, inside mine?

Since the publication of the novel earlier this year, I have been unable to put into words what I feel about this birthing – a kind of grandchild. Not mine in any sense and yet the result of something born in me – a child with a talent. I am amazed and delighted.

The members of the Hanright family come alive in all their raw ordinariness. Nothing spectacular happens and yet we recognise every character trait and flaw. When I listen to obituaries on the radio, or when someone’s death makes the news, it always strikes me that no one bad ever dies: ‘everyone loved them’, ‘they were the life and soul’, ‘so kind and popular’, ‘always a smile on their face’, ‘would do anything for anyone’. We believe that we ought not to speak ill of the dead, but the deathbed scene in this novel is refreshing in its harsh reality. Sometimes death doesn’t fix things.

The characters in this novel are so real in their vulnerability. Robbie the prodigal returns home, where he finds some resolution for his childhood hurts and disappointments. His troubled marriage is all the more convincing because it happens off stage. The sisters are beautifully drawn through the accuracy of observation: Wendy’s jumper ‘hung asymmetrically from her armpits’ and she ‘was striking the potato with the peeler as if it might produce a spark.’ After so many years of silence and reproach between them, the dance of the siblings round each other is nervous and exploratory. The reader is squeezed into the kitchen or the bedroom with them, feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed. We want to leave them to it and yet we are drawn into their fumbling attempts to connect and make sense of their past because there are damaged and broken relationships in all our journeys. We need to know whether love or judgment wins out in the end.

The language flows with musical excellence, lilting with familiar Ulsterisms: 'give the kitchen a going over'; 'I've never heard the like of this'; 'dusk snuck in and settled in the corners'.  I love the eyes that 'committed to being blue after years of watery indecision' and the cowslips 'openly flirting in yellow skirts'.

Most powerful of all is this novel’s sense of place. The farm and its environs are drawn in such detail that we can smell the mud and mould and taste the staleness of the air and the relationships which came to grief in the house. Up the road, the city waits, ‘Belfast looked more like itself when it was wet.’ Bethany has pulled together the threads of her own places to recreate believable spaces where weeds grow, a cow needs milking and people rediscover themselves and each other. We are there with the characters as they exist in real time, making real decisions and feeling real feelings. There is no jarring happy ending but the reader is left with some sense of redemption and a hope that the future might be better than the past. Larkscroft lingers in the memory long after the closing page.

Robbie mentions the phenomenon of the second novel falling short of the first. We await the next offering in the firm belief that no such thing will be true of this gifted author.

I am the proudest of mothers and commend and thank my lovely daughter for taking me on a journey into all our yesterdays.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Place

The fledglings who have been lodging with us off and on for the past year have flown and we have an empty nest again.

I vividly recall sitting down with the man before we went to live in darkest Africa so many years ago and contemplating the fact that if we embarked on this great adventure we may well lose our children (then aged 7-13) to the wonders of travel and international living.  One daughter returned to live in Africa for several years, before and after marriage, and now, following a year in Ghana, Maria and Willem have made a more permanent move to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. We bid them adieu and bon voyage with heavy hearts. 
An international marriage will mean for them, us and his family a lifetime of teary goodbyes. However, I am totally convinced that it will also enrich all our lives.  They arrived safely this week and already we have had a tour of the house where they’re going to live and met the puppy they’ve bought. We are sharing the adventure with them via the wonders of Skype and we are all richer for it.
But still the house is eerily quiet and yesterday I held my daughter’s shirt to my face to breathe in her smell and her nearness.  They are gone and we are sad.
This week we went for a final visit to our favourite place, Mount Stewart. 

For Maria
As we pulled on our boots and prepared to leave
The heavens opened
Rain drops splashed and jumped
On the patio
Solace for my pain

We went anyway
Driving alongside the troubled sea
The wind tugged at my eyes in the car park
But deep in the wilds of the woods

Sun steamed the wet as we walked
And reminisced
And hugged the white stag of our
Narnia and the promise of
Adventures new

You picked an acer leaf
Red and smooth
To put in a book
To mark the place, you said

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Peace of Wild Things

On Sunday past, we gathered in a house of worship with friends and family to celebrate the gift of our grandson, and along with his parents and the other grandparents we dedicated him to God.  We stood together, all gazing at this wonderful little boy, now aged 11 months, who has brought us such delight.

Finlay George

And there’s that pain again - the bitter-sweet mixture of joy and terror when we take on the responsibility of caring for a tiny tot who has absolutely no sense that the world is not always kind.  He smiles his way into each day with an expectation that he will be protected and loved and cherished and safe.  And we pledge to pray for him and always believe the best for him.
Except that we cannot guarantee a single thing.  Our hold on life is as fragile as his and as we get older we realise that faith is no protection against illness and heartache and death.  Good friends have recently lost a sister and her husband in a road accident in Kenya.  They were on a mission trip from New Zealand, where they lived.  They leave behind 10 adult and teenage children, all of whom took part in their parents’ funeral – lovely young lives blighted by tragedy and yet still speaking faith.  Amazing grace!
So where to go with the fear that threatens to steal all our todays?
On Sunday everyone came back here for eats and laughter and presents.  The house was filled with babies and energy and life.  We talked about the future and all the tomorrows that we plan to live together as families.  A happy day!
As dusk fell and the last car left, I drew back the curtains at the rear of the house and saw sudden movement in the garden.  It was an animal – too big for a dog or a fox.  We switched off the lights and watched in total wonder as an adult wild stag, antlers aloft, sauntered across the grass.  Soon it was followed by another, and another until five stags began to gambol and chase up and down the bank, round the greenhouse and through the trees.  They stayed for ages and in spite of the fact that they were doing damage, we left them to their party.  They were still there in the morning and posed for a photo shoot before jumping the fence into the field behind.
And what has that to do with fear?  Everything.  It’s only in the place of wonder that fear melts into faith and we are reminded that all our loves are eternal in the worship of our Creator God.  I am comforted in my fear that He knows and I can find peace.

Wild things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

(Wendell Berry)