Friday, 22 April 2011

Darwin's Wink - A Review

Darwin's Wink by Alison Anderson

Set on a small island near Mauritius, the two main characters, Fran and Christian, with their very different backgrounds, work with endangered bird species.

The language of the novel is clear as the blue skies of the landscape and subtle as the often fleeting thought processes that are caught in the finest of meshwork. Sometimes there are words or phrases that are echoed, with the resonance of poetry and birdsong.

She is sitting on the battered wicker sofa on the veranda.....Mosquitoes alight on her arms, and she chases them, slapping herself............. If other, later images come, willy-nilly, to the veranda on Egret Island, Fran chases them, slapping herself. She will not be bitten by memories of intimacy.

The minds of the characters are entered into with subtle psychological insight. Who does not recognize the processes of making choices? The weighing of reasons, the decisions as to relevance, the balancing of values, desires and fears. There is often a knife-edge quality to the decisions the two main characters, Fran and Christian, will make. Because of this there is real uncertainty as to outcome. Imagined futures bloom and wilt, in the minds of the characters as well as the narrative, as the reader is caught up in the delicate processes of thoughts, feelings and actions that make up people's lives.

Then there is the revisiting and revisioning of various experiences from the past of both characters – not simply hauntings or the replaying of old memories - but which are examined in a way that's both accepting of what has happened, and critical – could I have done something different at that point and would it have been better if I had? This kind of scrutiny does allow for insights and changes in the person. But it's the way the process is described, pressing on a painful point here, releasing attachment to another point there, that is so recognizable.

The pasts of Fran and Christian are very different, his as an aid worker in the war in Bosnia, hers in an American university environment. But their paths have led them both to this remote island, living with birds and animals and with few human contacts. Both their pasts contain pain and loss and contribute to who they are now, in a way we recognize as our own thoughts of the past weave in and out of our present.

The story carries the reader along because in its relating of the past, the challenges of the present, and the enormous hope for the future [for the endangered birds, but the human characters are also vulnerable] - you do not know what the outcome will be. More than once, I felt lulled into a sense of – this is how things are going to turn out - before something unexpected completely alters the course of the story.

It presents big questions, as the circumstances of the characters' lives require that they are addressed – about evolutionary theories, the roles of reason and randomness in our lives. The very way the narrative twists and turns gives the feeling it's trying to evade capture or being pinned down into anything as clear cut as an idea or theory regarding human life. These evasions which sometimes have natural causes, like a cyclone, bulwark possibility and the unexpected rather than leading to any easily foreseeable outcome.

Imagine, he will say to Fran, the Piazza del Duomo in Milan covered in cooing pink birds; is it the grayness or the commonness of the usual variety we begrudge? When you see a pink pigeon you imagine life differently, you imagine possibility.

Fran looks at him, raises her eyebrows and says, that's what this place is about, possibility.

It questions the decisions we make in our lives, the parts played by luck or intention, fate or determination.

Fran looks from the rubbish bin to the girls and back again. As if she could pretend there were no postcard, no knowledge. The way it has already been for ten forgetful days. Not so much a second chance as a way of changing the switches, and derailing fate. Because she can hide or destroy a postcard; it is only a small thing, easily tossed into a rubbish bin...........But her right to happiness? Must she toss that into the rubbish bin? She has a few minutes, before she sees him. A few minutes to plead with fate and conscience, and strike a deal.

It questions the nature of human relationships, what people might desire or expect from each other, different kinds of love, how we cope with loss, and that most vital yet subtle of all relationships, the one with ourself, which solitude requires us to engage with.

The language and descriptions evoke the dream-like beauty of the island. And while memories and fantasies of past and future are explored, it seems to me that whether background or spotlighted, there is a celebration of the wonder of the lived present.

An uplifting and inspiring book.

Alison is also the translator of many books from French including The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

and Consolation by Anna Gavalda which I wrote about in a post last year.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Border Lands

A journey from the south of Scotland, through England, to Wales

A valley near the English border -

the hills are steep and treeless here

and the valley – knife-edge narrow.

It's clear it is a trap, and you walk on

into the history that waits for you,

as it idly tinkers with its chains.

The Plains

Having come through the knife-edge thin valley unscathed, the train hurtles through the more rounded slopes of the Lake District. Embankments topped with birch trees, birch icing, pale green birch vermicelli. There's something almost subversive about this speed, having got off the bus and launched myself into the train station at Carlisle just as the train pulled in. Did it pull in? No, it slid in like a trimmed red feather, light so light on its tracks, a hissing, faintly quivering feather, propelled by a mixture of total attachment to rails and laughter of that inconsequential kind, when someone will evade deep seriousness as if you wanted something from them, call it his attention or the coins jingling in his pocket, or a pound of flesh, and he sees no reason why he should give you copper coins or the time of day, so he laughs, and slips out of your hands.

With this kind of laughter, and its love of rails, the train speeds on. The sky is fat wads of stained lint, the grubby marks of soot and grime, teastains and sweat marks dabbed under cloud arms, foodstains on aprons over their rotund, protruding bellies. Warnings and wagging fingers from their wriggling feathery extremities.

Then it's all gone, all brooding egg, coffee and winestains all gone, in the quick-as-a-flash laundromat, aka god's testing sites for new stars, in the wipe-it-clean galaxy. Those quick as the speed of light, he places lovingly in a new galaxy – those who require more training, he sends out as celestial chimney sweeps. Cloud-cleaning, star-dusting, planet-polishers.

Gnawing history is left behind in a rugged, rural place, as we glide into the plains of the industrialized area of the Midlands. Forget nightingales, as we approach Lancaster mills; forget the hauntings of history – the bleak atmosphere of these near-bald cut-out valleys, where an ambush waits around the corner, each time you pass through. But on this smooth passageway, with its minor gossiping, clunking and rattling of rails, we are all glad to leave the brooding valleys, go out into the open plain, where everything is green in this assault of leaves and blossoms – white, pale pink and deep pink against brick-red sienna buildings.

The sky disperses into an almost-even grey, with a seam of light at the horizon as if seen through an open window. The small, pale leaves are motionless but you almost feel them quiver in anticipation of the storm.

The Fortified Town

From Llandudno Junction

the path is signposted to Conwy -

its castle and enclosing walls

forming an enceinte in the French style -

Edward I of England, also Duke of Burgundy,

copied the French hilltop fortresses,

dominion dripping from each turret,

reinforced against the pesky Welsh

who, everybody knew,

had scales beneath their ragged clothes,

not skin, like all descendants

of the Norman kings

who seized the throne in both hands,

carrying it with them, to make sure

it stayed within their grasp.

Welsh dragons, mutters Edward,

fitting his arrow to a vent in the thick wall,

aiming – missing his target -

once again.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Magic and Monochrome

An exhibition of August Sander's photographs is at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh Scotland, until early July. If you can possibly get there, go and see it. You will see images of astonishing people, so real so solid so expressive. Most of them are not named, but described only by their profession. Most of them inhabit what they do so surely that it fills up all the space in their bodies and around them too. The only ones who did not, who seemed almost empty were the 'industrialists'. Boots, caps, overalls, dresses are filled with the presence of these people. Their clothes are not so much decoration but part of them. And of course it is all monochrome, so much play of light, and what is hidden and hinted at, in shadow.

At the August Sander photographic exhibition – 2 quintas

1) A Secretary at the West German radio

she sits, her shoulders slightly hunched

her short hair, a la garçonne

her expression in repose reaches for challenge

while the light reaches

for the fine bones of her face

2) Pastrycook

His role inhabits all his limbs -

those broad shoulders straining at his overalls,

his muscled hands hold bowl and mixing spoon -

his pose, his challenging expression -

he has become one with his life

Thanks to Aesthetics and Sounds blogspot for these images, where you can find out more about August Sander. Even more information can be found at Weimarart blogspot, where I discovered that the 'secretary' was Sylvia von Harden, poet and journalist.