bookgazing: (i heart books)

Annalaura Welles lives above the animals in a barn, sharing one room with her four small children. Her husband John, was a sharecropper; a person hired to work an area of farm land for the owner of an estate in return for a lump sum of cash, dependant on the size and quality of the crop raised, so the whole family live on the McNaughton estate. Last season John raised an outstanding crop, but now John has disappeared, apparently abandoning the family just before the second season’s planting period. He has stolen Annalaura’s money and taken much of the family’s small food store. Annalaura is desperate to hide the fact that John is gone because if Alexander McNaughton, the owner of the estate, finds out there is no man to pull the crop in he will evict her family from the tenancy. As a black women without a husband, she will also become ‘fair game’ for any white man around (this is 1913, after slavery has been abolished but a long way from any kind of legal equality for black Americans). So, Annalaura struggles to project the idea that John is still around, while covertly dealing with the consequences of his departure and theft.

‘Page from a Tennessee Journal’ is written in the third person and relates the separate perspectives of four main characters. The reader is immediately sucked into Annalaura’s desperate attempt to survive in the first chapter, then the narrative follows McNaughton and his wife in the second chapter, before shifting focus again to concentrate on Annalaura’s husband John. The reader learns that he has gone to the city in the hopes of earning enough money to buy his own parcel of land, so that he won’t have to work for a white man any more. At this time, southern, white estate owners blatantly rob their black tenants, under the cover of providing them with essential materials for living and working ‘on tick’. It is understood that the cost of items such as seed to grow the crop and food to eat while they wait for the crop to grow, will come out of the tenants earnings when the crop is sold. By levying this ‘advance’ white estate owners make sure that black tenants never earn enough to invest in their futures and break from a cycle of what is essentially indentured labour. John Welles is an exceptional tenant, who pulled a tobacco crop that made ‘...three thousand dollars, more than twice any other tenant farmer he ever had...’ from an uninspiring mid-forty acreage but after one season working for McNaughton, he understands that he will never earn enough money from share cropping to forge an independent future . So, he robs his wife and leaves his small children to work the land during the crucial planting and harvesting period.

That might seem a harsh judgement. I mean, John Welles has noble aims right? He’s fighting his own battle against oppression. And of course, John himself doesn’t frame leaving his family, quite as I have when he thinks about his actions. John sees leaving his wife behind as a noble endeavour; he will get a city job counting cards at a high rolling establishment in order to put his children through school and return the hero. That is a worthwhile aim and many readers will surely find themselves conflicted as the man (who in Annalaura’s section is described as a reckless, restless, deserting dreamer) is humanised. It is important to note that even though his actions cause his wife serious problems, he is in his turn screwed by an unfair, prejudiced society. Intersectional analysis of history = complicated.

However, the novel is careful to never disregard the first inevitable reading of John’s actions as callous. I feel that it actively endorses the idea that John is both right and wrong by returning to focus on Annalaura’s struggles. Though John’s dreams are portrayed sympathetically in the novel, the way he goes about putting his plan into action is not. I’ve already mentioned that he steals food that Annalaura needs, in order to make his trip. While he is away from his family he takes up with other women. The sacrifices he makes are rarely sacrifices that impact on him, although he has convinced himself that he is as pained by circumstances as Annalaura must be, for example he stays in the city longer than necessary for his own pleasure, which leaves Annalaura open to serious harm but when called on this behaviour he implies that circumstances keep him from his wife and he is suffering by missing his children. If his employer hadn’t physically kept some of his wages back for Annalaura there is every possibility that he’d have kept spending in order to justify why he needed to spend even longer away from home. Meanwhile Annalaura faces starvation and is raped by Alexander McNaughton repeatedly.

Many of these thoughtless actions that readers may find hard to forgive stem from the historical context John exists in, for example he rationalises taking money from the family by claiming sole ownership of it as the man of the house and invoking his grand plans for freeing his family from white control. He also refuses to acknowledge the inevitable realities for a young woman with four children left with little food and no way to earn money, because society tells him that no matter what a woman should always remain faithful. Rape is not a concept he seems to understand in the same way that we would. Howard tries to present John as a balanced character, who has good parts to his character, but is heavily influenced by his times. However, I sometimes felt that the book had perhaps set John Welles up as too unlikeable a character for readers to sympathise with, despite the fact that he has been placed in a tough position by society. Without playing oppression Olympics I’ve got to say it’s hard to feel so sorry for a man whose dreams and aspirations are being denied him by the society he lives in, when he’s a cheating, stealing bastard who does not react as modern readers may hope on coming home to find his wife has been raped, even when we’re aware of how historical context affects his actions.

I feel the same way about how the book portrays Alexander McNaughton, the man who repeatedly rapes Annalaura. Alexander is shown as a man of his time period, claiming the free, black woman that everyone else around him said was his right, but he also has genuine feelings for his child who died and eventually comes to feel he is in love with Annalaura. Again, the bad guys aren’t always one dimensional villains. Alexander McNaughton believes he has a right to Annalaura, because his society reinforced that idea through everyday behaviour and rhetoric, much as John Welles was convinced by society’s rhetoric that it was fine for a married man to sleep around as long as he always came home, but unforgivable for a woman not to ‘fight’ if commanded to sleep with a white man. There are probably tons of things our future generations are going to boggle at that we all find totally acceptable because of our modern rhetorical structures, so we have to try not to judge historical characters in a way that positions our generation as the unquestionable pinnacle of enlightenment.

Still, the wife beating (Welles) and rape (McNaughton) perpetrated by these two men are terrible things, we know that the victims of these actions have been hurt, even if the person doing these things is surrounded by cultural reasoning that allows us to understand they were ordinary human beings rather than exceptional monsters. So, personally I needed to be given more of a reason to empathise with the male characters, in order to circumvent my impulse to judge them as bad people with everything taken on balance. I didn’t get enough sympathetic content, or perhaps the novel didn’t convey the sympathetic content that it did put across quite strongly enough. Either way I found my sympathy and interest in viewing the two men as human beings with their own problems disappeared as the novel progressed. By the end I thought they were both totally off the rails awful and although towards the end of the book both men show positive human qualities (John sets out to kill Alexander, then gives up this quest to keep his children safe from the inevitable lynching that would follow, while Alexander helps Annalaura through a difficult birth when she’s all alone) these events just weren’t enough to counter balance all the time I’d spent watching them be terrible, terrible people towards the female characters. For whatever reason I firmly aligned myself with the women against the men, instead of finding a way to sympathise with everyone. I’m still not ruling out the idea that personal feeling has influenced my reading of a couple of characters who other readers will be able to both sympathise with and hate just a bit, but I have read books that successfully convinced me to feel sympathy and dislike before now, for example ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ contains a character who is abusive, but also seemed separately sympathetic to me.

What I feel the book does really well is to show exactly how hard life could be for women involved with these particular kind of men, by introducing the reader to these two complicated, but ultimately violent male characters, which neither of the two sympathetic female characters can trust. Annalaura is a woman trapped between a rock and a hard place in this book. And McNaughton’s wife Eula Mae lives in a loveless, predictable marriage, which she tolerates by deceiving herself, until her husband begins to fall in love with Annalaura (although, of course he doesn’t fall in love with her, just an idealised version of her that he calls Laura). Both women are given active point of view sections in this book, which allows the reader to really get to know them and understand their lives. I would have liked a lot more from Annalaura after Alexander McNaughton begins to rape her, because I wanted to see her feelings about their relationship revealed. Clearly by the end of the book the time they spend together has become more than rape, but how did she reach that state of mind? I thought that the reader had much more access to Eula Mae’s troubled internal feelings. Hearing her inner thoughts humanised and developing the dull, obedient woman Alexander sees, into a person only the reader knows. Not that Annalaura isn’t taken past the image the men in her life have of her in the sections the reader gets access to their inner thoughts, it’s just that as the character the book begins with and the woman who seems to be the heart of the book, I might have expected the book to give even more space to her perspective.

To finish, just a (longish) note on the book’s writing. I started ‘Page from a Tennessee Journal’ a while ago and was put off by the immediate clunky exposition of the first paragraph:

‘Annalaura Welles stirred out of her fitful sleep to the certainty of two things. Husband John was gone for good this time, and even with the help of her four young children, she would be unable to bring in the tobacco harvest by the end of August. Though this was coming up the second year she’d sharecropped the McNaughton mid-forty, she still wasn’t used to living in the converted upper reaches of a barn.’

Sure, this paragraph serves a purpose. It gets a lot of necessary information across quickly: who the protagonist is (Annalaura Welles); what her circumstances are (a woman with four children living above a barn); information about her past (troubled marriage with a man who has left before and now seems to have left permanently) and what the major conflict in her life is (the inability to harvest enough tobacco). It introduces points of interest, which is supposed to intrigue the reader into wanting to continue with the story, for example the reader might wonder who are the McNaughton’s and where has John Welles gone.

Unfortunately there is a lot of information contained in this three sentence paragraph, which is a relatively cramped portion of writing space considering all the facts and information the reader is supposed to absorb. The paragraph is overburdened with more background context than it is capable of encompassing comfortably. The reader’s rhythm is disrupted by the author’s decision to overstuff this first paragraph with straight forward info dumps and attempts to naturally link two rather dramatic declarations with a sentence about living in a barn. This paragraph has the effect of making the novel sound like it is blurting out information, hurling it at the reader rather desperately, with no regard for elegance, as if the narrative thinks it needs to hand the reader all the information they could possibly need or they will leave. The effect of reading it is kind of like when you meet a stranger on the bus who tells you their whole life story in a loud voice, without pausing for breath. Book, you are making me uncomfortable!

I know how important the first sentence can be to help readers decide whether they’re going to pick up a book and continue reading it, so if this passage sounds as shouty and desperate to you as it did to me, can I just say please, please persevere. The rest of the writing is not like this at all. There are a couple of other awkward moments of exposition, but nothing on the scale of other books I’ve reviewed here before (naming no names, but you probably know which ones I’m talking about). For the most part ‘Page from a Tennessee Journal’ is written in an easy to read, solid and inviting style. It’s a good piece of storytelling and I’ve spent so long going on about my problems with the first paragraph so I can explain that the rest of the book is written with much greater naturalness, because I don’t want people to be put off and miss out on this historical novel.

Of course I could just have kept my mouth shut and only talked about all the bits I liked in the novel instead.

And wow, I just called the book ‘good’, which sounds kind of a pathetic word in this world of ‘awesome’ and ‘fantabulousness’. We should rehabilitate the word good…

Shut up brain, over thinking does not help! : P

So, overall a good historical novel, that makes me want to start reading more historical fiction again, because the world within was conjured so well. It’s a book that erases some of the disappointing experiences I’ve had with historical fiction recently, which have irrationally kept me from returning to the genre. And yet, still, not a book that encouraged me to feel sympathetic towards less than sympathetic characters. Zetta Elliot and the author, Francine Thomas Howard discuss John Welles in an interview at Amazon, but I’m curious to know, how does everyone else feel about the men in this book?

Other Reviews

Brown Girl Speaks
rhapsody in books
bookgazing: (i heart books)

‘Now I sit toying with the idea that maybe life is a game after all, a game we play just once. I am coming round to Sarah’s view, perhaps. But if life is a game then it has no practises; no training; no preliminary rounds. It is a game played on the principle of sudden death. And to play it properly, to play it fairly and well, we need all the strength that self-knowledge, courage, will and discipline can impart. At twenty-two I had not yet learned to take life seriously; to know that it is not like other games; that it matters who wins and who loses; and that how they win and lose matters also. I had no idea that victory could be Pyrrhic; nor did I know that the end seldom justifies the means. I could not have known any of this without experience, and of that I had none. I was innocent; and innocent of my innocence.’

Here is an example of the dark, self- flagellating foreshadowing that makes Richard Mason’s debut novel ‘The Drowning People’ so creepily compelling. Mason’s narrator uses an over blown gothic style of narrative that is appropriate for a story which contains a family plagued by insanity, dark secrets and a castle on a private island that is the cause of much jealousy.

The seventy year old narrator, who tells the story of his life, continually makes much of the guilt he feels now and the terrible secrets that he is privy to, which his younger self did not have the foresight to anticipate:

‘He knows no remorse; no shame; no despair. I resent him. He, who thinks himself so fine, does not move as I question him. He sits by the river in an endless idle dream, as I beg for signs I might have seen, for warnings I might have heeded. But still he sits, moving only to toss a pebble into the fast-flowing waters. He pays no attention to the ramblings of an old man; he does not hear them. And I am left helpless, watching.’

He dwells on the terrible lessons he has learnt from the past without revealing the full substance of these secrets to the reader. His words in this passage convey a sense of extreme foreboding to the reader, heightening the tension of the novel. And trust me, by this point in the novel the reader is already hanging from the window ledge by their finger nails as they peer in fearfully at an old man, in a high castle who at the beginning of the novel admitted quite calmly to having shot his wife.

Now, imagine reading a whole novel of such prose. Imagine the first moment you snag on the overly melodramatic nature of these weary, foreshadowing monologues full of strong urging to heed the lessons of the narrator’s experience. Imagine the moment when the seductive spell of high emotion wears off and the mechanics of the novel become much more visible. All you can hear is that ticking of the clockwork and it starts to drive you to distraction.

Look ‘The Drowning People’ is a lovely, deep novel of self-analysis. The narrator is earnest. He determinedly examines his memories to expose the deepest truths of life. It is full of passages of good, sensible realisations, like ‘I was wrong. No love is worth that. No human being is worth the total abdication of the self.’ which may seem simple and obvious to readers with experience, but still conveys a meaningful truth. He conveys both the rigour of his approach and the unflinching nature of his analysis, by using confident, clear, definite phrases that convey how little he spares himself, for example:

‘The ease with which my ties of friendship with Eric dissolved under Ella’s influence shames me now. Then I’m almost certain that I didn’t. And as I talk I remember why it didn’t. I remember the tricks I used to bypass all considerations that might have weakened my resolution, the cunning by which my possessed mind protected itself and its intentions from all complicating scruple…’

This character analysis is shaped around a thrilling plot, full of twists and secrets which truly are shocking. And even in its quieter moments, during the clear, detailed establishment of the novel’s world and the aftermath of dreadful events where the narrator tries to set his life back into some sort of recognisable form, it’s very compelling. The narrator also shows a keen awareness of the way that the other people around him work. It is an unbelievable conceit to set this novel, with its high level of awareness of meaning, as an obsessive one night reconstruction of memories locked away for years, but I could happily let that go.

However, it is not a book I’d recommend to readers who like subtlety. Perhaps you have gathered from the quotes above that Mason’s narrator really like to bang a lesson, or a feeling home. And there is little room for reader’s imagination to interact with the text, as every single image highly described. There’s never just a ball, it must be ‘a scarlet ball’, never just a scarf only ‘a gauzy scarf’. Let me show you the effect this has on one short phrase, where every object must be accompanied by a descriptor, for example ‘the shadowy staircase bathed in short bursts of inadequate light’. That’s not a huge deal, in fact the description is technically probably very accomplished, and it’s personal taste that leads me to find it distracting and a little bit intrusive. When you’re under the spell of the novel, reading faster and faster to find out what in the hell happens, none of these little tics matter, but once you notice it you notice it all the damn time.

I read this book in two days, started noticing this kind of things about a hundred pages from the end and still managed to hugely enjoy ‘The Drowning People’. It’s a fun book to read, despite a male narrator who as you can probably tell is rather self-obsessed and seems to be rather saved by his author, rising higher and higher professionally while he weeps of suffering, in comparison to his girlfriend whose suffering leads to her break down and incarceration. An interesting novel to read then, but perhaps not written in a style that stands close analysis.
bookgazing: (i heart books)

Literary geek moment: Novels that play around with structure are so much fun! Seriously give me a novel that reorders the traditional linear structure and I am automatically fascinated, like a kitten with tissue paper.

‘The Night Watch’, Sarah Water’s WWII novel is presented in three sections: the first is set in 1947, the second is set earlier in 1944 and the third takes the reader back to 1941. Obviously the reader begins the novel on the first page, which means they read the 1947 section first and then move onto the 1944 section, so as they enter each new section the characters they have been following move backwards in time. The reader knows how the novel ends before they know how each characters story begins.

Telling the reader how a story ends, in the first pages of a novel isn’t unusual. I’ve just finished reading ‘The Drowning People’ by Richard Mason, which begins by telling the reader that the narrator has killed his wife and I’ve read a fair amount of other novels that began by revealing that the narrator has committed a crime. It’s a well established technique that, among other things, increases dramatic tension, as the reader spends the rest of the narrative puzzling over questions of how and why.

Although ‘The Night Watch’ reveals how each character’s narrative strand ends before it allows readers access to the beginning of each character’s story, its structure is re-ordered in a slightly different way from novels, like ‘The Drowning People’. ‘The Night Watch’ has more in common structurally with ‘The White Woman on the Green Bicycle’ by Monique Roffey, which spends a whole section showing the reader where its character’s have ended up and how their story ends, before the beginning is ever written about. This kind of structure creates dramatic tension in a slightly different way.

In the 1947 section the reader is dropped into a world that appears in many respects quite normal (even though the representation of long term gay and lesbian partnerships, as normal during the 1940s makes this novel quite stand out in mainstream publishing). Helen and Julia live together as lovers. Duncan lives a quiet life taking care of an older man called Mr Mundy. Viv takes a day trip with her married lover Reg and visits her brother. Still, there is something quietly jarring about the characters lives. Kay’s life is the one most obviously out of kilter. Her words on the first page, ‘So this, said Kay to herself, is the sort of person you’ve become: a person whose clocks and wrist- watches have stopped...’ suggests her life has been affected by some powerful force and pushed out of the shape she expected it to take. Teasingly obscure allusions that hint at secrets from the past fill this first section, making the reader crave answers to these small mysteries. Everything slightly askew and any engaged reader will want to work out what historical events have caused the sense of oddness that clings to many moments in this section.

Obscuring a mystery is a pretty standard tension building device, just as revealing a plot resolution at the beginning of a novel has become common. The mysteries being hidden in ‘The Night Watch’ are in the past. Again secrets from the past, pretty normal plot drivers. Hang on, here’s the twist. Typically in novels which reveal the end of a story before the beginning, when the characters arrive in the most present moment the reader will be allowed to follow them to all secrets are revealed. By the end of the first section of ‘The Night Watch’ (which, remember, is also the end of the novel’s overall forward progression in time) the top level secrets haven’t been revealed and the reader finds themselves asked to ‘end’ their interaction with the characters with so many questions unanswered. And so the reader turns to the next section, anxious to unearth the origins of so many teasing, potentially tragic, character details.

Instead of sticking with regular structural re-ordering, revealing just one key moment from the end of the novel Waters has placed the entire end of her novel at the beginning. Rather than returning the novel to an entirely linear narrative after that revelation, she sets up three linear sections and each section represents a later time period than the section before it. Flash back scenes in other novels, or more commonly in films, work in the same way to create both shock and anticipation as the reader sees tantalizing glimpses what past events led to the drama of the present. In ‘The Night Watch’ flashback is made use of in an isolated way. Inside each separate section time progresses forward in a straight line for the four main characters and the novel never moves between time periods within one section, which means there is just one flash back at the end of each section and there no corresponding flash forward back to a current narrative.

I’m not saying ‘The Night Watch’ has a structure that draws a reader in by creating dramatic tension in a totally unique way, but I do think her novel pushes hard at the established ways of reordering narrative. Even though above I’ve called each transition into a new, earlier time period a flashback, that label feels inexact. Most flashbacks are written in the past tense, or presented as remembered scenes, but the 1944 and 1941 sections are written in the present tense. The reader is actually moved into those time periods, rather than being allowed to locate themselves in one ‘present’ time period and experience earlier events at a remove. Although the reader should be aware how each characters narrative ends (as they’ve seen them end in the 1947 section) that knowledge fades into the background while reading the 1944 and 1941 sections, due to the use of present tense. All the troubles the characters face in these sections seem serious even if the reader knows they’ll be less important by the end of the novel. All the joys the character’s experience feel sweet and wonderful, even if the reader knows they’ll be undermined by later experiences. It’s an interesting reminder that the significance of feelings and actions can seem to be obliterated by the force of time, but they were always real feelings, important actions. As puzzles are unravelled and points where everything could have turned out quite differently are revealed, it becomes clear that everything is connected. Everything the characters do has significance, even if years later they convince themselves that past events were more important to separate past selves.

That’s a lot of words, just about structure and this feels like a good place to take a break. I’ll hopefully come back later this week with a full on emoting post about the characters, who moved me (Kay, Duncan!).

Other Reviews

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Tales from the Reading Room


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April 2019



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