The Gregory Peck-a-long: ‘In Falling Snow’ by Mary-Rose MacColl ***

The third book on this week’s project list is Australian author Mary-Rose MacColl’s In Falling Snow.  Neither Belinda nor I had heard about it before we decided to purchase copies (which we rather awesomely did at around the same time).  When we found out about our literary coincidence, we decided to incorporate it into our readathon.

First published in 2013, the premise of the novel appealed to me immediately.  In 1978, an elderly widow named Iris Crane, who lives in a quiet part of Brisbane, is invited to a World War One reunion in France, and is quickly ‘overcome by memories of the past’.  As a young woman, Iris travelled to France at the start of the First World War, following her younger brother, Tom, who joined up and left home.  Her intention at first is solely to bring him back to the safety of Australia, but she soon finds herself working at a field hospital at an old Abbey in Royaumont.  She is tasked under the capacity of being a personal assistant of sorts to the sometimes formidable Miss Ivers, merely due to her competence in French.

Part of the present-day story which runs alongside Iris’ memories deals with her granddaughter, Grace, a doctor and mother of three.  Interestingly, Iris’ tale makes use of the first person perspective, while Grace’s is told by an omniscient third person narrator.  This technique worked well to break up the plots and different generations of characters, but Grace’s portion of the plot did also feel rather detached in consequence.  I found myself far preferring Iris’ part of the story; whilst Grace’s had some interesting elements within it, it seemed a little lacklustre, and I could not make myself like her as a person.  Some of the decisions which she made did not seem at all rational for an educated woman in her position, and she did not come across as a believable protagonist.  The only character whom I felt endeared to in In Calling Snow was Grace’s young son, Henry; for the most part, he felt like a realistic construct.  He was also the least predictable of MacColl’s creations, and I believe that this helped towards my liking him.

There is real strength in some of MacColl’s prose, but the conversations let it down somewhat for me.  They did not feel quite balanced, and at times were either unnecessary or unrealistic.  Some of the descriptive phrasing was nice enough, but a lot of the prose lacked depth, particularly given the emotion which should have been packed into every page of such a novel.  I was reminded in part of Kate Morton’s work in In Falling Snow, both in terms of the dual storylines and familial saga aspects of the plot, but I do not think that MacColl quite pulled off the story as well as Morton could have done.  I did find a couple of discrepancies within the plot too – with regard to Henry’s age, for example.

I really liked the general premise of In Falling Snow, but it fell a little flat for me.  Some elements were perhaps not executed as well as they could have been.  The denouement was also quite precitable.  Iris’ gradual memory loss was handled sensitively, however, and I admire MacColl for being able to put this element of the plot, and her sympathy for Iris’ situation, across so well.

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The Gregory Peck-a-long: ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote *****

It will come as no surprise, I am sure, to say that I have wanted to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences for such a long time, and my longing to do so was even higher after the Capote Readathon which Lizzi and I created last summer.  In Cold Blood is the fifth book upon my Classics Club list, and a fitting final read for my American Literature month. A lot of the information within this stunning piece of non-fiction was included in ‘Capote’, a film which I very much enjoyed.  The Spectator describes the book as ‘The American dream turning into the American nightmare…  a remarkable book’, and its blurb heralds it ‘a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative’.

Published in 1966 and dedicated to Jack Dunphy and Harper Lee with Capote’s ‘love and gratitude’, In Cold Blood is ‘controversial and compelling’.  It ‘reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and children.  Truman Capote’s comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime, as well as the effects which it had on those involved.  At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickok, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible, yet entirely and frighteningly human’.  All of the material which Capote says is ‘not derived from my own observation’ is taken from official records and interviews ‘conducted over a considerable period of time’.9780141182575

Capote masterfully sets the scene and tone of the whole from the outset: ‘The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there”.  Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clean air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.  The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang…  and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes’.  Holcomb itself is described as ‘an aimless congregation of buildings divided in the centre by the main-line tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad…  After rain, or when snowfalls thaw, the streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved, turn from the thickest dust into the driest mud’.

As in his fiction, his depiction and control of every single scene is gripping and vivid.  This is particularly true when he describes the event which was to shake the entire community: ‘But then, in the earliest hours of the morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises – on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles.  At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.  But afterwards the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy recreating them over and again – those sombre explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbours viewed each other strangely, and as strangers’.

The Clutter family – Herbert and Bonnie, and the youngest of their four children, sixteen-year-old Nancy and fourteen-year-old Kenyon – are the victims, all of whom were tied up and shot at close range in their home in 1959.  Descended from German immigrants who moved to Kansas in 1880, they were a prominent and well-respected family in the area, and all were profoundly shocked at their murder: ‘Feeling wouldn’t run half so high if this had happened to anyone except the Clutters.  Anyone less admired.  Prosperous.  Secure.  But that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, it’s like being told there is no God.  It makes life seem pointless.  I don’t think people are so much frightened as they are deeply depressed’.  The peripheral characters which Capote makes use of, both in terms of testimony and as part of his beautifully prosaic telling of the murders, are wonderfully and strikingly described.  Local postmistress Myrtle Clare, for example, is ‘a gaunt trouser-wearing, woollen-shirted, cowboy-booted, ginger-coloured, gingery-tempered woman of unrevealed age… but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crow altitude and penetration’.

The rendering of the Clutters’ story is incredibly powerful and resonant, and has been so well sculpted.  Capote has been incredibly clever in that he follows both the victims and the perpetrators, explaining their pasts and the motives of the killers.  He is almost compassionate towards Perry Smith, and this gives an interesting and memorable slant to the whole.  In Cold Blood is distinctly Capote’s work; it rings with such understanding of those involved, without exception.  Real depth has been given to the whole, and it feels as though the reader is watching events unfold when they happen, rather from the position of retrospect.  In Cold Blood is a compelling and important piece of non-fiction, and it has made its way straight onto my favourites list.

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The Gregory Peck-a-long: ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys ****

The first book of The Gregory Peck-a-long, a fabulous week-long readathon project which I am undertaking with the lovely Belinda, is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.  This postcolonial novel, which was first published in 1966 and is a prequel to my beloved Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, was a re-read for me.  The book’s blurb says the following: ‘Set against the lush backdrop of 1830s Jamaica, Jean Rhys’ powerful, haunting story was inspired by her fascination with the first Mrs Rochester, the mad wife’.  Author Esther Freud deems the work ‘powerful and haunting…  thick with bright colour and deep, dark thoughts.  Mesmeric and unforgettable’.

I purchased a gorgeous Penguin edition of the novel (not the one pictured) from a lovely secondhand bookshop whilst at University.  The story’s premise intrigued me straight away: ‘If Antoinette Cosway, a spirited Creole heiress, could have foreseen the terrible future that awaited her, she would not have married the young Englishman.  Initially drawn to her beauty and sensuality, he becomes increasingly frustrated by his inability to reach into her soul.  He forces Antoinette to conform to his rigid Victorian ideals, unaware that in taking away her identity he is destroying a part of himself as well as pushing her towards madness’.

Antoinette’s narrative voice is candid, and one immediately has a sense of trusting her: ‘My father, visitors, horses, feeling safe in bed – all belonged to the past’.  Her story is a sad one; her mother ‘persuaded a Spanish Town doctor to visit my younger brother Pierre who staggered when he walked and couldn’t speak distinctly.  I don’t know what the doctor told her or what she said to him but he never came again and after that she changed.  Suddenly, not gradually.  She grew thin and silent, and at last she refused to leave the house at all’.

The ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ culture is evident here from the very beginning: ‘They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did’.  The racial hatred which is directed at Antoinette is heartbreaking: ‘I never looked at any strange Negro.  They hated us.  They called us white cockroaches.  Let sleeping dogs lie.  One day a little girl followed me singing, “Go away, white cockroach, go away, go away.”  I walked fast, but she walked faster.  “White cockroach, go away, go away.  Nobody want you.  Go away.”‘  One of her friends, Tia, then goes on to tell her, ‘Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger’.  Rhys exemplifies how incredibly difficult – and often, nigh on impossible – it can be for one to fit in: ‘It was a song about a white cockroach.  That’s men.  That’s what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders.  And I’ve heard English women call us white niggers.  So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all’.

Much of the first part of the novel deals with Antoinette’s painfully trying to come to terms with herself, her awkward societal position, and the fact that she is growing up: ‘I woke next morning knowing that nothing would be the same.  It would change and go on changing’.  The family’s poverty is talked about within the community in a no-holds-barred manner when her mother remarries: ‘Her new husband will have to spend a pretty penny before the house is fit to live in – leaks like a sieve…  As for those two children – the boy an idiot kept out of sight and mind and the girl going the same way in my opinion’.  With the arrival of her new stepfather, the Cosways are suddenly pulled into wealth, something which just serves to make everything worse: ‘The black people did not hate us quite so much when we were poor.  We were white but we had not escaped and soon we would be dead for we had no money left.  What was there to hate?’

Jean Rhys

The brutality of Antoinette’s surroundings has been well evoked: ‘I took another road, past the old sugar works and the water wheel that had not turned for years.  I went to the ports of Coulibri that I had not seen, where there was no road, no path, no track.  And if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think “It’s better than people”.  Black ants or red ants, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin – once I saw a snake.  All better than people’.  Colour, as Freud says, plays a big part in the descriptions of Jamaica, and the way in which Antoinette perceives them: ‘I knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look’.  Colour is used to show the obvious racial differences within Spanish Town, to the ‘light and dark’ of Heaven and Hell, and the evils of the natural world: ‘Everything was brightness, or dark’.  In consequence, the whole feels rather oppressive; it is as though something sinister is always lurking on the horizon.  Rhys heightens her scenes accordingly, and builds to a stifling, airless whole.

Rhys is incredibly skilled at capturing scenes and actions, and rendering them onto paper.  Antoinette’s voice has been perfectly crafted, and serves to pull one straight into Wide Sargasso Sea.  The story which Rhys has imagined as belonging to the ‘mad wife’ of Jane Eyre is thoughtful and has a lot of depth to it.  The use which she makes of Mr Rochester’s first person perspective in the second part of the novel works wonderfully, and helps to construct a rich, compelling novel, which is difficult to put down.  The different dialects and patois which Rhys has made use of have been well captured, and the heavily-entrenched superstitions of the region are well considered and are woven in accordingly.  One of the real strengths of the novel is the way in which she exemplifies how drastically one person can alter others.  Perhaps to my shame, I have never read any of Rhys’ other work, despite so enjoying Wide Sargasso Sea.  I shall certainly be remedying this as soon as I possibly can.

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