This month’s winter of discontent came with a vengeance: appallingly bad weather, which, in Montreal, consists of cycles of freezing and thawing that leave us with ice-ponds to navigate and barricades of snow to o’er-leap; a non-stop work month from hell for me (I am, blissfully, on a two-week March break as of Friday, though my tax-time piles and dust-bunnies are balefully eying me); a world imploding in war; and reading conducted in the early morning hours when anxiety saw me sullenly awake before dawn. But I did read some books, none of which made anything better, but which I loved, enjoyed, and respected, respectively: Tana French’s The Likeness, Katherine May’s The Electricity of Every Living Thing, and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.
Tana French makes my reader heart sing. Not only does she write compelling mysteries (like stay-up-all-night-reading compelling), she engages my mind in ways other mystery writers, much as I enjoy them, don’t. This was so with In the Woods and The Likeness, which is the better book, I think, because it does not revert to type in its resolution. I could see “whodunnit” a long way off, inexorably leading to one figure and liked French the more for it. She gained in characterization what she lost in surprise-plot (never my interest in crime fiction and promptly forgotten).
Speaking of, it’s a crazypants premise: one of the main characters from In the Woods, detective Cassie Maddox is called, by her detective-boyfriend (an incredibly loveable character, btw), to a crime scene. There she finds her old superior when she worked undercover and the victim, a woman who is her double. Even crazier: whoever this young woman is, she isn’t what her identity claims because that identity was a fabricated undercover one Cassie used years ago. “Alexandra Madison” was Cassie’s alias. Cassie then assumes “Lexie’s” identity again to penetrate her made-up life, discover who she was, and the reasons behind her murder.
It was Cassie-Lexie’s entry into “Lexie’s” life that made this novel for me. Lexie lived with four other English lit grad students in a rambling old manor. This house of whispers, ghosts, and secrets made French’s mystery as much gothic as whodunnit; the relationships among the grad students was akin to Swallows and Amazons, with a good deal of Blithedale Romance thrown in. What French recounts is nothing less than Cassie falling in love, not with any “one” of her house-mates, but with their utopian community, an idealized life enacted in picnics, soft-touch affection, quiet evenings reading and impenetrable, loving solidarity. Cassie is seduced by the pull of intense friendship (and there be reasons, which have to do with the events of In the Woods, but I don’t want to spoil), the one-for-all-and-all-for-one seduction of us-against-the-world. It is in that fantasy-life that Cassie’s moral compass goes awry and it takes her nigh 500 pages to find it again. When she does, the ending is neither simple, nor trite: it’s fitting, compelling, and unconventional. It leaves more questions than answers, but it does bring Cassie back to a better, deeper understanding of who she is and, more importantly, where she belongs. I loved it.
I read May’s memoir The Electricity of Every Living Thing: A Woman’s Walk in the Wild to Find Her Way Home because the folks at Backlisted podcast recommended it. (If you don’t listen to Backlisted, you can take this as my plug.) Electricity is the story of May’s walking of the South West Coast Path (630 miles skirting the Cornish coast) after she listens to a radio program about Autism Spectrum Disorder and realizes she has what used to be called Asperger Syndrome, though May prefers Autism Spectrum Condition now (ASC). Her account of doggedly walking in wind and rain, sleet and snow, cold and hot, sometimes with friends, mostly alone, often meeting her husband and son for a pub lunch along the way, makes for an honest unsparing-of-herself account (little Bertie offers delightful comic relief). She comes to the end of her journeying, as Eliot wrote, “to arrive where we first started/And know the place for the first time,” as a non-end. The purpose is neither journey, nor exploration, but coming to an understanding of who she is and how she wants to navigate her life with new-found knowledge. What I loved the most about May’s memoir was that she ended her journey because she was no longer the person who needed to complete it. I also admit that I loved it for sending me scurrying to Mr. Google to research the towns along the way and left me with a yen to visit them…not by walking the path. I love to walk, but I’m not a hiker.
Lastly, in the final week before my March break, I read Tokarczuk’s much-lauded Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Nobel Prize winner, I thought I would be in for a revelatory read. And it was, in many ways. First-person recounted by an eccentric hermit-crone, Janina (a name she hates) as she makes her way through the Polish countryside caring for her wealthy neighbours’ summer estates. When one of the few who remain behind during the winter months, a man she dubbed “Big Foot,” turns up dead and then another and another, Janina’s querulous claim that the animals are having their revenge on those who abuse them takes on the ring of righteous truth-telling.
When Janina is not traipsing through properties, she takes care of the animals around her, often rescuing them from traps, or honouring their deaths through idiosyncratic ritual. Tokarczuk’s novel is focussed on the limited, subjective point of view of Janina’s sensibility and to look for a moral centre, as we can do with French’s novel, skewed and compromised as it may be, is not Tokarczuk’s interest. So, in many ways, as someone who wants that moral centre to her literature, I was left hollow by Drive Your Plow. And yet, there were moments I thoroughly enjoyed as well: Janina’s obsession with William Blake, for example, whom I love, though Janina was more of a Urizen, “I see fairies in the garden” fan than my preference for the righteous anger Blake of London and Jerusalem. Despite her crusty, erratic voice, the strength of Janina’s characterization often lies in her acute awareness of creatures’ suffering, “…suffering is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.” But Tokarczuk doesn’t offer, not merely easy, but any answers: at the end, suffering just is and stopping it, an illusion.