Tag Archives: family life

The Children’s Crusade: Ann Packer

“I remembered my memory of the moment, because after so long that’s what memory is: the replaying of a filmstrip that’s slightly warped from having gone through the projector so many times. I’ll never know what actually happened and what distortions I added.”

You can’t approach Ann Packer’s novel, The Children’s Crusade without evoking images of the 13th century and the disastrous (and possibly exaggerated) historic event in which thousands of children participated in a crusade to convert Muslims to Christianity. In Ann Packer’s novel, the crusade in the title concerns the desire of four children to try to include their mother in their lives–something that’s far more complicated than it first appears, but I want to back up a bit before going further.

The Children’s Crusade begins in 1954 when Michigan native Dr. Bill Blair, freshly discharged from the navy, discovers the wonders of Portola Valley. He buys a 3.1 acre property, begins a second residency in pediatrics at UCSF, and marries a woman he meets, Penny, when taking in a watch to be repaired. Eventually Bill and Penny have 4 children together: Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James, and the children are brought up in what should be an idyllic location in an enviable home. The children's crusadeThe novel goes back and forth in time, so in alternating chapters, we see the children as they grow up and what they have become in adulthood. Robert is a doctor specializing in Geriatrics–married with children, but now middle-aged, depressed and unhappy, he can’t really understand where his life went wrong. Rebecca is a psychiatrist who specializes in pediatrics. Ryan is a teacher happily married to a French-Canadian woman, and the youngest, James, is the black sheep of the family who returns home when things go south in Oregon.

The novel’s main dilemma, wrestled with in the chapters set in the present, is what to do with the family home now that Bill Blair is deceased. The house and the land, worth millions, is currently rented to a wealthy man who wants to buy the property, tear down the original house and build a mega-mansion. It’s tempting to sell it and divide the money, but that decision also involves demolishing the myth of a happy home life and will also involve some agreement between the children and their mother, Penny Blair.

This is a profoundly sad, yet moving novel, for while dysfunctional family stories pop up like weeds, the Blair family is functional–they get by and cope even though things, under the surface, are far from normal. Bill Blair is a wonderful father, but as one of the children’s friends note, he’s more like a mother. Where does the rot in the Blair family begin? Does it begin with Bill Blair’s choice of a wife? His own mother is an excellent housekeeper, but for Penny raising four children, producing meals and cleaning the house are beyond her interests and capabilities. But since this is the 50s, it takes some decades for Penny to break out of the mold. But then what about Bill Blair–a man who cares so much about his patients that there’s very little left over at the end of the day for his wife.

As we read the narrative from each child’s perspective, the Blair family history is gradually revealed with each child assuming some sort of important role in the family’s structure. Always anxious, Robert, for example, lives to make his father proud, but James, the youngest child, becomes the one person who openly acknowledges his mother’s choices, and because he speaks while everyone else is silent, he becomes the family scapegoat and the family mouthpiece who states the things that everyone else avoids. As an adult, James cannot settle down, “a seeker who was seeking the identity of his own grail,” and yet now he returns to the scene where everything went wrong. James’s return heralds a period of discomfort and realignment for the siblings as they each confront their own history.

It’s the female characters here who are the most interesting. First there’s Penny Blair–who hated being a ‘homemaker’ but endured that role, with questionable success for decades, and then there’s her daughter, psychiatrist Rebecca, who enjoys a surprisingly supportive marriage, and who thinks she can pinpoint the moment in her life when she chose her career. She was waiting, along with her mother and siblings, for their father when he stops at the hospital to check on a patient:

I told my mother I wanted to leave, and she said we couldn’t leave, but if I promised to be quiet I could go over to the window. On the other side of the glass window people were moving quickly: doctors in white coats, nurses in caps, regular people in regular clothes. They were alone or in pairs, talking or not. I didn’t know why or how, but I knew they were different from the people in the cafeteria. And to get closer to them all I had to do was be quiet. Was this the moment when the seeds of my vocation were planted? I’ve always thought so. I wanted to be on the other side of the window, away from the sick and the worried. And to get there, I should cease talking. I should listen.

It’s interesting that James, the child who has the most problems with his mother, and the one who is the most confrontational with her, should also be the one who fails to find his way in life. Robert, Rebecca and Ryan all seem to find their vocations, and yet James, the family’s last child, is totally lost.

The Children’s Crusade argues that our characters are shaped in childhood, but there’s a deeper, more troubling question here and that is Penny’s behaviour. At what point do the considerations and desires of the individual exceed the demands of the family that a parent has committed to raise? Is Penny’s behaviour selfish? How difficult is it to be married to a man who gives everything to his patients and has little, emotionally, left to give his wife?

One of the most interesting and arguably the most difficult aspects of marriage is establishing boundaries between the entity of the couple and the individual. Packer’s tale explores the invisible boundaries between the individual, the couple  and the parent. Given that these people live very privileged material lives (the estate to be divided between the four children is worth several million) this  has the strange result of making us conclude that if these people have problems then what chance do other, less materially advantaged people have, and that thought can at once be comforting and disconcerting.

Many people have far worse childhoods than the Blair children, and those readers may find the tale underwhelming. The main dilemma of whether or not to sell the family home and carve up over 3 million is a problem most of us wouldn’t mind dealing with, yet material privilege cannot trump all other deprivations. That brings me to the other issues at play here regarding the terrible burden of Bill Blair’s dream and how his dream didn’t mesh with his wife’s desires. And here’s a quote that defines Penny’s problematic role in her family’s life when she’s found by her husband and children in her private space:

“Bill saw that the children were defining the moment as a rescue operation rather than the act of capture it actually was.”

Review copy.

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Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden

Deirdre Madden’s Time Present and Time Past is a quiet, moving novel about the constant presence of time and memory in the lives of two Irish siblings. For once this is not a dysfunctional family, and what a refreshing change it is to read about people who have differences but who still maintain (mostly) healthy relationships in spite of opinions and past history. I’ll get to the one testy relationship later, and it’s by far the best of this excellent novel.

The issue of time appears constantly throughout the novel, and with one exception, it’s never overdone. The characters are members of a Dublin family: middle-aged Fintan Buckley, his wife, Colette, their three children, Fintan’s sister, Martina, Aunt Beth, and Fintan’s irascible mother, Joan. While not a great deal happens in the novel in terms of dramatic plot, instead this is a novel in which memories of the past are in the present as we follow our characters through their daily lives.

time present time pastThe novel begins with this passage:

Where does it all begin? Perhaps here, in Baggot Street, on the first floor of one of Dublin’s finest restaurants on a day in spring. It seems as good a place to starts as any.

This simple passage sets up the idea of the continuum of time, and as we see as the novel continues, the past and even the seeds for the future are here in the present. While the past is with us through memories, the novel hints at an entirely different presentation of time with the past and present right there in front of our eyes, and while we can’t access the past or the future, all three sectors of time are invisibly connected.

It’s spring 2006, and Fintan, in middle age, experiences moments of disassociation–familiar objects seem bizarre; he tunes out of a conversation with someone as he no longer pays attention to the spoken words but instead feels as though he’s “watching a film with the sound turned down.” These incidents involving “hallucinations and strange shifts of perception” open Fintan’s mind to a greater awareness of the past–specifically though an interest in photography.  He become fascinated with a photograph of an unidentified ancestress, and at one point also notes that the sky looks a certain way one day, and “it was also how it would have looked in certain days in the eighteenth century.” The notion of passing time is clear–photographs may “preserve” a moment, but our lives are brief and fleeting.

While Fintan begins to discover the history of early photography, his sister Martina emerges as the second main character in the novel who wrestles with the past but for entirely different reasons. We know there’s some dark secret involving her sudden panicked flight from London years earlier and her return to Dublin. Martina now lives with her Aunt Beth in a wonderful home that seems to exist in some sort of time warp. On the surface, Martina, who owns a small, successful clothing shop seems to be a very collected, organized business woman, but as Fintan notes, “you could spend a lifetime looking at Martina and wondering who she was.”

The quiet joy of this book is in the details of life and family. Fintan and Collette have two sons: Rob, who “while still in his cot [he] had the thousand-yard stare of a hostile banker,” and Niall, a vegetarian with a “highly developed social conscience.” While Niall is “somewhat ascetic,” Rob, who brings home “a succession of trophy girlfriends” develops “expensive tastes and habits.” These early-established differences and behaviours are sign-posts for the future, and in one slightly awkward chapter (the only thing I’d fault in this otherwise exquisite novel), we get a glimpse of the future of this family, post boom.

More than anything else, the members of this average Irish family, for this reader, seemed extraordinarily vivid and quite real. There’s one wonderful scene when Fintan takes his daughter and her friend to the zoo, and collects the other girl from her divorced father–a man Fintan recognizes as being a younger, sadder version of himself:

This is domestic chaos on an industrial scale. He can just about find space on the island for his Pooh mug amidst the wreckage of a week’s worth of rushed breakfast and lousy dinners. The jacket of yesterday’s suit hangs over the back of a chair; the silk snake of the tie lies coiled on the floor beneath it. The apartment is so coolly minimalist in its design, and yet so unrepentantly squalid, that Fintan cannot help but admire the other man for his sheer chutzpah in having comprehensively trashed the place, as a revolt against being forced to live there. Fintan salutes his refusal to be reasonable; his rejection of this chilly box as his home.

The novel establishes Fintan’s relationship with his mother, Joan, fraught with its ritualistic landmines, almost immediately, and we know that there’s more to come. The novel’s finest moment has to be when Fintan visits his mother and he layers the visit with the element of a game, rewarding himself with an “extra cake” if his mother tramples onto already well-abused territory:

“Such flowers! They’re like the sun itself! They’ll light up the room for me.” They exchange pleasantries and small talk as he follows her down the hall to her ground-floor apartment, and he asks himself, as he sometimes does initially when they meet why he had dreaded so much going to see her, although he wonders how long it will be before the first signs of conflict appear. Almost immediately, the slow attrition begins.

“And don’t you have Lucy with you?”

Fintan says no, that Colette has taken her to the hairdressers.

“Well that’s a disappointment, I had been looking forward to seeing her.”

One-nil. As he sits down on the sofa he realises that he is still holding the paper bag with the fish in it, so he hands it to her.

“Smoked salmon. You couldn’t have brought me anything more welcome.”

An equalizer in the second minute. She takes the packet of fish from the bag and waves it at him sternly.

“Now if you could get that son of your to eat some of this, it would do him good. He can’t be getting the protein he needs from those nuts or greens or whatever it us that he lives on.”

Two-one.

That scene, my favourite in the book, is painfully real, yet author Deirdre Madden doesn’t create monsters or villains here (well, ok, one deep in the past); these are moments pulled from life, and later on in that same scene, we see Joan isn’t just a repetitive mouthpiece, she’s intelligent and thoughtful, and quite ready with “gloomy predictions” about Ireland’s future. Because of scenes such as this, the reader is allowed into the lives of some incredibly human characters. I’ve seen reviews complaining about this book in which ‘nothing happens,’ and I’ve seen other reviews praising the book highly. I’m of the latter opinion. This is a graceful tale of the passing of time and the ephemeral qualities to our lives. Madden’s quiet, yet emotionally powerful tale argues that we should cherish every precious second because that moment won’t return again.

Review copy

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The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher

Connecting the dots….George Eliot, Philip Hensher and the multiplot novel.

I don’t know what it is about 2010 and 700 page novels, but so far this year, I’ve managed to read two: Evening’s Empire by Bill Flanagan–a fictional 40 year view of the music biz from the manager of a rock band, and now The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher. Both are reviewed over at MostlyFiction but I commented on Evening’s Empire here, so I decided to blog a bit about The Northern Clemency while I am at it.

I noted The Northern Clemency from Philip Hensher was shortlisted for the Booker prize–after all that was blazoned across the cover, but since I am generally oblivious to these things, I thought the book was up for this year–2010.

I started the book and thought to myself that if I liked it, I would probably be placing a curse on the chances of it winning as I typically seem to have better luck with the books that don’t win. It’s not that I read all the nominees and then am upset when my pony doesn’t win. Instead it’s a case of me looking at old lists and realising that I preferred the losers over the winners–hence my blog category: Booker Prize Losers.

I was only a few pages into the book when I realised that I was really enjoying it. This was, I thought, a nail in the coffin as far as the prize went for the author, Philip Hensher, so it was with a sense of relief that I discovered (after looking at the Booker prize archive) that the book already lost a few years back–2008, in fact. 

This just goes to show–again, as if I needed the reinforcement–that the books I like lose.

I liked it so much, I tracked down the author and asked for an interview. The Northern Clemency really was a terrific read–the closest thing I’ve read to a modern version of theVictorian multiplot novel in a while.  So what’s it about? In a nutshell, it’s the story of two families in Sheffield from the years 1974-1994.

I’m not going to re-review the book, but I do want to address some of the criticisms I came across. Some people thought it was rather like a soap opera, and (horror of horrors) Coronation Street was even mentioned at one point. I didn’t think the book was like a soap opera at all. If I went back over the last twenty years of my life, well, I’ve lost count of the deaths, the diseases, divorces, scandals and suicides that have taken their toll. But enough of the hankies and the sympathy cards. Bottom line, I don’t think that The Northern Clemency is over-the-top when it came to the scenarios it presented. 

Another criticism of the book is that it largely ignores the political events taking place in the country. I saw the politics in the book as background noise, and whether we like it or not, that’s how it is for most people. Take the current debacle in Iraq for example. It’s been going on now for 7 years, and yet most Americans are largely untouched by what has become a sideshow–a war that doesn’t even make the headlines. Rubbishy stories detailing the latest salacious sex scandal of sports celebs and hollywood stars take a front seat to ho-hum stuff like wars.

Makes me think of one of my favourite Auden poems: Musee des Beaux Arts…but I digress.

Back to The Northern Clemency and why I think it is a throwback to the Victorian multiplot novel. 

George Eliot, by gum,  knew how to write a Victorian multiplot that showed the fabric of British society through the interconnected lives of her characters, and we see this sort of thing in The Northern Clemency, a novel in which lives and lifestyles intersect.  Here are two quotes from one of my TOP TEN novels of all time,  Middlemarch, and both of these quotes get at the interconnectedness of roles in society.

“But anyone watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifference or the frozen state with which we look at our unintroduced neighbour.” 

And then:

“I at least have so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.”

While Hensher’s characters  remain firmly products of their class, nonetheless, the plot shows this interconnectedness in the social fabric Thatcher’s Britain. For example, Malcolm Glover works for a building society which later sells council houses, and this fuels Malcolm’s repetitive arguments with his emotionally stunted Marxist son.  Bernie Sellers works for the power company that helps break the Miners’ Strike. Years later, the power company is privatized and Bernie is forced to retire and handed a “gold plated vent, or valve, or tap, or something” for his trouble. Also we see middle class housewife Katherine Glover venturing out to seek employment. She happens to find herself unexpectedly wound up in the fate of a large-scale drug dealer, and while she is too naive to understand that there is something fundamentally wrong with the finances of the business she works for, nonetheless, the reader sees the connection between middle-class suburbia and the excesses of a drug dealer who cannot spend his money fast enough. Another example can be found almost at the end of the novel. One of my favourite scenes involves those roused from a coma or a suffering from a brain problem who are given a  key question: “who is the Prime Minister of Britain?”  The answer should be John Major: but if patients reply ‘Margaret Thatcher’ this is not seen as incorrect:

“We found that however badly damaged a patient’s mind was –even patients with advanced Alzheimer’s–they always seemed to know it was Mrs. Thatcher. And until quite recently you couldn’t base much on them not remembering immediately that it was John Major. People with nothing wrong with them went on saying Mrs. Thatcher before remembering and correcting themselves, for a year, eighteen months.”

 And we readers can take that any way we want, I suppose. For me, the passage lends itself to the idea that Thatcher’s rule PM years are more than just a memory that remains behind–these years left permanent changes or damage depending on how you look at it–a bit like a stain. Or one of those ring-around-the-bath thingies.

The Northern Clemency may not be overtly political but some of the most poignant parts of the novel describe the desperation and pride of the Miners’ wives,and at the same time the author makes it perfectly clear that British society remains divided along class lines. People move, accents shift and alter, but unfortunately we remain divided and separate from those whose lots in life we cannot understand. One of the main characters, Daniel, although a native of Sheffield remains a ‘foreigner’ to the miners’ section of town, and when he visits the mining town of Tinstone, it’s as if he’s stepped onto another planet. Hensher makes the point, and I think he makes the point well, that we may not think our lives are connected but they are. Connect the dots and what do you see….Miners…British Rail…and a few dots later…?

If anyone out there is interested in the events that took place at Orgreave (there’s a section of The Northern Clemency that takes place at Orgreave), I reviewed Dave Douglass’s Come Wet This Truncheon elsewhere on this blog.

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