Tuesday, 9 November 2010

'There is nothing here but danger'

The Mountain Lion 
by Jean Stafford

When I reviewed A Meaningful Life, another NYRB Classics title, back in May, it was part of the Spotlight Series tour highlighting the output of this marvellous publisher. As a thank you for taking part they sent me an attractive tote bag and a proof of this novel which was to be published by them shortly afterwards. It seems entirely fitting that I publish this review during a week that is being called NYRB Reading Week by a couple of bloggers keen to draw more attention to this fabulous publisher. It has taken me a while to get around to reading it for a variety of reasons, one of which being that if you haven't chosen a book for yourself then the 'right time' for it can take a while to come around. A quick glance at the blurb didn't make it seem like the kind of book I'd pick myself either but the joy of finding a publisher like NYRB Classics is that it's almost possible to choose blind and not be disappointed. That said, I'm not sure I ever really connected properly with this book. Having finally taken it down from the shelf I found it very slow going, often losing track of what was going on and struggled to know how I might approach a review. That's why you're stuck with this rather lame opening; it may not be the most ringing endorsement but I shall at least try an honest response.

Jean Stafford won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for her Collected Stories and whilst the short story seems to be the form with which she enjoyed most success she also wrote three well-received novels too. Originally published in 1947, The Mountain Lion follows the adolescence of Ralph and Molly, a brother and sister growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles whose lives will be altered by their regular trips to the Colorado mountain ranch of their uncle. Nosebleeds are often seen as a bad omen and the book opens with one, or should that be two, as Ralph and Molly both suffered from scarlet fever last year, when ten and eight respectively, which has left them 'half poisoned most of the time' and causes them terrible and often synchronised nosebleeds that send them home from school. On the day that they are expecting the regular annual visit of their grandfather they meet 'with gushing noises outside the art supply room' and scamper home, sharing their favourite joke (about a cow) which floors them both with paroxysms of laughter and intensified bleeding. From the outset Ralph and Molly are the book's crowning achievement. Wonderfully characterised they are immediately the misfits of the family. Their genteel mother and her two elder daughters are almost a different breed from Ralph and Molly and when the three of them leave on a tour of the world halfway through the book they seem to do so with barely a thought about the siblings left behind. But whilst Ralph and Molly are united in their difference we notice in just the first few pages the beginnings of the antagonism that comes from such proximity.

Of late, Ralph had had moments of irritation with her: often, when he had finished telling a joke or a fact, she would repeat exactly what he had said immediately afterward so that there was no time for people either to laugh or to marvel. And not only that, but she had countless times told his dreams, pretending that they were her own.

Ralph worries that she will ruin their favourite joke, one that he so wants to impress Grandpa Kenyon with, and so agrees that they should tell it together as a dialogue. The moment never materialises, Grandpa Kenyon's visit is cut short by his passing away and when his son, the children's Uncle Claude, comes to collect the body the wheels are set in motion that will see Ralph and Molly travelling to what might as well be another planet as far as they're concerned and encountering the brutal consequences of growing up into a adult world.

The house, spacious and rambling, made of white brick, faced north upon the fast stream called the Caribou River which cut the pasture land in half. On its banks grew cottonwoods and weeping willow trees, and dense amongst them, chokecherry and sarvis berry bushes. Here beavers made their clever dams and here hoot owls warned at night: there was no place that was not alive with something.

Stafford's descriptions of the Rocky Mountains and the surrounding terrain are pitched just right, never straying into romantic landscape prose or 'beautiful writing', in fact the writing throughout is far from flashy (perhaps one of the reasons why my stylistically battered reading senses were slow to adjust). The regular trips to Claude's intensify the divide opening between Ralph and Molly. Ralph occupies a larger part of the frame, the approach of manhood and his relationship with his uncle, who becomes the father figure Ralph never had, dominating. The big cat of the title also appears, another potent symbol signifying all the danger inherent in the landscape and the approach of maturity, and both Claude and Ralph become determined to be the one to shoot her down. Molly is less ready to leave the indulgences of childhood, her passion for writing expressed in her constant diary writing and the curious poetry that convinces Ralph that his sister is going crazy.

He looked at his weedy sister with dislike as she crouched on her heels, plucking the lilies all around her, and when she looked up at him, her large humble eyes fondling his face with lonely love, he wanted to cry out with despair because hers was really the only love he had and he found it nothing but a burden and a tribulation.

Despite the classic one-liners that she delivers, often puncturing the social niceties as effectively as a pin to a balloon, Molly doesn't get a chance to shine as a fully rounded character until much later in the novel. A scene in which she takes a bath is a masterful piece of character fiction, suddenly giving us what we needed to better understand the girl that 'no one could ever say...was wishy washy.' I don't need to say much about the plot as Stafford keeps things relatively simple, the book working subtly with its themes and with great compassion and understanding. There is a slight inevitability about where it's heading, those ominous symbols keep popping up but that actually doesn't take away much from what the jacket describes as the book's devastating end. I'm prepared to admit that the shortcomings are my fault and I longed to have the opportunity to read the introduction by Kathryn Davis which was unfortunately missing from my proof. It probably made clear, in a way I'm ill-equipped to, the real strengths of this book and its place amongst the rest of the publisher's fine cannon.


nicole 9 November 2010 at 16:04  

That bath scene is a great key to Molly's character, and the way in which her status as "misfit" or "outsider" has led to (or been caused by?) something rather sinister in her personality. Our heroine is a very strange little girl.

William Rycroft 10 November 2010 at 08:03  

Thanks for the comment Nicole, that bath scene really is fantastic and a great example of Stafford's perceptiveness about adolescent thought and character.

fantaghiro23 14 November 2010 at 05:18  

Hi, William. The introductions do help one along in reading the NYRBs. Nevertheless, this interests me in that it's a brother-sister growing up story.

By the way, I checked your link to the photo you submitted to the NYRB Photo contest, and I couldn't access it. Could you send me another link or the link to the blog post soon? Thanks!

William Rycroft 15 November 2010 at 08:32  

I love the introductions and really missed having one here, mainly because I needed a little guidance or context. Lots to enjoy though. I'll try another link for that picture too.

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