Thursday 16 September 2010

'what have we been all this time?'

The New Perspective
by K Arnold Price

I've mentioned this article previously when reviewing Marshall N Klimasewiski's debut novel The Cottagers, a book which has seemed to improve in my memory with time and one I would never have read it if it hadn't been for Peter Ho Davies' heads-up. Finding Colm Toibin's intriguing recommendation has been altogether harder. K Arnold Price was 84 when her debut novel was published by Poolberg Press in 1980, something to comfort anyone with a wish to write but a worry that they may have left it too late. Or perhaps not. Toibin mentions that he only knows of two other people who have read it (both writers) and when I tried to find a copy it wasn't only out of print but unavailable even on AbeBooks. I would check periodically in case one turned up and sure enough just one copy did recently; swiftly purchased and even more swiftly read, the book consisting of only as many pages as the writer's years and lots of white space on many of those. I don't know how many other people have even read this book but I can't help but feel a little sad that the number must surely be small and yet the book is in its own way quite brilliant: a portrait of a marriage that is searingly honest, beautifully nuanced and filled with the kind of detail that makes reading fiction such a satisfying experience.

Pattie and Cormac have been married long enough to raise their children and see them fly the nest, the novel beginning as they return home to Number Twelve (as the first section is titled) after the wedding of their son Bob. This event it seems is enough for Pattie to suddenly see their house differently. The family home, now without its children, is transformed quite literally into another space altogether.

What checks and chills me is that I come home unsuspectingly, and suddenly it is not home, it is an unlikeable house stamped with mediocrity and choked with trivia. I have lived in it for years, perhaps not complacently but easily. What is happening now: every object that I see strikes me - assaults would be a better word.

These assaults (and the intimacy of the first-person narration) force Pattie into revealing her true feelings about certain things, including the wedding they have just returned from.

I look down at the old brown carpet. On this carpet Bob crawled and pissed and played with his carefully chosen toys. I remember this without emotion of any kind. Then the lurking rudimentary thought darts out and snakes through my mind: Bob was a dull boy and has married a dull girl.

What Pattie describes as a 'heightened sense of myself and my environment' seems not to be affecting her husband Cormac in the same way.

Cormac must be impervious to environment, or else immune to possessiveness. This house has held the four of us together for a whole generation. And yet, I am sure, if this house collapsed, Cormac, without any repining, would make a fire of the timbers, cook our usual supper on it, and make love to me very sweetly and competently under a tarpaulin shelter.

This is part of what makes Pattie such an enthralling narrator. There is constant surprise in what she reveals to us, shocking not because it is extraordinary but because it is often the kind of ordinary revelation that you aren't supposed to voice. She can look back on her parenting without emotion and admit that her son is dull, she can talk frankly about the sex-life with her husband and its importance to her, she is lover first and then mother ('my life has been mainly lusty and lustful'). And throughout this short book there is an energy that starts from that unsettling beginning. It is similar to that which drove Elizabeth Baines' novel, Too Many Magpies, which I reviewed recently. The removal of certainty, of some kind of anchor, leaves both female narrators searching for something solid to grab hold of, but with a new ability to question what in the past would have been cast-iron certainties.

Cormac's work at an auction house brings him into contact with property and when he mentions one day that 'There's a house...' Pattie jumps at the opportunity and it isn't long before they move into Addison Road (the title of the second section). The house needs work and each of them contributes to its renovation, Pattie aware each time something of Cormac's doesn't chime with her and noting that 'We are changing this house. Perhaps it will change us.' Price describes events that subtly show the detail of this relationship. Their work on the house, entertaining guests, simply living; this is the drama of domesticity. Tiny details assume a much greater significance and one purchase of Cormac's proves to have a devastating impact.

He mentions the purchase of a violin casually enough but it points up the fact that Pattie was completely unaware that it was an instrument he could play, one he gave up at the age of twenty-one in order to quickly learn the family business of his dying father.
Over and over again I hear our voices in question and answer:
Didn't you miss it?

When has Cormac ever admitted to missing anything? To being disappointed? Depressed? Frustrated?
And yet a silent renunciation for thirty years.
Nearly all those years he was with me. This is what shakes me.
I don't know him. I don't know my husband.

And that of course is what this portrait is all about. As Cormac re-engages with his musical past, Pattie is left floundering slightly to keep up with this revelation. What else doesn't she know? If the end of parenting provided her with a new perspective then the violin provides the same jolt to Cormac and through snapshot scenes we see the way in which a couple has to journey and grow together. Yet again Cormac mentions that 'There's a house...' and we move on to the final section, Stringers Lodge, and the final revelation, something that the jacket says 'may be the untold secret of many long-standing marriages', but I'm not about to give that away.

When in one scene Cormac pours scorn on the idea of him becoming involved in the local amateur dramatics one of his reasons is that 'acting is the lowest of the arts'.

Boys and girls in this country become actors and actresses overnight. That gives it away.
Gives what away?
Amateur drama. A real art needs a long apprenticeship.

Writing so late in her life, Price proves that the best apprenticeship for writing about life is the living of it. My only regret is that a book so worthy of a reading is almost impossible to get a hold of. Maybe I should start a lending service...


Anonymous,  16 September 2010 at 15:47  

Very clever, Will. Checked my NA used sources and found one copy for $45 and another for $205. I'll stand in line for your lending service -- your review makes it seem like a very interesting book. I get a sense of echoes of Penelope Fitzgerald, another late-starting author, although 58 is hardly 84.

My search for "k arnold price" did, however, produce the intriguing finding of Collectable Golf Balls: History and Price Guide, by Arnold Palmer. I may have to pick that one up instead.

Anonymous,  16 September 2010 at 16:32  

an intrigueing BOOK WILL ,I read the debut novel by Millard Kaufman the screenwriter of mr magoo and bad day at blackrock among other he start it when 86 and published when he was 90 by mcsweeneys bowl of cherries it was a quirky book too ,all the best stu

William Rycroft 16 September 2010 at 18:04  

Abebooks now has copies available from 4 booksellers (here). The cheapest copy is unsurpisingly in Ireland. Maybe we could have a very slow international reading group and post the book around the world to each other. If anyone is genuinely interested let me know.

I love the idea of late starting authors, there's way too much emphasis on youth and debut fiction at the moment. I received an email today from Colm Toibin who mentioned that Price was known to her friends as 'Nella'. She wrote just one other novel.

Max Cairnduff 22 December 2010 at 19:33  

I shall order a copy via Abebooks Will. I totally missed this review originally and I'm totally sold on it now.

Possibly too many totallys (like, totally) in this comment.

Lauri 5 November 2012 at 09:26  

I just finished this book this weekend. I got my copy from a blogging friend, Sue Guiney. I read it in the car, me 48, my husband driving us from leaving our grown children in Gaborone. To say it resonated with my life would be an understatement. I'm a writer and a fan of writers such as K. Arnold Price who can tell powerful truthful stories in plain minimal language.

I found it especially interesting because that time, that time when the children leave and the fear of how you will cope as a couple without the noise, told from a woman's persepctive, I think is not so well interrogated in fiction. It is a scary, in-the-middle space.

I found it interesting that she sometimes switches from first to third person from Patty's perspective. I wonder why you think the author chose to do that.

William Rycroft 9 November 2012 at 15:46  

Fantastic to read that you enjoyed this book so much Lauri and also that it resonated so powerfully with you. As for that shift in perspective I feel lie I should dig out my copy and take another look before answering and having just moved house it may be some time before I can locate it but if you're patient I may have some thoughts.... eventually...

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