I read and listened to a lot in July and August, especially on my vacation, and in the next couple of weeks I’m going to try to catch up on my blogging. In between getting myself ready for the start of fall semester and my son ready to go off for his first year of university, neither of which is causing me any anxiety. These posts may be disorganized and unedited, but I’ll try to say something interesting.
I’m reading way less romance now than I did when I first discovered the genre. But my time as a nearly exclusive romance-reader, and my ongoing conversations with romance readers, have colored my other reading in a way that may be permanent. So when I was thinking about how to summarize Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time, I was thinking about the ways that it conforms to criticism of literary fiction offered by genre readers: there isn’t a whole lot of plot; two of the central figures are a middle-aged, middle-class couple whose marriage is falling apart in totally predictable ways; a lot of sad stuff happens and the ending is both downbeat and unresolved. I didn’t love all those features, but I liked the book a lot, and I’ll try to explain how it won me over.
The prologue of At Hawthorn Time is its final scene, so we know from the start that some of the book’s characters will come together in a car crash at the end–though we’re not sure at the start which ones, and we never know for sure which ones survive. The four central characters are Howard and Kitty, the above-mentioned couple who are drifting apart after retirement and a move to the country village of Lodeshill; Jamie, a rather aimless twenty-something born in Lodeshill who both belongs to it and dreams of escape; and Jack, a drifter who has skipped out of his halfway house (he was arrested for trespassing) in London because he can’t bear being shut in, and is looking for temporary farm work. I found Jack by far the most interesting and uncommon characters; the others did feel like clichés of literary fiction.
I ended up caring about them, though, and that’s because what binds them together–on top of the fatal and fated accident we know the narrative is moving them towards–is a desire for meaning and connection to the land. At Hawthorn Time struck me as all about how the present is connected to the past, of the individual, the family, the community, the land.. These connections are often hidden, denied, deliberately looked. Harrison turns her attention to them, slowly revealing them.
There had been a dwelling of some kind on this spot since Domesday; in fact, for many centuries before. Now it was just a modern set of farm buildings, but in the stand of nettles that still marked the long-gone midden, in the patch of soil near the farmhouse stained black by walnuts from the lost tree in whose shade horses had once been tied, the land remembered.
The past is marked in the landscape even when the people living in it don’t see it is there. And many of them want to find it, to make it visible: a group of villagers made up of aging farmers and incomers like Howard and Kitty maintains the old custom of Rogation Sunday, “beating the bounds” of the village, even though in the context of modern exurban sprawl it might seem to have lost its meaning. They want to find meaning, and the land seems like a source of it.
Here’s Jamie, whose main passion in life is the car he’s restoring, and who doesn’t seem the type to care about the land (but who was, like his grandfather, born at home in Lodeshill, and whose best childhood friend lived on a farm that had been in his family for generations):
The outline of Babb Hill was part of the architecture of Jamie’s self, like knowing which lintels he needed to duck his head under, or the way he wrote his name. . . . And although he dreamed so often of escape, the idea that all this knowledge would leave him–that one day these places might be to him a memory and nothing more–was not something he could easily conceive of.
And here is Kitty, who is trying to paint the natural world she yearned for during her years in London:
How she had yearned for green places when she lived in Finchley; for somewhere ancient and unchanging, somewhere where the past lived on in the woods and fields, where you could imagine its previous generations and feel connected with the things that were there now.
What saves Kitty, and At Hawthorn Time with its loving descriptions of the natural world, too, from sentimental nostalgia about Olde England is an encounter with Jack when she’s out looking for a mythic encouter with Puck: “You’re not lost,” the man said, with sudden directness. “You’re just not looking properly.”
When she does look, Kitty’s painting comes to life. She stops trying to paint a mythic, beautiful past, and includes in her paintings the traces of modernity that inevitably mark her world: a plastic bottle floating in a woodland pool, the foot of a power pylon surrounded with spring growth. Harrison, too, looks properly and paints scenes in which past a present exist together, both giving her story meaning. This is what made the book magical for me, in a way I can’t really express. I love stories about place, and how it matters, and how it changes and yet goes on, and that story was at the center of the book, making it live for me even when I got impatient with Howard and Kitty and the stereotypical evasions at the heart of their marriage.
I wouldn’t say that the sad and ambiguous ending is more artful than a happy one (I wanted to know who lived!), but it made complete sense for this book, which I am happy to have read.
There’s a line at the end of the book which I somehow failed to copy before I returned it to the library, but which is something like Not everything is coming to an end, even when it feels that way. And I think that was probably exactly the kind of ending I needed right now. One where we know some people, and the world around them, will go on, despite calamity.