In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

April 2017

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Margaret Drabble (one of my favourite authors of all time) said The Tidal Zone ($28) was one of her favourite novels of 2016, and as I hadn’t even heard of the author, Sarah Moss, I thought I would give it a go. Set now, in the English Midlands, the novel is narrated by Adam, a stay at home father of two daughters, and husband to a busy doctor. Very early in the piece, his eldest daughter Miriam is found unconscious on her school playing field, after an apparent cardiac arrest. What follows is a perfect rendition of a family thrown into a chaos of anxiety, while still getting on with the minutiae of daily life. Adam somehow manages to keep his family going—doing the laundry, cooking nutritious meals, organising his younger daughter and generally running the household while being plagued with anxiety bordering on fear, much like women everywhere. The frustration and sense of endless waiting that one experiences in the modern hospital system, is also very neatly described, as is the familiar sense of being patronised by hospital staff—Adam is frequently being called ‘Dad’ by all and sundry.
The narrative threads underlying the story give it a surprising beauty and resonance; Adam’s mother died unexpectedly when he was young, while ocean swimming, and his American father was left to bring him up. His father had rejected his own upbringing and had drifted across America, living on hippy communes—a way of life that seems to foreign now, and yet it wasn’t so long ago. Adam himself is man of hidden parts. He is a part time academic, an expert on the Arts and Crafts movement, and he is trying to write a thesis on the post war rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral—and this is a fascinating motif that runs through the book. I must also mention the cover of the book—the inside is illustrated with the extraordinary angels (designed by John Piper) in the stained glass windows of Coventry Cathedral, which Sarah Moss describes so vividly, and the front cover has a luminous portrait painting by English artist Michael Gaskell, the hyper reality of which is both unnerving and yet somehow reassuring.

Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald is an engrossing account of the English author whose books include the Booker Prize winner, Offshore (1978) and the brilliant The Blue Flower, a fictional account of the German Romanticist Novalis. Lee’s biography is long, detailed and dense, and succeeds in making the reader want to go back and read all Penelope Fitzgerald’s books. Her early life was much informed by her relatives, her father and uncles were the Knox brothers, four brilliant men who excelled in their given fields, her grandfathers were high up in the English clergy, and her aunt was the author, Winifred Peck. Fitzgerald was both prickly and critical of others, but could be very warm and engaging, and above all else, very brave. Her world fell into chaos through her husband’s misbehaviour, and it is fascinating to read how she managed to drag her family through disaster, and to eventually prevail. She wrote her first book much later in life, and eventually become a much lauded author. The book is engrossing in its detail, full of black and white photographs, and the author’s own drawings, it’s a very fitting tribute to its subject. Louise

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