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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

A triumphant portrait of old age, the human side of T.S. Eliot and a haunting memoir from Zambia

Maggie Fergusson | March/April 2015

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FICTION A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, Chatto, hardback, out now. Abby Whitshank, the selfless, self-doubting mother at the heart of Anne Tyler’s 20th novel, can’t bear to think that hers is “just another muddled, discontented, ordinary family”. But apparently ordinary families are what Tyler loves best. She writes about them with involved detachment, creating characters who are flawed but endearing, and capable of occasional humdrum heroism. Moving backwards in time, she explores three generations of Whitshanks: “Junior”, who built the family’s Baltimore home in the 1930s, his son Red, Abby’s husband, and Red and Abby’s four grown-up children, who compete to take control as their parents tumble into senility. Tyler is brilliant at the hairline fractures between siblings, and the intermeshing of irritation and tenderness that makes a marriage. But the real triumph here is her portrayal of old age—droll, and desperately sad.


Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey, Granta, trade paperback, out now. Like a cigarette packet, this disturbing but impressively sustained debut should carry a warning: read only if feeling robust. Narrated in the first person, it anatomises from within a protracted mental breakdown. On the face of it, Elyria’s life is enviable. She’s married, with an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and a job writing soap scripts for CBS. But she is haunted by her adopted sister’s suicide. Hoping to outrun an overwhelming sense of loss—to “unbraid” it from her brain—she buys a one-way ticket to New Zealand. In long, looping sentences, Lacey enmeshes us in Elly’s thoughts as they bash round in circles like trapped bees. There’s no resolution, simply the bleak realisation that, while she can make others miss her, she can never “be missing to myself”.

BIOGRAPHY Young Eliot by Robert Crawford, Cape, hardback, out now. T.S. Eliot was nicknamed The Undertaker by Ottoline Morrell, and it captures an impression many of us have of him: cold, cerebral, aloof. But this biography, opening with his strict, cosseted upbringing in St Louis, and ending with the publication of “The Waste Land” in 1922, rescues Eliot as a human being—intellectually formidable, certainly, but also shy, vulnerable, sexually insecure. Robert Crawford demonstrates wonderfully well how every experience of Eliot’s life—from the ragtime of his childhood, through his religious and philosophical studies, to his long days in a basement office in Lloyd’s Bank—went into a melting pot from which his poetry emerged. Most especially, he helps us understand how Eliot’s first marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood, a mutual agony, created the sense of damage and longing out of which “The Waste Land” was born.
 

MEMOIR Leaving Before The Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller, Harvill Secker, hardback, out now. “The first year is hard, and after that it gets worse,” the priest told Alexandra Fuller as she married in Zambia one hot afternoon in 1992. She was 23, brought up in Rhodesia against a background of drought, genocide and AIDS, by parents who made decisions only when drunk. Her American husband, Charlie, ten years older, appeared to offer redemption from tragedy and turmoil. This haunting, blame-free memoir explores the slow death of their marriage, a subject so painful that Fuller loops back from it into her childhood like someone who dreads ripping a dressing from a wound. Moving between Zambia, Zimbabwe and Wyoming, vividly evoking all three, she comes to accept that there’s no escaping her chaotic early years, that they’ve been her making as well as her downfall.

HISTORY If This Is a Woman by Sarah Helm, Little, Brown, hardback, out now. Fifty miles north of Berlin, surrounded by forest, Ravensbrück was the only Nazi concentration camp built for women. Before fleeing in April 1945, SS guards burned the records of the 130,000 communists, prostitutes, criminals, Jews and Gypsies who had passed through its gates; then it fell behind the Iron Curtain and “disappeared from view”. In this harrowing history, numerous survivors—ordinary yet extraordinary women like Maria Bielicka, who moved to London after the war and disappeared into a career with Barclays Bank—share their memories for the first time. Nazi atrocities, recalled in chilling detail, are compounded by the wilful negligence of the International Red Cross and the savagery of the liberating Russian forces. “No one will believe us,” one prisoner feared. No one who reads this book can fail to.

POETRY Human Work by Sean Borodale, Cape, hardback, out now. Sean Borodale is a master of “in situ” poetry. His debut, “Bee Journal”, acclaimed here and elsewhere, was written as he tended his hive, veiled against stings. Now, with the same rare intimacy, he invites us into the heat and bustle of his kitchen (pears poaching in “prattling water”, seared venison wearing “a bodice of burns”), creating poetry stove-side as he cooks for his family. This is unpretentious cottage cuisine: fruit is bottled and stored for the winter, vegetables come in from the garden matted with soil and slugs, bread gets burned. But Borodale has a way of seeing mundanely repetitive tasks—peeling potatoes, stewing apples, making stock—with a fresh, forensic eye, sharpening the senses and making the juices flow. Written in the kitchen, this book should perhaps be read there too, its pages splashed and bloodied.

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