Review: Dusking Through Waves casts a realist’s eye over complicated domestic lives
In Wendy Holborow’s new collection of stories, home is where the heart is vulnerable. Violence, events in the wider world, family schism, and infidelity shift its centre and sometimes threaten its very existence. Now and then, it is a thing coming into being or on the point of revival; it’s elusive or taken for granted. But everywhere in Holborow’s sharply delineated domestic scenes, it’s a desideratum.
The eponymous subject of Ngozi is a woman in search of domesticity; what passes for it in her sub-continental quest for the camp where she might find her absent husband – absent even though his wife finally bore him the son he wanted – is the daily chore of finding food and water for herself and her young ones in a war zone. One gets the feeling, though, of a quest without end, the ‘camp’ being some impossible destination, as much metaphorical as real.
Compare her plight with that of Theodore Wainwright the Third in Possession. He’s a rich American (the reader assumes) who has everything but nothing, not least a palatial pile in which he lives alone except for ‘a woman who does’. He wants for nothing but he covets everything. His paintings, ceramics, and first-edition books are prized for their monetary, rather than their intrinsic, value. He begins a rapid decline. He loses his home and possessions and ends up on the streets as Theo the vagrant. He also loses his possessiveness: not even the stray dog which befriends him can be coveted.
In Theo’s tale of woe (though there’s a moral element attaching to the character himself on his downward learning curve), Holborow’s third-person narrator refers to the mysterious ‘They’ who are the agents of his decline and fall – the Fates, perhaps, in some cooperative uniformity, and emblematic of a multi-faceted run of bad luck. In his cardboard ‘mansion’ on the streets, he may be manoeuvring to set his heart in the right place. They may be out to teach him a lesson, unlike their African counterparts, who have no need to impose themselves on Ngozi and her kin when humanity has created worse conditions than they could ever devise.
Even in a story as short as Possession – six pages – Holborow employs the ubiquitous asterisk to indicate time’s passing. It’s everywhere in her collection. Over-use of the device is often disliked by short-fiction purists as indicating excision of material that would otherwise make stories too long. This would hardly apply to a writer such as Alice Munro, some of whose stories are more like novellas or novels stifled at birth.
Time does pass in Holborow’s stories and there’s a need to indicate it; but it is possible to organise material so that the reader has a straight run, maybe by starting off events in a different place, obviating the need for temporal gaps, and using the past perfect or past imperfect tenses. Just a thought.
The life of Huw Morgan in Moving Through Mountains has to be broken up into significant events. The reader is invited to peep at Huw as he sits in the school classroom for the last time; marks the deaths of his mother and father (the three live and work on Pen-y-Mynydd Farm); accommodates evacuee children from London in the second world war; and begets on the body of their teacher, Grace, twins who much later return as his manly heirs.
Holborow is not tempted in this opening story to guillotine with a happy outcome. Grace has her own wartime legacy to deal with and doesn’t return with the boys for marriage to Huw, alone with a faintly beating heart. It’s recognition of that indefinite pulse, and his own self-realisation, that govern what he decides should happen.
This might be a useful place to mention what some may regard as unnecessary jolts to the reader’s ease of procession. Pen-y-Mynydd is reached via a stiff climb – well, it’s a hill farm. When Mr Prythero the schoolmaster pants his way up it to remind the young Huw and his parents that he has to start school, we are told he walks ‘sacerdotally’. Later, he ‘looked askance at the Sisyphean track to the house’ and declined the offer of a cup of tea.
Prythero is only having to attempt the climb once, unlike the task of Sisyphus, whose lifelong punishment was having to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity because he cheated death. That’s Greek mythology for you.
But even if Prythero was of priestly mien and a classicist, the adverb ‘augustly’ and the adjectives ‘steep’ or even ‘precipitous’ might have been less cumbersome.
Indeed, it takes a smidgen away from the harrowing plight of the narrator in the title story to learn at the end, when she is drowning herself with the baby she has killed, that the waves ‘larrup’ her lungs as she surrenders to the ‘esurient’ sea. Come again? That said, Elizabeth, for it is she, is a librarian and, like a clairvoyant reading the future in tea leaves, has an anagrammatic interest in any foreboding suggested by new words made from the letters of existing ones – Barrington, the name of her monster of a husband, for example. The story’s concentration of horrors inside the home and their al fresco release is an extreme form of the dysfunction – or malfunction – happening elsewhere.
In Frieda, a story seemingly attenuated by its many family relationships involving deaths, divorce, re-marriage, bankruptcy, a new arrival, and enforced accommodation, it’s the eponymous and octogenarian hippie, named with slight variation after the artist Frida Kahlo, who gets the heart beating more regularly once it’s fixed with sticking plaster.
Words and their slippery nature is a feature of Crows Caw in Cwmdonkin Park in which James, a poet, is doing a Dylan but not doing much writing. Before reaching the paper, his words may have ascended to the crows’ nests, like the ball thrown upwards in Thomas’s poem ‘Should Lanterns Shine’, which doesn’t come down, and the ball of Lucy’s son Barry, which he’s more prosaically lost in the bushes. Barry is clever and a word-lover, characteristics which might atrract James to his mum – her husband has fled – in Holborow’s equally clever juxtaposition of literary allusion and romance. Lucy has written her phone number on James’s hand. He must have smiled when she was doing it. Bit forward, as my grandmother would have said.
The last and longest story, The Colour of Words, is not so much a story, more a play in half a dozen or so scenes – and not so much a play. Centring on Lawrence Durrell’s forlorn attempts to get Dylan Thomas and Caitlin Macnamara to visit him and his wife in their Corfu paradise, it also features Vernon Watkins and Henry Miller. Dylan, dying in 1953, never makes the trip. The story has been dramatised but there’s not a lot of drama to make the reader care.
Dylan is described as speaking in his ‘sonorous Welsh lilt’. I have to say that he always sounds to me like a pompous Buckinghamshire squire who left Wales aged ten.
Holborow is a realist, with a realist’s feel for authentic and often troublesome incident and the individuals who by dint of personality surmount it. Violet, in Violet Rocks the Boat, is dying but has kept the secret of her son’s ‘love-child’ for 25 years and is about to divulge it. Not the least of her virtues, then, are patience and self-control.
It’s another story in which an unravelled narrative has an ending which could have been re-assembled any way. Holborow the realist chooses the most likely, which is not necessarily the least interesting.
Dusking through Waves, by Wendy Holborow is published by Lucy Quieter Press and you can buy a copy here.