The book began auspiciously with a lovely acknowledgement:
“Finally, thank you as always to Ben, who has never questioned the importance of my work to me, but who has built us a life into which it fits.”
In the first section, the unnamed protoagonist whom I shall call “P” from here on muses about whether or not she wants to have children. She worries that she doesn’t have what it takes to be a good mother, which seems to me like a logical thing to worry about, although, coupled with her own loss of her mother when she was just twenty-one, she takes the worry to an extreme. As she prepares her mother’s house for sale, the litany of things she doesn’t know how to do wears away at her confidence in herself, and causes a lovely reflection on grief, that universal from which no human can escape. “This is where grief is found, in these suddenly unfilled cracks, these responsibilities-minute, habitual-which have lain elsewhere for yeats and which, having failed amongst grief’s greater broil to be reapportioned, are overlooked in favor of the more dramatic, until even the ordinary starts to crumble. If I thought, all through those freezing months I spent alone in a house whose owner had abandoned us, that I did not grieve, then it was because I had been expecting something else-something both larger and lesser, a monument or a mountain, simple, scaleable, and not this seeping in of space to undermine the smooth continuance of things. I had thought that loss would be dramatic, that it would be a kind of exercise, when instead it was the emptiness of evertything going on as before and nothing working as it ought.”
Sight is mentioned repeatedly in the novel, in the context of truly seeing another person, their essence, their core. Juxtaposed wth P’s worrying about having children, grieving for her mother and trying to understand herself, the author gives us glimpses of historical figures who attempted in their various fields of expertise to illuminate something about being human. Wilhelm Rontgen, discoverer of x-rays, in exposing his wife’s hand to an x-ray, shows the bones of her hand, literally seeing inside her. Sigmund and Anna Freud attempt to understand human behavior through psychoanalysis, another form of “seeing inside.” Brothers William and John Hunter learn about human anatomy by literally peeling back layers to expose what lies underneath the skin. (That was a more gruesome discussion, that I admit, I skimmed!) At one point P. says that the price of sight is wonder’s diminishment, as in Rontgen’s wife’s hand.
There were so many times that I paused after reading a particular passage to think bout what I had just read. It’s a thoughtful book, that easily bears multiple readings.
Johannes suggested that P. spend a weekend by herself, so that she could really concentrate, really think, about whether or not having children was for her. She went to a tiny stone-walled cottage near Hay-on-Wye in Wales. When I googled it, it turns out that Hay-on-Wye is a book town! With more than 20 bookshops, it’s the world’s largest purveyor of second-hand and antiquarian books. There’s an annual book festival that Bill Clinton dubbed “Woodstock of the mind.” This year’s festival was heavy on politics, not surprisingly, with all the political books currently on the market. It took place May 24 to June 3, and has been added to my ever growing list of places to go when we visit Scotland!
THE FOOD: Every year at Christmas, P’s grandmother, Dr. K., stayed with P and her mother at their house, for 10 days, from December 21 to December 30. P’s mother, ordinarily a a lazy cook, turned her attention to the kitchen, where she took refuge, making among other things, parkin, a traditional sponge cake from Northern England flavored with molasses, oatmeal and ginger. Now that the weather has cooled, and I can comfortably bake again, parkin it is!
This was really different, but delicious, and of course, everything tastes better with a little ice cream and caramel sauce on it! With all the books I’ve read set in England, I had never before heard of parkin.