Monday, 12 April 2010

Book Review: The Widow's Tale - Mick Jackson

Read: January 2010

The Widow's Tale in  one tweet-sized chunk:
Refreshingly modest, The Widow's Tale takes you on a pilgrimage along the Norfolk coast with a wonderfully irascible narrator you cannot help but love.

Over Easter, Megan and I took a trip to the Norfolk coast, to Cromer and Wells and then back down through Walsingham to our beautiful medieval city of Norwich. Along the way we stopped off at a second hand book sale in a village hall in Cley, and another in a tiny village whose name I cannot now remember. The sky was hazy and grey, intermittently switching between spitting rain and long periods when the sun threatened to break through but never quite did. The early spring air carried a chill, blowing in off the North Sea. We had a lovely day, but what most enthralled me was catching a glimpse of the Norfolk of literature: horizons stretching for miles on end, liminal spaces in which it is unclear where sky ends and land begins. The landscapes of W.G. Sebald, Kazuo Ishiguro, and now Mick Jackson. This is a place inextricably linked to memory, and forgetting. Getting lost, and finding oneself.

Although I first read The Widow’s Tale over New Year, it was only while travelling through the landscape that underpins it – the north Norfolk coast – that I came to understand just how important location is to the novel’s atmosphere. More than a backdrop, it plays the role of a second character, a refrain against which the widow’s journey can be balanced and understood.

The tale itself is a pretty straight forward one: a recently widowed woman leaves her house in London, packing a few things into a bag, and starts driving. Up the M11, on to the A11, through Norwich and on to the coast where she rents a cottage in a small village. It is winter and the cottage is tiny and cold. She’s not sure, but thinks she might be having a bit of a breakdown. She finds herself crying at the smallest things, cutting the power cord on the television, drinking more gin and tonic than she probably should. She’s not sleeping very well either. And it is the landscape that best explains her mindset.

I think that’s why I first fell for this part of East Anglia. You have the sense of so much sky above you. So much space. Which can be a bit overwhelming. One feels exposed, somehow – vulnerable. But the saltmarshes, which are actually a good deal greener than their name suggests, take the edge of the bleakness. They give it a kindness…Winter suits this landscape.

One could add that the Widow suits winter. And this landscape suits the Widow. Her emotions are raw, she is in mourning not just for her husband of forty years but the end of her life as she has come to know it. She is a little bit wild at the moment, but with kindness and vulnerability not far beneath the surface. We are not surprised to learn that their marriage had its share of problems, or that there seems to be a reason that she has come here of all places. Yet for all this association with landscape, it is a case of the setting making the character, rather than the other way around. The Widow’s Tale is primarily a character study, a one-woman piece in which everything exists to elucidate her mentality. After years of cohabitation, it seems, the Widow is finally getting the chance to be a little selfish.

She is a wonderfully irascible narrator with a deliciously acerbic sense of humour. Staunch, defiant, yet genuinely fascinated to find herself driven by emotions she is not in control of. She documents her travails as though surprised they are happening to her. This makes for an oddly hilarious novel. The comedy stemming not from the outlandish actions of our erstwhile narrator, but the idiosyncrasies of her situation and the warmth of her response to it.

Losing one’s husband is a complete bummer. But let’s look on the bright side. I’ve actually lost a little weight. Oh, there’s loss of all sorts going on around here.

She is full of witty little asides. Like the old Duke in Jackson’s Booker shortlisted debut, The Underground Man, she is on the edge, tipping variously between slight madness and profound sanity. She is wilful and belligerent and impossible not to like. Jackson has always been a darkly comic novelist even while writing about serious subjects, and this is his drollest yet. As with The Underground Man the result is a strangely compulsive page-turner. She is entrancing and Jackson writers well from the first person. adeptly navigating the nuances of raw emotion and bereavement, allowing her to wander aimlessly in search of whatever it is she needs to resume her life.

It is surely not a coincidence that Jackson titled this The Widow’s Tale, and like the band of pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, so to the Widow is on her own kind of pilgrimage. Although she is far from religiously minded, her journey follows the tradition of pilgrimage as a means of recharging one’s batteries, of finding oneself and making sense of things. And at the heart of the novel she comes to Walsingham, a place of pilgrimage since the 11th century where she spends some time hoping to find inner peace.  What she most needs, it seems, is belief in the impossible truism that life goes on.

It’s an odd sort of word. Widow. I keep trying it on for size – widow’s weeds…widow’s walk…widow-woman – but I can’t say I’m especially enamoured. Rather vainly, I don’t consider myself sufficiently wizened. On the other hand, widowhood – that period of indefinable length which I have apparently now entered – sounds rather inviting. It conjures up a black cape or cloak, with a good-sized hood on it. Like Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Actually, I think I’d look pretty good, wending my way across the windswept marshes. Although, all the billowing material would be bound to slow you down.

She may play around with the concept of being an old crone dressed in black, but the fact is that, like many widows, she’s only in her early sixties, with plenty of life left. She just needs to work out what that life might be. Through her, we are presented with a rarely heard voice and a rarely discussed life-adventure. Her voice is well researched and imagined, her journey an enthralling one. I read it in a single sitting.

Jackson recently told Richard Lea in The Guardian that he’s more interested in giving readers the type of read they want than winning literary prizes. And that is evident here, though many readers might wish for a few more sub-plots, save a slightly unconvincing love-affair. At times this sparsity of plot can feel a little lightweight. The Widow’s Tale is as far from the literary novel as it is the high-octane blockbuster. It is a self contained little tale, yet one which manages to make one smile at the same time.

For me, the landscape of the book is a pocket-guide to places on my doorstep, the little towns and villages I can visit on any given weekend. There are many more adventures to have in the footprints of this Widow. But the great thing about literature is that you don’t always need to visit in person. Just open the cover and you’ll find yourself walking the cold saltmarshes of the Norfolk coast in the wake of our charming heroin.

Faber and Faber, April 2010,  9780571206230, 246pp

7.5 out of 10

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