Thursday, 18 December 2014

Creep, clobber, squawk. Repeat.

This is one of many many videos circulating the interweb telling us about the mess we are making of our planet. But what I liked about this is that it points out that far beyond the loss of any particular species is the unknowable (until after the fact) underlying role that they play within not just their own specific environment, but how that impacts on the whole planetary ecosystem. Many years ago I was given a copy of the Gaia Atlas of Planet Management that was one of the first things I ever read about the idea of the interrelatedness of all species and environments on the planet. And this is beside the fact that there is something about the slaughter of whales that is unspeakable. (Did you know whales have best friends, Tish told me that when we were chatting the other night.) It's that fact that we should not be annihilating species, like the whales or the tigers or the polar bears, not because they are amazing, or beautiful or fascinating, but because doing so fundamentally disrupts the entire food chain and will have profound impacts on things we are only just beginning to understand.

My reading in the last few weeks has included 'The Sixth Extinction' by Elizabeth Kolbert, an interesting and far-reaching study into the decline in species currently happening on our planet. It added to the stuff I found myself learning about when we went to Costa Rica and also the Coursera course that I did last year on the History of Humankind. Through the book she draws on a variety of examples from very diverse environments and times to explain how the impact of human beings is leading to what is now being termed the Sixth Extinction.

She begins with the mastodon and Georges Cuvier, a naturalist from the 1800s, one of the earliest studiers of the fossil record. It was he who first proposed the idea that there had been periodic mass disappearances of species from our planet. Although much of his research and findings have since been superseded his basic conclusion was surprisingly accurate:
"In fact, the American mastodon vanished around thirteen thousand years ago. Its demise was part of a wave of disappearances that has come to be known as the megafauna extinction. This wave coincided with the spread of modern humans and, increasingly, is understood to have been a result of it. In this sense, the crisis Culvier discerned just beyond the edge of recorded history was us." (p.45)
The following chapter on the great auk tells the same story in much more detail, since this flightless bird's destruction was well documented. It was pretty much unmitigated slaughter, characterised thusly (giving rise to the title of the post), on a visit to a museum in Iceland:
"In addition to a pair of auk bones, the display featured a video recreation of an early encounter between man and bird. In the video, a shadowy figure crept along the rocky shore towards a shadowy auk. When he drew close enough, the figure pulled out a stick and clubbed the animal over the head. The auk responded with a cry somewhere between a honk and a grunt. I found the video grimly fascinating and watched it play though half a dozen times. Creep, clobber, squawk. Repeat." (p.58)

Moving on to something that I had always thought of as a thing, but that turns out to be a creature, she gives an examination of what is happening to coral. It is an example of another species that we should not be saving because it is pretty, but because it serves a fundamental purpose in the ecosystem of the oceans:
"What sets them apart from other calcifies is that instead of working solo, to produce a shell, say, or some calcitic plates, corals engage in vast communal building projects that stretch over generations. Each individual, known unflatteringly as a polyp, add to its colony's collective exoskeleton. On a reef, billions of polyps belonging to as many as a hundred different species are all devoting themselves to this same basic task. Given enough time (and the right conditions) the result is another paradox: a living structure. The Great Barrier Reef extends, discontinuously, for more than 2,600 kilometres, and in some places it is a hundred and fifty metres thick. By the scale of the reefs, the pyramids at Giza are kiddie blocks.
The way corals change the world - with huge construction projects spanning multiple generations - might be likened to the way humans do, with this crucial difference. Instead of displacing other creatures corals support them. Thousands - perhaps millions - of species have evolved to rely on coral reefs, either directly for protection or food, or indirectly, to prey on those species that come seeking protection or food. This coevolutionary venture has been underway for many geological epochs. Researchers now believe it won't last out the Anthropocene." (p130)

Even something as tiny as the ant, a creature I have both killed off vehemently and played host to when the kids were younger, can be far more significant that you might imagine:
"Army ants are famously voracious; a colony on the march can consume thirty thousand prey - mostly larvae of other insects - per day. But in their very rapacity, they support a host of other species. There's a whole class of birds known as obligate any-followers. These are almost always found around any swarms, eating insects the ants have flushed out of the leaf litter. Other birds are opportunistic any-followers and peck around the ants when, by chance, the encounter them. After the ant-follwing birds trail a variety of other creatures that are also experts at 'doing exactly what they do.' There are butterflies that feed on the birds' droppings and parasitic flies that deposit their young on startled crickets and cockroaches. Several species of mites hitch rides aboard the ants themselves; one species fastens itself to the ants' legs, another to its mandibles. A pair of American naturalists, Carl and Marian Rettenmeyer, who spent more than half a century studying Eciton burchellii, came up with a list of more than three hundred species that live in association with the ants." (p.184)

Another quote from the same chapter, that discusses 'the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project' gets to the root of why the fragmentation of nature is so damaging. (The project itself is using the fragments of forest to learn about biodiversity and ecology, not as a solution to forest destruction). It does not work to just save little pockets of forest, or to create safe reserves for a species, because you are not dealing with the needs of all the other species that go along with them:
"The statary phase can last for up to three weeks, which helps explain one of the more puzzling discoveries to come out of the BDFFP: even forest fragments large enough to support colonies of army ants end up losing their antbirds. Obligate ant-followers need foraging ants to follow, and apparently in the fragments there just aren't enough colonies to ensure that one will always be active. Here again, Cohn-Haft told me, was a demonstration of the rainforest's logic. The antbirds are so good at doing 'exactly what they do' that they're extremely sensitive to any changes that make their particular form of doing more difficult.
'When you find one thing that depends on something else that, in turn, depends on something else, the whole series of interactions depends on constancy,' he said. I thought about this as we trudged back to camp. If Cohn-Haft was right, then in its crazy, circus-like complexity the ant-bird-butterfly parade was actually a figure for the Amazon's stability. Only in a place where the rules of the game remain fixed is there time for the butterflies to evolve to feed on the shit of birds that evolved to follow ants. Yes, I was disappointed that we hadn't found the ants. But I figured I had nothing on the birds." (p.191-2)

Some change has happened deliberately, like the hacking down of the rainforests, others simply from carelessness, like the introduction of invasive species from one continent to another, from the ubiquitous rats to the weird fungus currently killing off America's bat population. What we can no longer deny (ok, I know some people manage to) is the massive and seemingly irreversible damage that we are inflicting on the world. Yes, over the millions of years of the planet's existence there has been a constant loss of species, a steady replacement of creatures with other creatures, the environment of the planet has been in a state of constant change, but change mostly happened so slowly that creatures could adapt themselves over time. The change that is happening now, man-made change, is so abrupt that there is just no time to change, no room for adaptation. I was left feeling both informed but also completely impotent. The problems are so massive and it seems like even when people try and fix them they often end up making things worse. The structure of our economic culture just does not allow for the changes that need to happen.

"The one feature these disparate events have in common is the change, and to be more specific, rate of change. When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out. This is the case whether the agent drops from the sky as a fiery streak or drives to work in a Honda. To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn't matter whether people care or don't care. What matters is that people change the world.
This capacity predates modernity, though, of course, modernity is its fullest expression. Indeed, this capacity of probably indistinguishable from the qualities that made us human to begin with: our restlessness, our creativity, our ability to cooperate to solve problems and complete complicated tasks. As soon as humans started using signs and symbols to represent the natural world, they pushed the limits of that world. 'In many ways human language is like the genetic code,' the British palaeontologist Michael Benton has written. 'Information is stored and transmitted, with modifications, down the generations. Communication holds societies together and allows humans to escape evolution.' Were people simply heedless or selfish or violent, there wouldn't be an Institute for Conservation Research, and there wouldn't need to be one. If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap." (p.266)

I think idea that we have escaped evolution, that in a way we have taken over control of what happens on the planet, is quite profound. Humans are no longer evolving based on our genes and our ancestry, but we are adapting based on the combined knowledge and experience of our whole species. 
The book is by turns depressing and inspirational, tales of destruction and loss coupled with individual efforts to tackle the problems. You can't help but profoundly admire these people who see a problem and decide that is the one they are going to try and solve, most of us just feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the crisis. I feel a whole lot better informed about all sorts of stuff, and inspired by her extensive bibliography to read some more. Also this article by the wonderful George Monbiot summarises much of what the book discusses much better than I have managed to. 

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Christmas posting reposting

I have been at work rather a lot recently, so much so that my thermal gloves have taken a bit of a battering. I spent a peaceful hour after dinner today darning the finger holes with colourful yarn, a kind of decorative mending. 
Anyway it is that time of year again, in fact a little late I confess, to remind you all about the do's and don'ts for Christmas posting. I am reposting an abbreviated version of my post from two years ago with advice for anyone putting cards into the postal system at this particularly busy time of year.
  • Know the correct address of your friends and family  - use the postcode and always write their full name, not just 'Grandma' or 'Steve, Patricia and Family', don't assume the postie will know who your auntie is and where she lives.
  • Write neatly and please do not use silver coloured pens on red envelopes.
  • Put a return address on the back (this applies to everything you put in the postal system, not just Christmas cards.)
  • Pay the correct postage, larger or thicker cards need a large letter stamp, or your f&f will be surcharged!
  • Please Please Please seal the envelopes on your cards, do not just tuck the flap inside. On the sorting frame in our office we have a nice display of cards that will never arrive at their intended recipient because an unsealed envelope has come open and the card has become separated from it (although we did manage to reunite one card with its envelope this morning.)
  • Last posting dates are 18th December for second class and 20th December for first class.
(Not official Royal Mail advice.)
(Normal posting service on this blog will resume shortly.)

Friday, 28 November 2014

The Song of Achilles

Madeline Miller's 'The Song of Achilles' had been sitting on the side of the sofa for a month. It looked like a big fat book that would take me a while to read so I put it off in favour of shorter reads. It won the Orange Prize, since renamed the Women's Prize for Fiction, in 2012 (I discovered on browsing the archive that I have read four of the twenty long listed books from that year, and five from 2013.) This is a wonderful and enthralling book, and a fascinating alternative view of a well loved Greek myth. It is not so much the story of the Trojan War as the story of Achilles and Patroclus; Madeline Miller takes a story of friendship and transforms it into a bond of love that spans from their childhood into the long years of the war. It is a multi-sensory book, filled with rich descriptions of the time and place and people of ancient Greece. In the opening chapters we meet the cream of the Kings and heroes as they gather to bid for the hand of Helen, and the atmosphere bristling with testosterone sets the tone for the whole book, the undercurrents of tension and distrust. Add in the tensions between gods and mortals and you have the basis for a pretty eventful story. 
The young Patroclus is exiled after the death of a boy, so he is sent to be fostered at the palace of Peleus, where he is befriended by Achilles. As son of the goddess Thetis, Achilles is destined for greatness, but he is also a mortal and has human weaknesses. She does not approve of the friendship between the two boys and tries to separate them, but the bond between them almost has a destiny of its own and they try, pointlessly it turns out, to resist the prophesy. 

I have dithered over this review for several days because much as I enjoyed the book it was overshadowed somewhat by the frustration and anger that it evoked in me every time any women appeared in the story. The concept of women as mere chattel pervades the tale, beginning with Helen who is being sold off to the highest bidder, though in an unexpected turn of events is invited to choose her own husband (I think so her father doesn't have to upset any of the very tough men congregating in his palace). Thetis is a goddess but is 'given' by the gods to Peleus (for being such an all round great guy), who proceeds to rape her and she is then obliged to stay 'married' to him for a year. Slave girls in the house of Peleus exist partly for the pleasure of whoever feels like it, and to produce offspring who become new slaves. On Scyros Deidameia is 'given' to Achilles by Thetis in order to ensure a son to come after him. The woman Briseis taken in battle is 'rescued' from ravishment by Agamemnon by Achilles who takes her as a war trophy, but she becomes a pawn in their macho confrontation game. The events paint Patroclus is a positive light when he intervenes to save her again, when Achilles was more concerned about his own honour, a truly flawed hero I felt. While I know that this is part of the cultural attitudes and therefore part of the legend I found myself bristling in annoyance as I read, and so was left with the feeling that Achilles was a bit of a self-centred arsehole. 

" 'Do you not wonder why he did not prevent you from taking her?' My voice is disdainful. 'He could have killed your men, and all your army. Do you not think he could have held you off?'
Agamemnon's face is red. But I do not let him speak.
'He let you take her. He knows you will not resist bedding her, and this will be your downfall. She is his, won through fair service. The men will turn on you if you violate her, and the gods as well.'
I speak slowly, deliberately, and the words land like arrows, each to its target. It is true what I say, though he has been too blinded by pride and lust to see it. She is in Agamemnon's custody, but she is Achille's prize still. To violate her is a violation of Achilles himself, the gravest insult to his honour. Achilles could kill him for it, and even Menelaus would call it fair.
'You are at your power's limit even in taking her. The men allowed it because he was too proud, but they would not allow more.' We obey our kings, but only within reason. If Aristos Achaion's prize is not safe, none of ours are. Such a king will not be allowed to rule for long." (p.277)

If you add in the glorification of violence and senseless slaughter the actual context of the story left me cold. Patroclus tells the story in first person so it is his view of the situation that is most real, I came to care about him, and respect his love and utter devotion to Achilles. So, in conclusion, while it is beautifully written and true to the spirit of greek mythology, it's not really my kind of story.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Happy Chocolate Advent Calendar Week

So it's the last week of November, and you all know what that means for the posties of south Manchester ... yes, it's 'Chocolate Advent Calendar Week'. All those mums and dads who anxiously saw their precious offspring off to university in September are now eagerly anticipating their return for the Christmas break, and are reminding them of their parental affection by sending them a chocolate advent calendar. The good thing about delivering to the students is that there is usually someone home ... it's getting them out of bed to answer the door that is the difficult bit. 

On the plus side I delivered a letter addressed to someone called Ferryman, and when I read the name this song just popped into my head and stayed there all morning ... very annoying since I only know the one line. This is unfortunately how my mind works sometimes. Whatever. Enjoy!

Saturday, 22 November 2014

First Aid

'First Aid' by Janet Davey (who doesn't have her own website) is the third of my random library picks. It was a very intense little read about the peculiarities of family dynamics. Just like many family relationship the reader is left to assume rather a lot in this story, people's feelings and motivations are mostly unspoken, lack of communication leading to upset and misunderstanding. 

You might think Jo is a slightly strange mother who ignores the fact that her daughter jumps off the train, or you might think that she is just level headed and pragmatic, knowing that she can neither make her come back nor go after her (having two younger children to take care of). In fact she is a bit strange, living in some kind of personal nether world, and rather preferring it when the real one does not in invade her head space. Having had, what appears to be on the surface, an uncharacteristic and violent altercation with her 'partner' (some bloke who she lives with), she is escaping the situation by running back to her grandparents home. In a very short space of time we learn a great deal about her life: parents killed in a motorbike accident, raised by overprotective grandparents, married young and since divorced, but she says so little, spends so much time gazing wistfully out of the window, that I didn't feel like I got to know her much. The story hops back and forth between the grandparents home in London and Ella (the daughter) wandering around on the south coast, trying to get her head around the idiosyncrasies of adult behaviour. I liked her friend Vince; she lands on his doorstep with no preamble and he just accepts her presence and doesn't ask too many meaningless questions. And I liked Trevor, who owns the junk shop where Jo (and Ella sometimes) works, he is equally down to earth and straightforward. 

But what I really enjoyed was Dilys and Geoff's home, and the atmosphere that surrounds them. It is about the way, for elderly people, life stays the same. I'm not saying this is true of all old people, but for some, they develop ways of living, possessions, daily routines, and they become permanent, unchanging and unchangeable. And when you go to visit it acts as a reassurance (and this of course is sort of what Jo is seeking when she runs back there), a reassurance that life is safe and reliable. It makes the scary uncertain aspects of being a real grown up somehow easier to deal with. 
Three nice ones that demonstrate this:

"Walking away from the supermarket, Ella thought that her gran might be right about Saturday shoppers. Everyone in there - even the ones who weren't talking to themselves or communing with the pet food - seemed to her to have some major personality defect. The human equivalent of wonky trolley wheels. Dilys would only shop on weekday mornings in the company of like-minded people. That was her phrase. She wasn't snobbish, her gran. She believed she was at one with the decent people of Great Britain - who were probably more than half the population - and that they were recognisable by wearing macs in wet weather and not eating anything on the street other than a boiled sweet or an extra-strong mint. Some of them could be black. That wasn't a problem." (p.87)

"Although she hadn't been to chapel or church for decades, Dilys's Sundays were corseted. Jo couldn't list the precise constraints, but she could always feel them. In particular, there were a couple of hours on Sunday mornings to which different rules applied and which accounted for them, at that moment, sitting in the front room and not in the kitchen. Jo had been surprised to discover that Sundays need not be like this, that they didn't possess an essential property, like the redness of cochineal. Though, as she had grown up, she had come to see that other people's families built different tyrannies and that the British Sunday was often part of the trap." (p.139-40)

And when Peter (ex-husband) comes to pick them all up:
"He glanced round quickly, at eye level. He wouldn't have been able to describe the room ten minutes ago; he wasn't good at remembering the look of things. But Jo could see from his face that he knew that it was exactly as it used to be. He didn't want to re-learn it." (p.141)

My own grandparents all died when I was a child and my memories of them are vague, so the description of their house and life reminded me more of my ex-husband's grandparents house that we visited several times when the children were young. The nostalgia that it provoked was quite striking. At the end Jo and the children go home, and the crisis is over, wounds healed almost as if it never happened. Life goes on.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Dogs of Littlefield

'The Dogs of Littlefield' by Suzanne Berne is the second of my random pick at the library. Her Orange Prize winner 'A Crime in the Neighbourhood' was one of my very early blog posts, followed by 'The Ghost at the Table' the following year, both of which I really enjoyed, so I had no hesitation in picking this up. 

You should known I hate dogs. I don't say that lightly because I don't use the word hate often. This predates my employment as a postie and goes all the way back to childhood. I cannot get my head around why people love dogs, and why most people who own them do not even bother to train them properly. Margaret in this book is one of those people. So the story opens with an incident of dog poisoning and a conflict within a small village community when the local dog owners petition the council to have an 'off-leash' park. The death of the dog made me concerned that the dog owners were going to be the characters I was supposed to identify and sympathise with, and that was never going to happen.

Fortunately as the winter progresses the story introduces us to the whole community (I was concerned I was going to have to remember all the dogs names as well as the people) and Margaret, Bill and Julia become the focus of our attention. We watch them through the hedge with Dr Clarice Watkins, a visiting academic, who decides to make this most-desirable-place-to-live village and its occupants the object of her study. I can understand her interest: you see these news articles about the best places to live, and wonder if the people who live there have charmed lives, but of course, they don't. They may not have the crime and the unemployment but they have the same worries and troubles as the rest of us. So we sit back and watch as Margaret and Bill's crumbling relationship reaches its crisis point, they struggle to keep up a front of normality, and the dead dogs become some kind of weird metaphor for unacknowledged anxieties. But as much as Margaret and Bill's marriage, it is Margaret's relationship with her daughter Julia that is under scrutiny. No wonder she is a mess .... :

"Margaret played the piano for an hour every morning in the living room of her big yellow Victorian house. Something classical and melancholy. Afterwards she moved back and forth past the tall uncurtained windows, picking up books, dishes, clothing, whatever everyone else had left behind in their rush to school or work. She walked her big black dog, got in and out of her silver station wagon. Her clothes were loose-fitting, tasteful, middle-aged: beige, gray or black, brightened by a patterned scarf or an arty hand-knitted cardigan. In the afternoons, when it was time for Julia to return home from school, she stood at the living room windows looking out towards the street until Julia turtled up the sidewalk under her enormous red backpack.
Almost always, Margaret opened the front door even before Julia had gained the steps, each time smiling and saying something that did not arrest Julia's passage, or even cause her to look up. Sometimes Margret continued to stand in the doorway for another moment or two after Julia had disappeared inside, still smiling, looking into the street." (p.49-50)

In fact parenting in general is put under the spotlight. I liked this one, it sums up the superficiality of many of the social interactions:

"Outside on the sidewalk Boris was barking again. Then he quit barking and began to howl. George offered to go out and check on him.
'I'm sure he's fine,' said Emily.
'But what is it's an emergency?' Nicholas was still fixated in the missed cell phone call.
Emily gave George another look of comic exasperation.
'Then the emergency will have to call someone else.'
He watched this exchange with disappointment. 'Performance parenting' is how Tina used to describe it. Seeking to charm listeners in public with one's patience and good humour, using one's child as a foil. Had George not been there, Emily would have told Nicholas to be quiet or no ice cream and that would be the end of it." (p.94-5)

There are burst of descriptive passages that seem deliberately designed to make everything ordinary. She does have a slight tendency to tell you what colour everything is, something which, once you have noticed it, becomes annoying but then entertaining as you keep an eye out for them:

"The leaves of Littlefield had turned red, yellow and deep bronze, drifting across glowing green lawns, onto hedges and doorsteps and the gleaming roofs of parked cars. As they walked to school, children ran to catch falling leaves before they hit the ground. In the collective gardens, purple aster and ragweed bloomed where the gardeners quit weeding and the pumpkins were fat and orange. Soccer season had reached its apex and in the afternoons squads of girls in yellow jerseys, black shorts and black knee socks sprinted back and forth in the park, while coaches blew whistles and soccer balls flew in the bright air. Houses, stop signs, bicycle fenders, all wore a precise gleaming look, a clarity brought on by the cool dry weather, and in the evenings the light turned gold as it was gathered into the harlequin trees, caught within nets of branches and leaves." (p.42) 

Here's another, but I like the way George (the 'sexist male novelist') is thinking about words even as he thinks them:

"Even now her skin looked sallow against the musty red upholstery of the chair, especially compared to the creamy flesh of the magnolia blossoms just opening outside the window. She had removed the raincoat to reveal a pale pink blouse with pink cloth covered buttons, darker pink lace at the collar. A thin gold necklace glinted at her neck and from her ears dangled jade beads set in gold filigree caps. Judging by the earrings and the lace on her blouse, her fay hair pulled back onto a clip, George saw that she had arrayed herself scrupulously this morning. He did not know from whence the words 'arrayed' and 'scrupulously' had come - they seemed to have blown in through the door when he opened it for Margaret, along with whence and a few yellow catkins that now lay like caterpillars on the braided rug in the hall."

Having lived amongst them for nearly a year Clarice Watkins departs, but I liked that she fails to capture what she came to study. We get little glimpses of her research and although this passage is full of trite clich├ęs she is at least ready to acknowledge that her own assumptions and prejudices about the residents of Littlefield don't really say anything about the subtlety of the human condition:

"But the problems of Margaret Downing were all too obvious: the ennui of a loveless marriage, resulting in attempts to connect with external sources of emotional intensity: elaborate seasonal decorations; sentimental German music played endlessly on the piano; and, of course, the banal affair with a sexist male novelist, whose emphasis on sports culture epitomised the phallocentric world that simultaneously rejected and enslaved her, leading to the inevitable emphasis on youthful appearance amid the decline of middle age - blonde salon highlights, yoga classes, skin coddled daily with serums and moisturisers that cost as much as the yearly income of a bean farmer in Rajasthan - all adding up to the worst kind of social blight: the completely self-absorbed human being." (p.240)

What I enjoyed about the book is the way it blends the mundane with the existential, in watching the the characters you are lead to musing over what it's all really about and what their purpose in life is, and a suitably enigmatic ending, leaving Margaret in a state of continued uncertainty.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Unbreakable cord

On the spur of the moment I went into town on Friday morning to a lunchtime poetry reading at the Central Library. It turned out to be a very brief affair so I wandered down to the lending library that had not been open when I visited for the beta test and I picked up three new books. I find that I don't browse the shelves very often these days; mostly I have something on reserve and I just go in, pick it up, and leave again, so it felt good to choose books more spontaneously.

'Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful' by Deborah Kay Davies won the Wales Book of the Year in 2009, and interestingly is published by Parthian, who also published 'Everything I found on the Beach' by Cynan Jones that I read last month. It is a collection of linked stories that follows the lives of two sisters, Grace and Tamar, through their childhood and adolescence and into adulthood. Because they are short stories there is no ongoing plot, they are incidents in the girls lives, sometimes about their relationship, sometimes concerning their separate existences. They feel on the surface quite mundane, about the kind of petty incidents and annoyances that fill everyone's lives, told with the minutiae that chime intimately with your own recollections of childhood. They are not tales of sunshine and childhood innocence; the parents and then a younger brother remain shadowy, almost irrelevant, features of their lives. And there are sinister undertones to many of the stories, beginning with Tamar's birth and her mother's utter detachment from her new baby and spiralling downwards from there. In this quote Grace has pushed Tamar out of a tree:

"She wasn't at the bottom of the tree. I searched the undergrowth and saw a scrap of gingham. I forced myself through the blackberry bushes and ivy. My arms and legs were stinging from the bramble thorns. She was still. Lying face down. One of her shoes was missing, her sock was hanging halfway off; her bare heel had a pearly sheen. Her hair was like a little crown standing out. Lying there like that, she looked like a different person. I had to turn her over. I did it with my foot. She made a sound as she rolled over onto her back - half a sigh, half my name, Grace. She had a sharp beech twig impaled in her blue, blue eye. I don't know how far it went inside. I don't think very far. Blood was pooling. There were some torn lime-green leaves on the twig. Her unhurt eye was moving. I think she was looking at me." (p.12. From 'The Point')

Tamar survives this incident, and another when she is lured away up the mountain by a stranger. The benign neglect of their parents does not make for wild abandon, but more weird insecurity, where they are forced together and so despise each other. From 'Fun and Games', it is the indifference that really strikes you:

"After lunch there's a silent, intense struggle to get into her sister's room. Grace, reading aloud, rests her entire body weight against the door while Tamar pushes and grunts from outside. When, suddenly, Grace walks away, Tamar tumbles in and crashes against the bedside table. She hurts her knee, but that doesn't matter. She's there. Climbing onto her sister's bedroom windowsill, she drums with bare feet against the chest of drawers. Stop that, Grace says, without interest, still reading as she does her skirt up. Why don't you go for one of your long walks and never come back? Go and play with a brick, you'd like that. Tamar feels she should continue. Go and kick your own stuff, Grace says. Or I'll kick you. Hard. She picks up her brush and begins to listlessly sort out her hair, still reading." (p.39-40)

The childhood they share leads inevitably to a sense of dislocation and isolation from others: Tamar's stories become futile attempts to find connection while Grace falls inevitably into a marriage with yet another shadowy person:

"Grace is walking down the aisle. Her sister is her bridesmaid. Earlier she had sat on the bench against the pine trees in her wedding dress and waited for her family to be ready. Tamar had come out and sat with her, both of them in their long dresses. Tamar read a magazine. Neither had spoken; they'd just waited. Through the smell of pine Grace could sense her own perfume rising from inside the neck of her dress as her body warmed. She thought about its glowing colour and the facets of light in the darkened bedroom, about the layers of chiffon spread out on the bed. Grace feels she has turned her back on many things. This is the day Grace is getting married, she told the morning garden as she walked towards the beckoning asparagus fern. What she really meant was, Grace is getting away, never coming back. No one else came out to see Grace in the garden. They had stayed inside the house. To Grace her family all looked like more beautiful replicas of themselves. When she kissed them at breakfast, they felt unyielding, chilly." (p.95-6. From 'Negligee')

What I admired was how she manages to get words on the page to describe what would be a momentary flash of memory. This one, from 'Wood', seems to sums up their whole childhood:

"She remembers the liver days when she was a child. The backs of her bare legs stuck to the plastic kitchen seat as she tried to cut offal into small grey triangles. She remembers slipping them through her lips. The liver crumbled like sour dust in her mouth. She smiles as she thinks about Grace retching like a fussy cat, tears flying from her eyes. Both of them getting sent to their rooms again. She remembers the precious one slurping up his soup and soft, floury rolls. Suddenly she wants to eat thin slices of cucumber and ripe tomato; maybe cold smoked fish and wobbly mayonnaise. The odour of the next door's food is the colour of gravy. She looks around for another table." (p.129-30)

The bond between siblings, I assume it is something the same for brothers, is a very subtle thing. You share things with them that you cannot compare to friendship, so there is no surprise when the final story finds the two of them in a cafe, Tamar reciting a recurring dream of a baby being born:

"We are both crying silently. I look around; several people are staring at us. The first waiter who served Tamar is walking towards our table, his eyes fixed almost hungrily on her face. I turn to look back at her. She obviously has no interest in our surroundings. She will not let me go. In the dream you tell me we have to cut the cord, she says. She squeezes me even harder, the now brown of her eyes glittering with tears. But you see, she says, shaking my clasped hands, this cord, we can never break it, can we?" (p.142. From 'Cords')


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