Hazel McHaffie

Maggie O’Farrell: audacious risk taker

Well, there are days when I can do no more than stand in awe of someone’s skill and brilliance; and today’s one of those days. I’ve just finished reading This Must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell. Not only does she employ lyrical language and wonderful laugh-out-loud humour, but she takes amazing and audacious risks with the technical underpinnings, and she combines them both with a perceptive and moving tale of love and redemption. No wonder this 2016 novel was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award.

The cover blurb sets the scene:

A reclusive former film star living in the wilds of Ireland, Claudette Wells thinks nothing of firing a gun if strangers get too close to her house. Why is she so fiercely protective of her privacy, and what made her disappear at the height of her cinematic fame?
Her husband Daniel, reeling from a discovery about a woman he last saw twenty years ago, is about to make an exit of his own. It is a journey that will send him off-course, far from home. Will his love for Claudette be enough to bring him back?
This Must be the Place crosses continents and time zones, creating a portrait of an extraordinary marriage, the forces that hold it together and the pressures that drive it apart.

I loved the quirky and unusual characters and the delightful way they and their foibles are revealed to us.

Daniel (the first person narrator) is a lecturer in linguistics:

… within the extremely narrow field of academic linguistics, I retain an aura of the maverick. Not much of an accolade but there you are. If you’ve ever listened to a radio programme about neologisms or grammatical shifts or the way teenagers usurp and appropriate terms for their own, often subversive use, it will probably have been me who was wheeled in to say that change is good, elasticity is to be embraced.
I once said this in passing to my mother-in-law and she held me for a moment in her imperious, mascaraed gaze and said, in her flawless Parisian English, ‘ Ah, but no, I would not have heard you because I always switch off the radio if I hear an American. I simply cannot listen to that accent.’

He describes his wife Claudette in different ways throughout the book. Our first introduction is uncompromising. Daniel is standing watching someone whom he assumes to be an innocent birdwatcher when she appears out of nowhere with a gun and fires it twice:

My wife, I should tell you, is crazy. Not in a requiring-medication-and wards-and-men-in-white-coats sense – although I sometimes wonder if there may have been times in her past – but in a subtle, more socially acceptable, less ostentatious way. She doesn’t think like other people. She believes that to pull a gun on someone lurking, in all likelihood entirely innocently, at our perimeter fence is not only permissible but indeed the right thing to do.

Later we learn she is beautiful, ‘flawless‘, ‘100% biodegradable‘ – no plastic surgery. But she dresses to downplay her dramatic good looks in large sunglasses, big hats and bohemian oddities: a ‘mad lady‘ in ‘insane clothes‘. She is constantly restless, endlessly reinventing her surroundings, and yet Daniel calls her his ‘unavoidable constant‘.

She is, in fact, an acclaimed actress and film-maker who simply vanished from sight one day, and hid herself away in a remote derelict cottage in Donegal, Ireland. But her fame is intriguingly captured by a chapter which takes the form of an auction catalogue of memorabilia from her life coming under the hammer, together with photographs of Claudette in her heyday wearing or carrying or accompanying the said items.

The assorted children are also larger than life and imperfect people, captured with sensitivity and sympathy.

Claudette’s son, Ari, has a severe speech impediment when we first meet him; he becomes a suave young man, a father, caring, intelligent, kind, as we see him dipping in and out of Daniel’s story, although his speech problems continue to resurrect themselves when he comes under stress:

Ari is one stylish boy. I’m not sure quite how this happened: his mother scrubs up well, as we know, but most of the time she dresses like a maniac. The house looks like a garage sale crossed with the bottom of a birdcage and I struggle along sartorially. Somehow, from this messy brew, this tall elegant child emerged, looking like a model for avant-garde tailoring. I sometimes wonder if it’s his Scandinavian genes coming through: that pared-down aesthetic of his, the clean lines of him.

Daniel’s boy, Niall, is a strange lad, tortured by severe eczema, requiring heavy pastes, bandages, diversionary techniques for coping with the unbearable itch. He is devoted to his sister, Phoebe, and very protective of his father. Phoebe herself is somehow ephemeral, childish and rather shadowy until she is inexplicably shot dead in her teens whilst innocently browsing the drug store for lip gloss. Her red-gold hair, milk-white skin, wide-spaced eyes, angled nose are echoed in her younger sister Marithe who is ‘equal parts pixie, angel and sylph‘, a constant reminder of what they have lost.

The baby, Calvin, is at the stage of separation anxiety when we meet him, beautifully captured by a scene where the family are travelling the dirt track from their house in Ireland to the road, and his mother needs to hop out of the rickety car to undo and re-latch no less than twelve gates along the route:

I stop the car. My wife snaps off her seatbelt, shoves open her door, steps out and slams the door, exiting the small rhombus of the rain-glazed passenger window. A moment later, she reappears in the panorama of the windscreen; she is waking away from the car. This triggers some pre-verbal synapse in the baby: his neurology tells him that the sight of his mother’s retreating back is bad news, that she may never return, that he will be left here to perish, that the company of his somewhat scatty and only occasionally present father is not sufficient to secure his survival (he has a point). He lets out a howl of despair, a signal to the mothership: abort mission, request immediate return.

Even Daniel’s aged father, who plays a fairly peripheral part in the actual story, is portrayed vividly with a few deft touches. Daniel’s sisters have been urging him to visit before the old man shuffles off this mortal coil or he will live to regret it, but his response is:

… the man walks two miles every day, eats enough pulled pork to repopulate New York State of pigs, and he certainly doesn’t sound infirm if you get him on the phone: never does he find himself at a loss when pointing out my shortcomings and misjudgements. Plus, with regard to his much-vaunted potential death, if you ask me, the man never had a pulse in the first place.

And a neighbour is summarised beautifully in one pithy paragraph:

Donal is an ill-scented homonculus who farms the land further down the valley. He – and his wife, I’d imagine – has what you might call a problem with anger management. Somewhat trigger-happy, Donal. He shoots everything on sight: squirrels, rabbits, foxes, hill-walkers (just kidding).

But perhaps more than that, O’Farrell’s originality comes through in the unique writing techniques she employs. She explains at the end of the book why this one is structurally adventurous. Whilst writing the novel she was watching builders demolish the back of her house, remove supporting walls, and the experience gave her ideas for her writing:

The day I watched them insert steel joists inside the walls, inch by meticulous inch, then remove those metal props, I thought you can do anything, you can float a room in mid-air, you can have a chapter that is an auction catalogue, you can write an account of the torture of eczema with accompanying footnotes, you can dismantle the back wall of a house, as long as you put in an endoskeleton of support. You can take risks, you can rip up the rulebook: you just need to make sure you’ve factored in the necessary engineering.

I must warn that it requires concentration to stay abreast of all the different threads in this book – the changing time frames, roles, perspectives, tenses, countries – you need all your wits about you. I was fortunate in being able to read the whole book over a few days. Had I been dipping in and out over a longer time I fear I’d have got hopelessly lost. I suspect one would appreciate her skill even more on a second read when so much more would be understood. As it is, secondary characters with their own stories sometimes bewilder until a familiar face in a different time comes into view and the picture clarifies. You just need to hold on tight and wait; all will become clear. Even after I’d got the hang of what she was doing, even as far along as P418, when an elderly woman, Rosalind, newly released from a long marriage and grappling with betrayal and childlessness, appears on the monochromic saltplanes of the Bolivian Altiplano, I was thinking, Now what? Who’s she? And then, mercifully, the main protagonist in a different guise slid into the seat of the truck beside her. Ahhh, so that’s where this fits. No wonder the author herself needed a behemoth of a pin-board looming above her desk ‘like an ocean liner‘, and colour coding taken to extreme lengths to hold the skeleton of the plot together!

But overall the unravelling story of Daniel and Claudette’s love is told with emotional sophistication and subtle humanity.

For me it was a real feast of a book.

PS. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with so many colons and semicolons in it. I just had to include some in this review in homage!!

 

 

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