Sunday, January 3, 2010

Reaching out from ourselves towards others (Books - The Birds of the Innocent Wood by Deirdre Madden)

The waning days of my winter break have unfortunately been occupied with taking care of The Ragazzo, who has had been impressively sick. Great fun has been had by all and plans for seeing friends, household projects, and museum visits were abandoned. At least I got to continue my exploration of Irish novelist Deirdre Madden's body of work with her The Birds of the Innocent Wood.

This is the most unusual in form of her Madden's books which I have read so far. It alternates chapters about the lives of Jane and Jane's twin daughters, Sarah and Catherine, criss-crossing back and forth through time as it reveals its small surprises. I read it as a story of the price of isolation, either by having love witheld from you or witholding love from others. Not to say that that witholding is performed out of malice, most of the self-imposed isolation in Madden's characters is out of fear of loss or fear of being touched. The alternating chapters are almost stand-alone pieces, yet the information they yield as regards the story is incomplete. The reader knows they are incomplete because the daughters' stories occur almost 20 years after the story of Jane's years as a young woman and through their details imply the missing information. With this structural device, Madden succeedes in creating a good deal of suspense, even though the events of this novel are largely interior and the settings entirely domestic.

Madden's narratives most conspicuously occupy the inner lives of their subjects. Her evocation of this flow of thought naturally (in my observation) intertwines imagination of worlds outside the present time, space, or life of her character with the present moment to achieve a verrisimilitude of inner experience. As I have described in my post about her novel One by One in the Darkness, her characters often imagine themselves inside the lives of other characters (or at least struggle to do so) - an act that is de rigeur for writers, actors, and other artists:
Sarah has only ever loved her family, and her family has made her suffer. Looking through the open door to where her father is sitting is like looking into a seashell which is coiled and chambered. Each chamber is a memory, its size and brightness in accordance with its position on the coil of time which stops with the shell's sharp apex: the moment of her birth. But beyond that there is a wide yellow shore scattered with shells, and she can see but she cannot touch the huge shells which contain her father's secret memories. She cannot imagine what it would be like to move through those vast coiled systems of chambers, seeing with her father's eyes the eighteen years which make the sum totaly of her own brief life, and then before that those early, mysterious years which lie beyong the scope of Sarah's memories: the years of her parents' marriage prior to the birth of their children; the years of his life before his marriage, spent on the farm alone with his father; the years of his boyhood and youth spent with both his parents, prior to his mother's death, and then these shells also come to the still point of his birth and are ended. But before this were the lives and memories of his parents, and their parents before that, and their parents before that: the shells of these memories have been sucked back into the sea by the tide, and some have been dashed by waves against the rocks and have been broken, some have fallen to the sandy bed of the sea, and some will drift forever and forever. And Mama: she wonders what has happened to the poor misshapen shell of her mother's life, and she wishes that she could have saved it above all from the cold blue infinite sea.
This paragraph summarizes the action of the entire novel, whose narrative voice as I copy it out reminds me intensely of Virginia Woolf's, particularly in my favorite novel of hers - The Waves - to get inside another's life, making it as palpable and important to oneself as is one's own life. Certainly that struggle can be the act that allows one to break free of self-imposed isolation (when another's needs become more important than one's own fears). This novel embodies that struggle on multiple levels - the isolation of an orphan (Jane) who struggles in a life without parental love, later the mutual isolation of Jane and her husband as they try to break through themselves to become vulnerable with each other, the lives of their daughters who as twins have their own unique version of sameness and separateness not experienced by most siblings, and the closely detailed diaries kept by Catherine to know herself.

One of my favorite moments in the book is a visit that Jane makes to her neighbor Ellen's house. Ellen has known Jane's husband all of her life and Jane is jealous and insecure of her. Ellen probes Jane for the story of her life, which Jane shares in all its horrid detail of the deprivation of life in a convent orphanage but is sure that Ellen did not believe her and did not like her.
Jane's antipathy towards Ellen was mixed with a considerable degree of curiosity, and she wanted to know all about her background. James would tell her nothing, but his father was happy to oblige. One winter's night as they sat by the stove, he told her the story of Ellen's past. Jane listened attentively and later she would run over it again and again in her mind, embellishing the tale with little added details of her own, imagining certain scenes with particular intensity. Every time she saw Ellen thereafter, she would think of what she know, conscious always that it was partly truth and party her own invention...

When Ellen was twelve, her father, overwhelmed by debts, took an ornamental revolver out to a ruined gazebo in the grounds of the house. His wife heard the report, and it was she who found her husband with half his head blown away. (The deed was, of course, in reality performed with a shotgun in the back yard: the revolver and gazebo were gothic fancies which Jane could not resist adding.)
I love this scene particularly because we all must knows others somewhat through the veil of our own narratives, and this is not confined only to people we love but also to those we dislike. I think that people who live largely interior lives and get used to living in their own minds, and Jane exemplifies this, in their isolation can interact not so much with others as with the characters they have made of them.

I found the many ways in which Madden writes about people reaching out from themselves towards others in The Birds of the Innocent Wood, and how this informs their experience of the own lives, particularly insightful. The beauty of the writing and the asymmetry of the structure, given the incompleteness of the lives we become acquainted with, are brilliantly suited to the content. The narrative acquires an intensity through the suspense evoked by the alternating time frames and the secrets the characters, in their isolation, withold from one another. The Birds of the Innocent Wood is a stunning and unusual piece of writing from a writer who, in the past year, has quickly become one of my favorites - Deirdre Madden.

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