Saturday, February 4, 2012

Walking through versions of the past (Books - Interpreters by Sue Eckstein)

Susan Eckstein's Interpreters starts with an eye-opening paragraph.
I think I was about six when my mother tried to kill me, though I didn't know it at the time. It was probably somewhere around here - where the privet hedges give way to barriers of leylandii and high wrought-iron gates. I don't suppose it had anything to do with the hedges and gates, though they can't have helped. This place could induce a yearning for death in even the most optimistic.
Conflict anyone? Aside from the efficiency with which she dispatches with the central relationship of the book (one that provides not just pathos but also tension and narrative structure), Eckstein sets up a first-person narrator, Julia, in one paragraph who we know is haunted by the past. She has an eye for detail and a strong sense of irony - both means by which people distance themselves from emotion. Most of all, she feels trapped by convention.

Julia's chapters alternate with dialogues between a psychotherapist and an older German woman who is equally haunted by the past, particularly in relation to World War II, and is extremely guarded. The dialogues with the therapist could feel like a well-worn dramatic cliche, only they don't. I learned from Eckstein's bio that she is a playwright and her talent for writing convincing dialogue shows. These chapters are swift moving, filled with reticence expressed in specified and expressive silences. The writing is sparse. This creates a starkly different rhythm from the first-person narrative chapters. It also creates a sense of distance, as though we are viewing this second character through the back end of a telescope.

Eckstein uses a second device that could feel like a cliche, only it doesn't. Julia, visits her childhood home, walking through its rooms one afternoon to evoke the past. This works because Eckstein doesn't merely make use of a convenient device, she creates a believable context in which Julia would walk through the house. The writing of the details of the scene in the present time frame during which Julia visits the house, are skillfully written, interleaving the experience of its new inhabitants and furnishings with her memories. This also works because Eckstein offers paired chapters during which the two women featured in the novel plumb the depths of their memory, each in the way that they can. One using verbal means, the other visual. One is contained, straining for neatness and control, the other is messy and crowded.

This novel lives in the mileu of psychology; its vocabulary is one of forgiveness and trauma, journey and relationship.
Brown Owl must be long dead so I should forgive her. But I don't. Nor, for that matter, Miss Pearson, the nursery school teacher I had when I was four, who made everyone on my table look at the way I held my knife and fork, and then told me to behave like a big girl and eat properly. Even now I can't do that thing where you mash bits of food on to the back of your fork. And I rarely eat peas, At least not in public.
But this is appropriate to a novel about memory, about how the narrative of memory is a construction of the past rather than a factual replaying, and about the role one's generation plays in this interpretation.

Eckstein constructs her characters with a shrewd dramatist's eye. Julia's brother Max, we learn on the very first page, slept curled on the top shelf of his cupboard at age eight. If that detail does not speak volumes. In Max, Eckstein creates one of those bright creatures of promise with whom everyone falls in love. He is to Eckstein's novel what Buddy Glass is to Salinger's. Indelible and so real you could touch him. The dramatist's skill is evident too in the way she lets behavior reveal character and relationship rather than explanation. She doesn't tell us how Julia's father feels about a man he knew in childhood from whom he receives a letter, and how Julia feels about having steamed open the letter, read it, and re-sealed it.
That evening, when I went into his study with my algebra homework, I saw the blue pages lying on the desk. He was holding the envelope in his hand, just staring at it.

'That's a nice stamp,' I said casually as I was able to. 'Where's it from?'

'Spain, I think.'

'Can I have it for school? We collect them for guide dogs.'

'I don't think it'll be much good for that. It's rather ragged at the edges.'

'Who do you know in Spain?'

'No one.'

'So who's it from, then?'

'What dear?'

'Who's it from?'

'Just someone I was at school with.'

'Who lives in Spain now?'


'That's nice.' I wondered if my father could hear my voice shaking. 'Are you going to write back?'

Without saying anything, my father put down the envelope, collected up the sheets of notepaper, and slowly tore them into tiny pieces. He did the same to the envelope.

Then he leant over towards his waste-paper bin, held his hand high above it, and let the fragments whirl and eddy into the depths.

'So, what's my homework for this evening, dear?' he asked.
The amount of time Eckstein spends on empty dialogue creates a wonderful tension - does he know? He must. I found the father's coldness to the letter-writer almost inhuman.

Despite or perhaps because of well-worn forms, Eckstein has crafted a smartly intertwined pair of narratives about how versions of the past interplay within three generations, one which grabs the reader with its immediacy.


Caroline said...

I have never heard of this book before but I think I need to see if I can find it. At the moment I'm drawn to books with psychiatrists or psychlogists as characters and the opening paragraph is amazing.

Ted said...

C - I think if you read it, you will find the way the author handles the therapist role interesting!