Monday, 4 December 2017

Guest Graeme Fife admires Maggie O'Farrell's novels



Graeme Fife has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography, works of history, four studies of the mountain ranges of southern Europe and, like many of us, waits with the patience of Job for decision on a number of manuscripts.

‘I am somewhere. Drifting, Hiding. Thoughts running around tracks, random and unconnected as ball-bearings in the circuit of a pinball machine. I am thinking about the party at work at which John and I didn’t meet, how we must have circled each other round the room like moths at a light bulb…’ (From After You’d Gone)

This might be a considered analysis of O’Farrell’s work: the random encounter, the missed encounter, the light of the novel’s heart glowing throughout. Her narratives might seem to be merely playful: they hop, skip and jump from serendipity to chance to puzzlement and surprise but rather she is exploring the disconnects in our experience. We do not see or feel what happens to us in linear and logical form, but often as a curious loose linkage of events. To shape a narrative on such a premise is bold, but O’Farrell has a fine instinct for how to pull apparently disconnected events into a compelling, a coherent narrative which enriches the emotional currents of the story and the characters caught up in it. For, in this episodic approach, she mirrors the thought processes, the jump-shot cinema of our mind and memory, most clearly evinced in dream. The power of dream, often to mystify, sometimes to explain, always to beguile. This is O’Farrell’s chosen way and it is deliciously seductive. She weaves a story punctuated by What next? Where to now? How did that happen?

Occasionally she teases the reader by introducing a character who has no obvious place in the narrative so far but, in the course of unfolding her, or his, story, the connection is made. It is, perhaps, a way of avoiding a sequential plod, to interrupt the flow as a way of saying that this is how our moods run, this is the lurch of our thinking from what we think we know to what puzzles us, to the sudden certainties, which may appear to be too late…except that they may prove not to be too late. This is the charm of the O’Farrell novel: the piecing together of the story rather than the simple narrative line. Perhaps not to all tastes. As a friend of mine said, not a book to read in bed at the end of a tiring day. You need to be alert.

Her plots are close-woven, the forward drive of the story irresistibly powerful, in part because she manages to keep so many secrets hidden in the course of balancing the tug of the various strands she has spun to lead us on.

This is as far as I’ll go. I’ll give nothing away because it would do O’Farrell a grave disservice to dwell on the structure of the novels, even to hint at what happens. No spoilers and I add a plea: never read the blurbs of these novels. (In fact, I would extend that plea to any blurb. Go in unapprised, surrender to the writer.)

The great virtues of her writing - the skippy fluency of her prose, the colour of her language, the accuracy of her descriptions - embrace the emotional heat and the veracity of her insights. She knows the mind and heart, she writes without flinching from the uncomfortable aspects of human relationships, she is willing to prod and poke the wounds inflicted by love as well as to evoke the glorious surge of passion and the oddities of attraction. Nothing soft, often very tough, both her men and her women, in their yielding, their courage.

She’s particularly sensitive to the intensity and irrationality of first love and how it shapes its own reason. Thence, how, in the maturing of a relationship, the peculiar rationale melds with the practical into a more diverse – perhaps problematic – depth of mutual sympathy and, perhaps, failure of sympathy.

It was reading After You’d Gone that prompted me to this review. At that point, I’d read all her novels bar The Distance Between Us (having been completely hooked by the first I read, The Hand That Once Held Mine.) That final novel I reserved jealously, like a kid hoarding chocolate for a feast to look forward to. And now…the feast is eaten. Damn.

After You’d Gone is a work of sumptuous gift, beguiling and very moving. The final section explodes in consummate drama. I gasped when the novel hit the buffer of the final full stop. And I began to urge people to ‘read this book’ just as a friend had urged me to read The Hand That Once Held Mine.

Maggie O'Farrell's novels are published by Tinder Press.

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