August, by Gerard Woodward

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Gerard Woodward’s trilogy on the life of the Jones family (August, I’ll Go To Bed At Noon and A Curious Earth) has been on the shelf beside my reading chair for some time — my purchase of the three was the result of enthusiastic recommendations from a number of U.K. bloggers and commenters here. The decision to begin reading a trilogy always has a bit of challenge involved since it signals a commitment that is bound to mean a fair bit of reading time.

So when a new Woodward (Nourishment) appeared in 2010, I opted for a detour right from the start, testing the author with the new work to see whether I should make the commitment. While some readers did find Nourishment just too strange for their taste (it is a WWII story set in London with some fairly gruesome scenes and truly odd plot developments), I quite liked it — Woodward’s ability to suddenly insert an abrupt left or right turn in the story struck my fancy. The trilogy beckoned.

August has oddity to it as well, but hardly that of the sudden plot twists of Nourishment. If anything, the distinguishing characteristic of this book is its distinct ordinariness and lack of surprise. Aldous Jones is a teacher, comfortably ensconced in a modest North London home with his wife Colette and, when the book opens, two children. During the 15 years of the story, two more children will arrive — all quite comparable to those living in your neighborhood.

What distinguishes the Joneses, and the novel, is their commitment to an annual August tenting holiday at a farm in Wales. As the novel opens, Aldous has cycled from London to Wales (it is a four-day trip) on a scouting mission for what will be the initial holiday; we meet him flying off his cycle in a country lane, the result of a mishap with the local squire’s Armstrong Siddeley Star Sapphire Saloon — Woodward’s taste for the unlikely and unusual is deployed immediately with the delayed revelation that Aldous, while flying through the air after the accident, has managed to snag his false teeth, saving them from destruction. For the reader, it is a fair sign of what is to come in the ensuing 300 pages.

So too is the phone call that he makes to Colette a few hours later to inform her that the accident has turned out to be fortuitous — the family from the farm across the hedge would be happy for the Joneses to pitch their tent there:

“I’m in Mr and Mrs Evans’s farmhouse. It’s in a place called Llanygwynfa. I don’t think I said that right. I had a tumble on the bike. They patched me up and gave me some tea. She opened a can of pineapple chunks for me. She said they only did that on special occasions. They’re very nice. He’s out in the fields now — he was actually carrying one of those crosier things, like a bishop. She’s in the farmyard collecting eggs. They said we can stay here…”

It takes considerable talent for a writer to make the ordinary special, in the same sense that life must be rather quiet when opening a tin of pinepapple chunks is reserved for special occasions. Woodward succeeds — the bulk of August is a study of what makes the everyday (albeit, somewhat twisted) extraordinary. He achieves this through a meticulous attention to detail that never wanes, be it descriptions of the Wales countryside and mountains, the neighborhood where the Joneses live in London, the social interactions on the August holidays or the trials and tribulations that occur inside any family with four offspring.

I say “the bulk” because a third of the way through the book a highly unlikely event occurs that will frame the rest of the novel, in essence creating a new ordinary. Aldous has been repairing the puncture of one of his bike’s tyres with Colette looking on:

She’d just been sitting in one of the camping chairs, smoking, looking at the hills. But a little girl had woken up in her when the scent of the glue reached her. She had followed its winding path to its source, to the tube of glue that nestled in the repair tin. She picked it up.

The tube of glue was called Romac. It was the size of the little fish Colette used to catch in the Lee Navigation, holding them by the tail as they yelled silently with their tiny, silver mouths, before throwing them back. This tube was half squeezed out, pressed to a creasy flatness at the tail end, swelling towards the neck. The bulk of the remaining glue was sealed in by a black, octagonal screw-top.

To be half empty indicated a long history for this glue. A single repair used a tiny amount, a blob that wouldn’t cover a little fingernail.

Carefully, as Aldous pressed the restored inner tube back into its tyre, Colette unscrewed the top of the Romac. Like some Duchess at the perfume counter of Harrods she lifted the neck of the tube to her nose and breathed in the scent. Her thoughts became trees. Towering canopies of memories branching and leafing, falling. The leaves falling.

That farm field experience outside the tent will soon turn into a full-fledged glue-sniffing habit. If you are a stickler for likelihood when it comes to plot development, you will be inclined to say “c’mon, Gerard”. Perhaps that is where having read Nourishment helped me — Woodward is an author who needs to set his reality askew and he doesn’t hesitate to approach the absurd in doing that. For the reader who is willing to go with him, he has then created a “new normal” which serves his descriptive talents exceptionally well. And his eye for portraying the importance of apparently insignificant detail comes into full play.

So, if August is a portrayal of the ordinary, it is an ordinary set in a somewhat skewed world which is a major part of the attraction of the novel for this reader. It is a trait that I think he shares with Ian McEwan, particular in McEwan’s earlier novels — if the implausibility in An Enduring Love or The Child in Time was part of the attraction for you, you’ll have no problems at all with August. Some authors need five per cent of their world to be highly unlikely so they can properly address the other 95 per cent.

As the novel proceeds, Aldous and Colette become fully rounded characters as do a couple of their children. While the other two serve mainly as support characters in this book, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them more fully developed in the next two volumes.

And yes I will be reading those next two. The Jones family is weird enough that I’ll let it rest for a few months, but I will be returning.

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10 Responses to “August, by Gerard Woodward”

  1. Colette Jones Says:

    Super review, Kevin!

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: Thanks. Given your nom-de-blog, I know it comes from an expert who know the book. And you were of course one of the people who recommended it to me.

  3. Colette Jones Says:

    I didn’t have much time last night but wanted the first comment on this post to be from Colette Jones.

    I’m glad you liked it. Think of it as a warm up to I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, which is undoubtedly the best of the trilogy.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: Thanks for returning (and I too was hoping that Colette Jones would be the first commenter). I am looking forward to I’ll Go To Bed At Noon but am figuring that I should have a three or four month hiatus before going back to the Jones family. As much as I like them, the chance to escape also has appeal (:-)).

    • Colette Jones Says:

      I’ve let a few weeks go by before mentioning that I didn’t use the name until after reading the second book. I’m just sayin…

  5. leroyhunter Says:

    I’ve had my eye on these for a while now Kevin, good to be reminded of them and to read such a positive appraisal.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: My impression is that the trilogy has a bit of a cult following and, after one volume, I could see why. I’ve been quite taken by the two Woodwards that I have read — I like the way that his ball comes off the wall at a funny angle. I thought about comparing August to Adam Mars-Jones Pilcrow or Cedilla but decided that was too much of a stretch. There are similarities but not much more than that — still the fact that it came to mind may be an indicator for you.

  7. sykesy Says:

    Picked up this author on a second hand book stall and what a find; just halfway through the second novel in the trilogy, I’ll go to bed at noon and loving it. To be honest I think he is an english version of the american author, Anne Tyler. All the characters seem to be someone you know or get to know and you could be part of their lives. Shall be looking out for the others in the trilogy

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sykesy: I won’t get to the second novel until fall, I expect. I like the way that he places his fascinating characters in the world around them — but then introduces almost surreal twists to show us another side of each of them.

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