Archive for the ‘Woodward, Gerard (3)’ Category

I’ll Go To Bed At Noon, by Gerard Woodward

April 3, 2013

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

I’ll Go To Bed At Noon is volume two of Gerard Woodward’s trilogy chronicling the life of the Jones family. It is very much a continuation of the first volume, August, so a brief reminder of my thoughts about that novel seems in order.

For the most part, Aldous and Colette Jones (and their children) are the definition of ordinary — he is a North London school teacher, she a stay-at-home wife. They have two children when August opens; two more arrive during the 15-year span of that novel. Author Woodward’s speciality, however, is to occasionally add very distinct elements of the absurd to the story to give it both spice and depth. For example, the first novel opens with Aldous at the end of a four-day bicycle trip from London to Wales: he is scouting for a location for the family’s summer holiday and much of the “action” of the novel will take place at the farm in Llanygwynfa that he discovers to which the family will return each summer. That trip of discovery is by no means the only strange departure from the ordinary in the Jones’ family life, but it serves as a handy warning of a device the author will employ as the book progresses.

Another important example of Woodward’s device is the glue-sniffing addiction that Colette develops one summer while on holiday: attracted by the smell of the glue from a bicycle tyre repair kit, she samples it and soon develops a full-scale habit that influences much of what occurs in the latter half of the novel.

I’ll Go To Bed At Noon opens some years after the first novel ended, but some things have not changed. Indeed, self-medication/substance abuse is a trait that will effect not only most of the Joneses as the novel progresses, it is a character flaw shared by many members of their extended family as well, a near universal response to the boredom of commonness or the stresses of even minor disruptions to the established routine. The normal Jones’ approach to a crisis is to see if it can be drunk away.

Colette and Aldous are preparing to attend the funeral of her sister-in-law as this novel begins, but Woodward wastes no time in introducing that element. Colette has abandoned her glue-sniffing habit, but replaced it with an equally strong addiction to Gold Label Barley Wine (for North American readers, “barley wine” is the English equivalent of malt liquor, a high alcohol beer):

Colette poured the Gold Label into a glass, where it fizzed half-heartedly, her second of the day. Colette had taken to this tipple recently, initially as a sedative, to reinforce the ever-weakening effect of her sleeping pills. She would drink two or three glasses in the evening, then take four or five Nembutals (the recommended dose was two), which would despatch her to a deep, dreamless sleep for eight hours. The problem was that awakening was a long, slow, painful struggle. She woke as if from a pit of glue, always with a pounding headache, the only cure for which, she soon found, was a morning glass of barley wine. One of those and she was near instantly awake and fresh. A sedative in the evening, a pick-me-up in the morning. Barley wine was her wonder-drink.

The substance may have changed, but Colette is as much an abuser as ever. And the Jones’ eldest son, Janus, is an apple that has fallen not far from the family tree. His parents are not sure if he will turn up for the impending funeral (probably not) but they are certainly hoping not. Both recall his drunken performance a few years earlier at a cousin’s wedding: “…the trampled-on wedding cake, the shattered bouquets, the drenched, sobbing bridesmaids.”

Janus’ on-going problems will feature prominently in the novel, as will those of the husband of the woman who is being buried, Colette’s brother Janus Brian (the namesake for her son — the Joneses retroactively added his middle name to distinguish the two). While the death of his wife will send Janus Brian into his own alcoholism, he had his own distinctive trait even earlier: despite living only a mile away, the only time he ever visited Colette was to announce the imminence of his own death:

It had happened several times, usually as a result of reading some health article or other, that Janus Brian would discover symptoms in himself of a fatal disease. Now she couldn’t even remember what it had been. An innocent pimple, wart, or pedunculated polyp. A benign confusion of cells. A temporary thinning of the blood. As with most hypochondriacs, however, Janus Brian remained annoyingly free of real illness.

That excerpt comes from our introduction to Janus Brian — like his namesake, his story will also be explored in detail. Indeed, it offers an example of why I find Woodward a difficult author to review: while there is continuing story line in the three novels of his that I have read (Nourishment, a non-Jones novel, is the other), the author develops them by extensively exploring sub-plots, using these almost like building blocks to construct the complete work.

Janus and Janus Brian’s lives are only a couple of those Woodward uses here: readers also will experience the woes of another of Colette’s brothers (who, no surprise, also turns into an alcoholic), not to mention the stories of her three other children.

I thoroughly enjoyed both August and Nourishment — as well as this novel — but that endorsement comes with a caveat. To appreciate Woodward, the reader must be willing to go with his flow. For me, all of the Joneses (both nuclear and extended family) became characters of interest and, despite their refuge in substance abuse, some empathy. I can understand, however, why some would find them grating — and if they grate as individuals, some of the author’s unlikely plot twists could become downright annoying. Woodward is definitely not for everyone, but he hits the right chords with me.

I’d still say, however, that you need to read August before taking on I’ll Go To Bed At Noon. It is a much less intense book so developing an affinity for the characters is a much easier process — there are times in this novel, when that reservoir of affinity is a prerequisite to appreciating what is happening here. If you didn’t like August, or even had a “meh” response to it, I’d give this book a miss. On the other hand, if you came from that novel with at least some empathy for the Joneses (especially Colette), Woodward continues to build on it here. The details that I have cited make it seem more depressing than it is — Woodward has a lot of humor to him, but it isn’t the kind that can easily be captured in a review.

As a fan, I’ll certainly be reading volume three of the trilogy (A Curious Earth) but I suspect it will likely be some months before I feel up to the challenge — like Gold Label Barley Wine, my experience says Woodward is best experienced with a disciplined approach to consumption.

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August, by Gerard Woodward

March 11, 2012

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.

Nourishment, by Gerard Woodward

November 23, 2010

the Book Depository.com

Gerard Woodward is an author who has been sitting on the “must-read” table for a while. After recommendations from several readers whom I admire, his trilogy (August, I’ll Go To Bed At Noon and A Curious Earth) has been on stand-by for some months. So when I discovered some months ago that his new book, Nourishment, would be part of the 2010 Booker season, I figured that I would read the single volume as a start and leave the trilogy on the shelf for future reading.

Alas, for Woodward, Nourishment missed the Booker longlist, which meant it went on to my waitlist. Having finally got to Woodward, I’ll now jump to the conclusion — it was not a travesty that this novel missed the longlist, but it would have been no shame if it had made it. And I am now looking forward to the trilogy even more than before.

Victoria “Tory” Pace is a war-challenged wife when the book opens — her husband Donald has been drafted and little has been heard from him since he headed to the Front. Her three children have been evacuated to Lower Slaughter (or is it Upper Slaughter?), but her mother has moved back to the London flat to help out through troubled times. Early on in the novel, a bomb falls in the area of Peter Street where Tory and her mother live and Woodward wastes little time in letting the reader in on the macabre aspects that will feature in the book. The local butcher shop, home to one Dando, is one of the shops that has been hit, its refuse blasted across the street so far that it includes the streetscape of Timothy’s, the bakers:

As she looked closely at the shopfront of Timothy’s now she could see, among the many scars and mini-craters of a building that had been exposed to a bomb blast, other matter. Yes, she was sure of it. There was actually a rasher of bacon stuck to the wall over the main window, perfectly flat against the brickwork, as though it had been cemented there. And then she saw another, and then another, fanned out across the facade, an array of streaky bacon. Then other materials that must have been flung with terrific force from the exploding butcher’s across the street — that thing up there, over the door, that was surely a sausage. It was flattened and burst, but it was definitely one of Mr Dando’s gristly bangers. (It was said that sawdust was the prime ingredient.)

There is a lot of butcher shop “debris” in the vicinity — “mince, pieces of liver, kidneys, other offal, all stuck fast.” As Tory’s mother, Mrs. Head, contemplates this all she finds something else:

She turned her attention to ground level and saw, for the first time, what seemed to her an almost perfect leg of pork, just sitting there on the pavement. Or, rather it was resting, tucked slightly behind a timber (probably part of a window frame), and was off the ground and quite hidden. Furthermore, it was covered with the same layer of dust as everything else in the area and so was well camoflaged.

Mrs. Head takes the meat home and proceeds to roast it. When Tory returns from her wartime job at the local gelatine factory, there is “a real roast dinner” of leg of pork awaiting her. Author Woodward extends the scene over a number of pages, but I’ll summarize it here: Butcher Dando was a casualty in the bombing and the roast leg of pork may, or may not, have been pork after all. Perhaps Tory and Mrs. Head have fallen into cannabalism in their search for meat in wartime Britain.

If that kind of absurdity puts you off, read no further — Woodward will not be your cup of tea (and, lord knows, what kind of tea it might be). If that bizarre twist has some appeal to you, read on because you have discovered an author who loves them.

Woodward ends this opening section with a telegram from the War Office. Private Donald Pace has been reported as missing which means that he might be a) missing, b) a prisoner of war, c) dead or d) “temporarily separated from his regiment” — the alternatives are all included in the telegram. In what for me is one of the most attractive aspects of this novel, it suddenly takes a right (or perhaps left) turn and heads off into a completely different direction.

Donald is, in fact, a prisoner of war and some time later a carefully-censored letter arrives directed to “My Dearest Darling Sweetheart Tory”. The sentiments in the letter are what you would expect until the concluding paragraph:

Nothing else troubles me apart from not being able to pull your knickers down and give you a good fuck. Instead, could you write me a dirty letter, by return of post? I mean really filthy, full of all the dirtiest words and deeds you can think of.

I require this most urgently.

See what I mean about the absurd? Tory is a conventional, not terribly attractive but not bad-looking either, isolated war-mother being asked to do something that is unfathomable in her experience. Then again, so is war. Several letters are exchanged where she politely declines, but Donald is insistent. Eventually she starts to do research in the restricted stacks of the local library.

Tory’s research tends to be of the dictionary/encyclopedia variety, with minor excursions into soft-core, but the story takes another turn when she attracts the attention of George Farraway, owner of the gelatine factory, but also a former boxer, so good that he fought Jack Dempsey and has retained the gloves from the match including, one would like to believe, Dempsey’s blood from an uppercut that caught the champion’s eye — before he slammed Farraway to the canvas. He will not only supply Tory with material for her letters (and they become very important as the novel progresses) he will become a potential beacon in her future. Oh, and he also has some dubious ventures that will be relevant.

Okay, some parts of Woodward are conventional — and some are very contrived (but I am willing to accept them). Farraway and Tory strike up an affair, conducted mainly in a cottage in the Home Counties. Farraway is an exceptional lover whose idiosyncracy is to describe whatever he is doing as he does it and he apparently does quite a lot (details are left to the reader’s imagination). Tory remembers these things, takes them down and, suddenly, finds a way to meet Daniel’s need. Everything is going along just fine until, at the end of a typical Woodward chapter:

But in fact the affair continued for several weeks more, and didn’t end properly until Tory became pregnant, in the late summer of 1941.

That last quote is not meant as an illustration of author brilliance, but rather of his control of his work. One of the traits of this book is the left-right turns that it will take — and I have only given you an introduction. Woodward loves to end one aspect of his novel and then strike off in a different course on another. Some readers will find this annoying: I thought it was a wonderful way of keeping me engaged with the book.

I have hardly introduced you to Tory, Donald and Mrs. Head in this review, but I feel no need to expand any further. Gerard Woodward is an author who asks readers to join him in a dis-connected journey and in each stage he goes into some detail beyond the obvious plot. If that is not the kind of fiction that you like, avoid the book. If it interests you at all, do pick up this volume.


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