Jessica Norrie’s Literary Column – A Spell for Spring
By meteorological standards worldwide, we Brits have nothing to complain about – we haven’t suffered the sort of prairie temperatures Laura Ingalls Wilder described in The Long Winter, or the snow Dr. Zhivago tramped through between poignant wife Tonya, lover Lara, Tsarists and Bolsheviks. There was a shortage of winter clothing; some of the partisans went about half dressed. It was decided to kill off all the camp dogs and people with experience as furriers were set to making dog-skin jackets, to be worn with the fur side out…typhus again became endemic at the onset of the cold weather.
Nonetheless, Brits were fed up last weekend. Beautiful photos of pure white drifts were two a penny on Facebook last time the “Beast from the East” paid a visit, but this time there was only grumbling. My writing course at Jane Austen’s house was cancelled, and with it my subject for this week’s Smorgasbord post. With luck spring will have sprung by the time Sally publishes this replacement. I think I’ll help it along with an incantation of literary quotes and novel titles.
I loved Yukio Mishima in my more intense days, hanging on to a yellowing Spring Snow until the whole volume curled in on itself. The snow in the title annoys me, but in Japanese Literature cherry blossom is never far away: hung in huge clusters from the black austerity of the branches like a mass of white seashells spread over a reef… And with almost invisible subtlety, the star-shaped centre of each blossom was marked with pink in tiny, sharp strokes, like the stitches holding a button in place. The Spring Cleaning Murders, cosy crime by Dorothy Cannell, is less poetic, more practical. Soap flakes appeal to me more than snowflakes, although here at Sloven Towers we don’t clean until autumn. To be fair, the snowflakes are small today. If I screw up my eyes I can pretend they’re clouds of midges (every season has its perils).
In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill is a beautiful, evocative novel of a young suddenly widowed woman’s loss, grief and hope of rebirth. Hill foreshadows the changing seasons and the weather echoes her despair and hope, the story starting in August, harking back to the previous springtime disaster and forward to possible new life. The text is almost as poetic as Shakespeare, writing of a flower associated with death:
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting, the perfume and suppliance of a minute;
No more. (Hamlet, Act I Scene III)
Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, is one I haven’t read. It’s an agonised cry from 1962 about how humans damage their environment. Over fifty years later with our dying bees and our plastic riddled oceans, clearly everyone should have taken more note.
Such sad springs! Will searching by month be happier? Molly Keane wrote of Anglo-Irish sisters April, May and baby June (aged 64) in Time After Time. June walks around their crumbling property: To her left the white cherry blossoms flowered smokily in the half darkness. On her right a grove of laurel and rhododendron hid the lean old house and its troubles. In the close shelter she heard the dive and chuckle of a bird, surprised out of its sleep. But even spring can’t disguise the troubles of this dysfunctional family, comically and viciously told. Manure, old and fresh, fumed peacefully in the cold air, much like the family itself.
Can you smell the March Violets? This fast paced crime noir, set in Nazi Berlin, seems unlikely to contain much about delicate wildflowers although Philip Kerr is always worth reading. Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 with March, her sequel to Little Women, but I’m discounting it too because that was their surname, not the month. The story involves the father. As so often, the promise of spring in March is misleading.
April Twilights, a collection of poetry by Willa Cather, led me on to The Song of the Lark, the second of her Nebraska prairie novels. The story is set in July, but this lovely preface may help our spell:
The world was young, the winds were free;
A garden fair,
In that blue desert air,
Its guest invited me to be.
Next, let’s next visit Italy in The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim, one of my mother’s favourite writers. Goodreads calls it: A recipe for happiness: four women, one medieval Italian castle, plenty of wisteria, and solitude as needed. Von Arnim fills our incantation with singing birds, blossom, and sunlight that massages without scorching – it’s a joy to browse the covers of the alternative editions. Don’t get too lulled: we’re off to Albanian vendettas and violence in Broken April, Ismail Kadare’s title echoing One Spoilt Spring by Hungarian Beata Bishop, recommended here. I’d never heard of Kadare, but I respect the choices of his publisher, Vintage. Having started this post with a flippant search for titles containing April, I’ve reaped a fruitful if contrasting harvest!
Frost in May by Antonia White is too close to snow for comfort, so I’m ignoring it, along with Seven Days in May, fiction by Kim Izzo about the sinking of the Lusitania. We won’t find many daffodils and catkins at sea, so I’ll fly back to land.
Lark Rise to Candleford is an English classic by Flora Thompson chronicling a year among poor rural families. She’s a Laura Ingalls Wilder for the UK and like her, becomes more anodyne in the television version. The white tails of rabbits bobbed in and out of the hedgerows; stoats crossed the road in front of the children’s feet – swift, silent , stealthy creatures which made them shudder, and once they even saw a fox curled up asleep in the ditch beneath thick overhanging ivy. (Note “they even saw a fox”- foxes turn up day and night in every urban street today – but we see fewer stoats.) Traditionally every year the London Times letters page receives news of the first cuckoo. The Cuckoo’s Calling is of course Robert Galbraith, aka J K Rowling’s take on detective fiction. What is it about spring and crime? Does spring have a sinister side – in snow criminals can’t cover their tracks but thaw and foliage offer more opportunities for concealment, mayhem and murder?
Lots of titles feature spring flowers. L M Alcott features again. Her Under the Lilacs, according to Goodreads, contains “hidden lessons about life, death and faith” – as spring after winter does.
Alexandre Dumas in The Black Tulip and Deborah Moggach found Tulip Fever a good subject for fiction. Dumas returns with La Dame aux Camélias (she may carry camellias but her name is Marguerite), and Martine Bailey’s well researched servant girl has An Appetite for Violets. I have happy childhood memories of candied violets, and the prettiness of the cover should help our spring burst into life.
My titles stopped in May, when the Ingalls family were just emerging from their ordeal. And as they sang, the fear and suffering of the long winter seemed to rise like a dark cloud and float away on the music. Spring had come. the sun was shining warm, the winds were soft, and the green grass growing.
My next Smorgasbord column will be after Easter. Have a good one, and do comment with any titles I’ve missed to strengthen the spells and get us some sunshine.
©Jessica Norrie 2018
My thanks to Jessica for taking us from the depths of snow laden winter into the blossoms and warmth of late spring. Much to look forward to.
About Jessica Norrie
Jessica Norrie studied French literature at Sussex University, and trained as a teacher at Sheffield. Then she wandered into parenthood, told her now grown up children stories, and heard theirs. A qualified translator, she worked on an eclectic mix of material, from health reports on racehorses to harrowing refugee tales. She taught, full time, part time, adults, children, co-authored a text book and ran teacher training. In 2008 she was inspired with the idea for “The Infinity Pool” and it appeared as a fully fledged novel in 2015. Meanwhile she sings soprano and plays the piano, walks in the forest and enjoys living in and using London. She looks forward to writing more in the future.
About the Book.
In this thoughtful novel set on a sun-baked island, Adrian Hartman, the charismatic director of the Serendipity holiday community, is responsible for ensuring the perfect mindful break, with personal growth and inner peace guaranteed. People return year after year to bare their souls. For some, Adrian IS Serendipity. But Adrian disappears, and with him goes the serenity of his staff and guests, who are bewildered without their leader. The hostility of the local villagers is beginning to boil over. Is their anger justified or are the visitors, each in a different way, just paranoid?
As romance turns sour and conflict threatens the stability of both communities, everyone has to find their own way to survive. This evocative story explores the decisions of adults who still need to come of age, the effect of well-intentioned tourism on a traditional community, and the real meaning of getting away from it all.
One of the recent reviews for the book
Well-written and acutely observed on 14 December 2017Jessica Norrie’s novel, set on a sun-drenched island somewhere in the Mediterranean, examines the personalities and pitfalls encountered on the sort of package holiday that offers holistic life-skills and self-improvement courses. While practising yoga and suchlike activities, guests at the Serendipity resort, together with staff and, from time to time, local villagers, confront social, personal and philosophical challenges.Norrie has a confident narrative voice and a shrewd and sympathetic view of human nature, which makes her account of the goings-on at Serendipity entertaining as well as thought-provoking.
The central character is absent for much of the book: this means that the reader builds up a picture of him through the thoughts and observations of other characters, like a photographic negative – he is defined by his impact on others. When he re-emerges in his own right, his condition is so altered that we learn about other people from their decidedly contrasting (and sometimes unattractive) reactions.
The prose is occasionally lyrical – as a swimmer emerges from a pool, “The water softly shifted to a forgiving stillness” – and consistently accessible. The author is very good on the strains inherent in a globalized culture. The gulf between Serendipity’s staff and guests on the one hand and the local community on the other sours into violence, which may not be entirely surprising since, as one of the resort’s denizens observes, “Our food and our water supply are better than theirs, so we don’t eat in their restaurants or buy their fruit, except in town where it’s so touristy; most of us don’t even try to speak their language; we don’t talk to them when they come to our bar; we expect them to put up with us sunbathing naked on the beach in front of their grandmothers – and then we go on about how beautiful the country is and how fascinating the local traditions are.”
The author also has a clear-eyed view of the reality beneath picturesque Mediterranean society. A young woman considers “meeting and marrying some local man and giving birth within the time honoured local conventions, kicking just a little against restrictions on her sex because that was what each new generation did, then in turn chivvying her own daughters and unconditionally adoring her sons.”
The Infinity Pool is a well-written and acutely observed examination of diverse lives.
Read some of the many excellent reviews and buy the book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jessica-Norrie/e/B01CEUZF26
and on Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Infinity-Pool-Jessica-Norrie-ebook/dp/B011RA8QZW
Find more reviews on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3270629.Jessica_Norrie
Connect to Jessica
My thanks again to Jessica Norrie and to you for dropping in.. your feedback is always welcome. Sally