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Megan ([personal profile] mixedmetaphors) wrote2017-05-15 01:40 pm

Shuffle 4: Amy Sackville, The Still Point (2010)

The still Point cover"Let's not break the bounds of the day. It is exhausting enough, snatching at the past as it slides through the present, without letting the future interfere."

At the turn of the 20th century, two bold people fall in love: Emily, a woman of vigor and intellect, and Edward, an ambitious man poised for an Arctic expedition. It's an affair out of a romantic legend: they part at their conclusion of their honeymoon, Edward to his death near the top of the world, and Emily to a long life of waiting and grief. Over a century later, Edward's sweetly romantic great-great-niece Julia is curating the family archives she inherited, living in her family house full of treasures and testaments, all while she and her husband Simon--both quiet, private people--struggle to overcome their own fears and disconnections.

The Still Point is a story about intimacy: the loss of it, the retrieval of it, and how it can sour in banal ways. It's also a story about creating narratives, especially about the past, and how that influences the present. What lifts such thematic material is Amy Sackville's elastic use of the omniscient POV. At the start of the book, in the contemporary timeline, the omniscient narrator teasingly pokes at the characters' dreaming minds and their sleeping bodies with equal parts invasion and imagination:

You can draw a little nearer, if you're very quiet. Put your face close to his, close enough to feel the gentle rumble and stink of his breath; feel the damp warmth of hers on your own cheek. They fall asleep, as many couples do, first twined and then detached; as we rejoin them they have long since undergone this last conscious act, this delicate separation on the very brink of dreaming.

And then the omniscient narrator grabs us by the hand for a playful guided tour of the sleeping house, to poke around in the rooms and in the intimacies that take place in there:

In a few hours they will rise and pass through this door to the adjoining bathroom, to rinse themselves of the night's residue. It is even hotter here, airless; there is no window and it is very dark without the benefit of streetlight, which seeps through their bedroom blind. They are not the kind of couple to share their ablutions, one in the shower while the other brushes teeth, and so forth. They are both quite private people, and whilst they have struggled to open their hearts as wide as they can to each other, the secrets of their bodies have remained their own. She would hate for him to watch her shaving her underarms, for example, or picking at her toenails as she relieves herself, pulling them short where necessary. He, on the other hand, might well be embarrassed if she were to see him cleaning the dirt from between his toes in the same posture. But they will in all likelihood never know of these similar habits. He will never watch her and tut — his own nails are carefully kept, on toes and fingers alike — but she in turn will never see him and smile as he scrubs with the nailbrush, seven times on each hand. We might observe as they perform these rites, if we stood here before the sink and waited a little longer; but it is hot and stuffy, smells a little of damp, and besides there is something unnerving, is there not, about a mirror in darkness. And perhaps we would rather not strip them entirely of mystique, not yet. Let us return instead to their bedside.

It's a technique that efficiently communicates the types of intimacy gaps plaguing--or building, perhaps--Julia's and Simon's relationship, while seducing the reader with the widest possible, most highly detailed perspective. But what I found even more interesting was the way the book's omniscient narration intersected, and played with, Julia's attempts at omniscient knowability as she manages the physical detritus of her family history, here in the ancient family house. She grew up demanding her favorite stories about the adventures of brave Edward, and sighing over the stories of just-as-brave but endlessly waiting, endlessly grieving Emily. It's a narrative that taught her about herself, about her family, about grief and about love: "The story passed from Emily to Helen and on, through a line of surrogate daughters; this is the legacy that Julia owes a debt to, both the legend of the figure in the snow, and the woman left behind who shaped the legend while she waited." Julia's imagination is just as audacious and vivid as that of the book's omniscient narrator, as she handles the physical objects that remain long after the lives have faded:

Item 5: Telescope. Tin. Found in camp beside grave site discovered F.J. Land 1959; believed property of Edward Mackley.

It may, in truth, have belonged to any one of the five found there; but he was the navigator, after all. And she would like to believe that through this same curve of glass he watched his wife grow distant on the shore. The lens is intact, if a little scratched, and looking through it now we might yet spy Emily Mackley trapped under the glass, waving as she watched her husband shrink, while he adjusts the focus, again and again, sharpening her outline each time it blurs until at last it will turn no further.

Only, of course, Julia doesn't know the past, only the story of it, which is not the only truth there is. Everyone's lives, like Julia's, are built on foundations that are believed in more than they are precisely calculated for. Not only are do we not know when we pass over the still point, the still point is not still at all. The novel spends time coming to terms with this, while cataloging one day that, despite its deceptive lugubriousness, may be pivotal to Julia's understanding of the past and how she thinks about the present.

If my excessive quotations don't make it obvious, I should probably state that I found Sackville's prose wonderful, full of echoes and subtleties, interested in the sinewy moments that make up emotional shifts and bring forth small acts of bravery and change. Beyond the playful use of omniscient (I love a good omniscient narrator, seriously) and the emotional intimacy it engenders, I was equally invested in the brutal details of the failed Arctic exploration and the emotional messiness, the careful rendering of Julia's and Simon's fearful, yearning lives. It's the kind of fussy and ornate prose I can savor, rereading passages just to enjoy them, to keep hitting those emotional nuances. I can see how other readers might find the writing overly precious, but the playfulness and the sincerity and the flexibility of the voice really grabbed hold of me.

Onward to Shuffle 5!

Shauna Singh Baldwin, What the Body Remembers (2000)
Chloe Hooper, A Child's Book of True Crime (2002)
Beryl Bainbridge, Every Man for Himself (1997)

I'm interested in both the Baldwin and the Hooper, and I liked the samples from both books. I'm leaning a little toward the Hooper, since it was on the same shortlist as Fingersmith, and it'd be interesting to read those so close in succession. I'd like to read both those books eventually, though. At this moment, I can't summon up an iota of interest in reading about the Titanic; another book, another time, Beryl Bainbridge!