June 22, 2012
Imagine everything you’ve done in your life — all the activities you’ve pursued that didn’t seem to have any significance beyond daily life — evolving into your finest work at the end of your life: beautifully, miraculously, unbidden and without purpose.
That is the story of Britain’s Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700 – 1788). Although she moved in aristocratic circles, she lived as many ordinary people live today, making choices that determine a life, such as her marriages to Alexander Pendarves (a slobbering, rich old man) and later to Dean Delany (a Protestant Irish clergyman). Her choices also included designing dresses, crewelwork, painting, gardening and a full social life. She didn’t have children but had a long, devoted relationship with her sister and a deep connection with her second husband. “She wasn’t an expert at anything except observing,” Molly Peacock writes in The Paper Garden. “And then she did something no one had ever done before.”
After the death of Mr. Delany, Mary took refuge at Bulstrode, the Buckinghamshire estate of her long-time friend, Margaret Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland. Laid up with a foot injury, the 72-year-old widow sat beside her table of art supplies and noticed the color of a piece of paper matched that of a nearby geranium petal. She cut out the petal shape from the paper, “commencing the most remarkable work of her life.”
Over the next ten years, Mary Delany created 985 intricate, botanically accurate “flower mosaicks,” as she called them, precursors to today’s mixed media art form. They are composed of “the tiniest dots, squiggles, scoops, moons, slivers, islands and loops of brightly colored paper” placed on deep black backgrounds. For Mary Delany, the floral concoctions were just another one of the many projects she’d pursued over the decades, this time assembling a personal, visual memoir she named Flora Delanica. The results, though, now reside in the British Museum.
Last year, when The Paper Garden was first published, I hesitated to read it, thinking it would be filled more with botanical discussions than storytelling. It is such a gorgeous book, though — a stunning design with 35 full-color illustrations — I couldn’t forget it. So for months I engaged in a ridiculous biblio-nerd’s courtship with the book, borrowing it from the library, asking for it in bookstores (sold-out at New York’s Three Lives & Co.) and searching for it online. I wanted to own it more than I wanted to read it.
The book repeatedly drew me toward it, and I repeatedly pushed it away. It insistently held on, so I surrendered to the paperback released this year. When I read it, I found myself delightfully absorbed in Molly Peacock’s unforgettable search for answers among Delany’s cut-out flowers about aging and life work. Molly Peacock is an award-winning author of six volumes of poetry. Her insights, beautiful writing and poetic leaps make The Paper Garden an unforgettable, winning combination of biography and life philosophy. And let me be clear, The Paper Garden is not at all the intimidating botanical complexity I thought it would be, rather an extraordinary narrative and visual treasure for everyone.
Hound’s Tongue, Damask Rose, Nodding Thistle, Opium Poppy, Magnolia and Everlasting Pea (above), are some of the flowers illustrated in this fascinating book that explores how a life blooms. Molly Peacock engages with the flowers as metaphors that open the door into Mrs. Delany’s relationships with her sister and husbands, social activities and independent life between marriages. Also, in brief interludes, Peacock draws parallels between her life and Delany’s, bringing warmth and 21st century relevance to the 18th century story. Indeed, often this gifted author writes powerful sentences loaded with fodder for the examined life, such as when she casually remarks, “But in life our routines are the signposts of destiny.”
“Seventy-two years old. It gives a person hope,” Molly Peacock writes. “Who doesn’t hold out the hope of starting a memorable project at a grand old age?”
You can hear her joy and astonishment in these sentences, as well as when she writes about her discovery trips to England and Ireland, visiting the mosaicks in the British Museum and Mrs. Delany’s 86-year-old relative, Ruth Hayden, outside Bath. I could feel it — the uplifting hope that life can still surprise us in our last decades with an unknown gift that’s been percolating throughout the years. “Some things take living long enough to do,” Molly Peacock tells us several times at the end of the book, with more of that joy and astonishment.
June 12, 2012
Barry Unsworth and Ray Bradbury died last week, the one a highly praised, award-winning writer of historical novels and the other a renowned sci-fi writer. I keep scanning the bookshelf holding my college English lit paperbacks, searching for a science fiction anthology I’m sure contains Bradbury’s work, but I don’t see the memorable psychedelic book cover. It’s possible I gave the book away because I concluded, after reading it those many years ago, that science fiction and I aren’t compatible. The genre doesn’t generate impulse buys, late-night reading and that breathless desire to stack the reading table, much as I’ve tried. This is a familiar refrain I sing here. But what about Barry Unsworth?
News of his death in Perugia, Italy on June 5 drove me to find out about his work, 17 novels, which are less familiar to me than Bradbury’s oeuvre. Of the 17, the novel that rose to the top in my search, with consistent praise from critics and readers alike, was Sacred Hunger, a novel frequently described as “the book that shared the 1992 Booker Prize with The English Patient.” Most know Michael Ondaatje’s best-seller that was made into an Oscar award-winning movie, but not Unsworth’s novel, a 630-page thematic focus on greed and man’s cruelty to man, as it tells the story of the 18th century British slave trade.
If that kind of plotline sounds too heavy for summer reading, I’m thinking the engrossing “masterpiece” aspect of the book puts it in the running for a seasonal choice. Because isn’t that what some of us want? Not the lightness of a beach read, or the titillation of a gray-shaded sex boiler, rather an epic escape into another time and place that soar us into the wee hours of these long summer nights, a literate kidnapping of our imagination and intellect. The Guardian’s obituary says of Unsworth’s work, “All his stories start with the pressure of a secret that needs to be told. All leave the reader haunted.” Well, that got me. Sacred Hunger is now on the summer reading table.
Here’s a summary of its plot, given by the Man Booker Prize in their online archive:
“A blasphemous outcast, Matthew Paris boards the ‘Liverpool Merchant’ as ship’s doctor as it embarks on a mercantile voyage in the slave trade. An illness breaks out among the slaves and crew between Guinea and the West Indies, and slaves are ordered to be tossed overboard in order to claim the insurance. Illness gives rise to mutiny, the captain is killed, and, with Paris as one of the leaders, the ship sails for Florida to establish an egalitarian, interracial society. Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, the loss of the ship has financially ruined its owner, Kemp, who hangs himself. Twelve years later, upon hearing rumours of a utopian community of blacks and whites in Florida, Kemp’s son sets out for revenge.”
Author Ethan Canin selected Sacred Hunger in his 2008 NPR “You Must Read This” selection and said, “I’ve rarely heard anyone who has read it call it anything less than magnificent.” And that’s what I, too, kept finding — countless statements describing the novel as a masterpiece, not only for its plot and character development, but also for its overarching message about profit, greed and inhumanity. Herbert Mitgang wrote about Sacred Hunger in the New York Times, December 1992: “In this brilliant narrative, it is impossible not to feel that Mr. Unsworth’s characters represent something larger: the eternal clash between good and greed — sometimes within the same person — and the dream of an Arcadian life where people live free and equal in peace.”
Barry Unsworth’s novels Pascali’s Island (published in the United States as The Idol Hunter) and Morality Play were shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1980 and 1995. His most recent novel, published earlier this year, is Quality of Mercy. It continues the story of Sacred Hunger. In 2011, Unsworth told the BBC, “The fascination for writing historical novels is that things were different but they were the same. You say something that is true of the 18th Century, but at the same time you are saying something that is true of our time as well.”
June 2, 2012
I’m a fan of novels that take place in prep schools — all that privileged air setting the stage for intense friendships and identity struggles unique to school life. A Separate Peace by John Knowles, Old School by Tobias Wolff and To Serve Them All My Days by R. F. Delderfield are some of my memorable favorites. Jennifer Miller’s new novel The Year of the Gadfly is a literary mystery that joins this preppy arena with the fictional Mariana Academy in northwestern Massachusetts. The elite school is attended by driven kids of high-powered parents, including Iris Dupont. Iris is new to the private day school. Setting foot on the campus her first day she senses there’s something unusual about the serious biology teacher, Mariana alum Jonah Kaplan.
You can’t help but delight in Iris. She’s an independent thinker with a humorous and authentic adolescent voice. Who can resist a 14-year-old aspiring journalist carrying a briefcase to school and writing rough drafts of her imagined Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech? She also talks to the specter of legendary See It Now broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, as if he’s in the room with her. Behind Iris’s career persona, however, there’s a grieving teenager – her best friend committed suicide. That tragedy, and being caught holding conversation with a dead journalist, is what prompts Iris’s parents to relocate their daughter to Nye, Mass.
The story gains momentum with frightening pranks occurring on Mariana school grounds — a flash mob in the dining hall and burning effigies on the athletic field. Accountable are unidentified renegade students who belong to Prisom’s Party, a secret organization that dates back to the school’s early years. It’s named after Mariana’s 19th century founder Charles Prisom. The Party’s raison d’être is to call the administration on the carpet for failing to follow the school’s community code of Brotherhood, Truth and Equality for All. Iris sets out to pull the curtain back on Prisom’s Party around the time the headmaster asks Jonah Kaplan to do the same thing. Meanwhile, Jonah employs unorthodox methods to teach his students how to empower their individuality instead of their herd mentality. He focuses on extreme-loving microbes called extremophiles for the curriculum, and Iris begins to think he may be connected to Prisom’s Party. Miller creatively places information about the microorganism throughout the story, as a device to metaphorically define what’s going on.
Both Iris and Jonah narrate in first-person chapters. Another character, Lily Morgan, narrates in the third-person, providing the back story about Jonah’s traumatic sophomore year 12 years ago at Mariana. Lily dated Jonah’s twin brother, the idealistic Justin. She’s an albino and the daughter of Mariana’s headmaster back then. Justin died in a fatal car accident that continues to haunt Jonah. The cause of the accident is yet another mystery, and Lily provides the answer for us.
There’s a lot going on in The Year of the Gadfly, with many interconnections tumbling toward us in the beginning. On the one hand, these interconnections build intrigue and tension. On the other, I found myself struggling to keep tabs on all of them. That said, my bewilderment didn’t arrest the fast-paced intrigue. Once Prisom’s Party reveals itself to Iris, about one-third of the way through the book, thereafter, the narrative steadies, especially with Lily’s chapters. Lily’s chapters, by the way, are frequently the most compelling because of Lily’s unique appearance and also because of the romance, betrayal, jealousy and miscommunication that takes place.
Similar to Lily, Iris experiences romance and betrayal at Mariana, as she persists in her search for truth. She takes chances and succeeds, following her instincts, proving Jonah’s theory about the nature of extremity. Miller brings us to a satisfying conclusion with not only Iris, but also Jonah, coming to terms with identity and grief. She’s written a winning story that’s intelligently imagined, an entertaining prep school mystery enflamed by the hormones and angst that come with the territory of teenaged years. And to the very end, Iris remains a delight.