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The Winding Stick by Elise Valmorbida – the humanity of religion and friendship

Winding Stick cover artA solitary cashier in an all-night garage is haunted by visions of real life and death, but is unable to intervene … until dramatic events force him to venture beyond his limits. He stumbles into hope, love, true insight – and Tamil London, where the hidden stories of others come to light. There’s Kandy (a sex worker and psychology student), The Whistling Woman and, most important of all, the mysterious garage manager, Siva. … (This) is a story of London’s immigrants: a novel that explores dislocation and delusion, but becomes bright with possibility and love.

Well, gosh. That’s some blurb, and this book is most definitely some novel. Though I do feel that, once again (see my review of The Floating Order of 20 June 2009), Two Ravens Press have misinterpreted the story they’re trying to sell in that I don’t think it’s about London’s immigrants at all. That said, the author herself focused on the immigration aspect in her recent interview for The Guardian where she also lists her top ten immigration novels. An interesting read for sure but, for me, this book is actually about Terry (the cashier) and his relationships with the people around him, especially his manager, Siva. Which is what in fact sets this novel apart and fascinatingly so; in essence The Winding Stick is a novel about work, work colleagues and work friendship – a subject that writers rarely have the courage to tackle, and the book is therefore a revelation as it proves once for all that it can be done. In both a literary and very accessible way. Three cheers for Ms Valmorbida for that.

It also came to me while I was reading that this novel raises some very deep questions about religion and the interface between religion and humanity. Siva, the manager, spends a lot of the book not being there at all, but his influence pervades the garage and Terry’s life in a way that gradually becomes all encompassing. In this way, Siva becomes a god-like figure around whom the other characters orbit:

“I try to imitate Siv’s handwriting, think as he might – but it doesn’t work. I don’t know much about Siv. Not everyone is porous.”

Siva is also a very attractive character, an impression largely conveyed through Terry’s concern for him and his increasing anxiety when Siva goes missing and may possibly be in danger. Although when Siva does appear in the story directly, he doesn’t disappoint, and the reader comes to care for him as much as Terry does.

There are also aspects of Terry which are, in one sense, Christ-like: he’s a man set apart by who he is; he possesses a (very well written) supernatural and detailed knowledge of the truth of other people’s lives; and he’s a brilliant teller of stories. The hidden secrets of the garage customers come to startling life as he relates them to the reader, sometimes at length and sometimes in tiny but perfectly formed phrases:

“A legal secretary lifts the nozzle at Pump Number Two. She had sex with her boss last night. I authorise. A woman from Bethlehem pulls up in a khaki-coloured four-wheel drive. In the back seat, her daughter dozes against her violin case. The computer sings. I authorise. A bank manager pulls up to Pump Number Five. He has a private passion for little boys. It’s unrequited. I authorise.”

Indeed the contrast between the constraints of Terry’s life and the tales he comes to know provides a large part of the charm of this section of the book. There are however some people close to him, such as Siv and Kandy the sex worker, who Terry cannot catch the truth of. During one of his encounters with Kandy, he muses on the following:

“We’ve lasted longer than most marriages. I pop a tiny kiss on her forehead, avoiding the cigarette. I love her because she’s not porous, or perhaps she’s not porous because I love her.”

It is then the lack of love that gives clarity and the presence of it that takes it away. Later however, a frightening accident occurs at the garage that causes Terry to lose his gift entirely. He can no longer read other people in the manner that he is used to and must find other ways of dealing with the overwhelming strangeness of his world. For me, this brought to mind the time between the crucifixion and the resurrection where the powers of Christ are stripped away and he is buried for “three days and three nights” in the earth. Moreover, in the novel’s closing pages, Terry’s actions have about them a strong hint of sacrificial charity. Yes, I do accept that I may well be straining the connections a little here, but the fact remains that reading this book made me think more deeply both about my religion and my life, and the fluid connections between both. Any writer that can do that for me definitely gets my vote.

As I’ve mentioned, the power of storytelling permeates the novel. Here, for instance, Terry is authorising a petrol sale at the same time as the customer’s life history floods over him:

“The petrol is pouring like a story. The smell of it seeps through the slot at my window, rubs itself all over my skin, prickles my eyeballs, makes them weep.”

What can be more gripping, and indeed truer, than that? Stories do change people – the power they have is immense. It’s why people read. The stories Terry tells change our view of the people we’re reading about and is a reminder that, in life as in fiction, nothing is ever what it seems: innocent-looking men can be killers; and idle words can destroy, as well as heal.

The crux of the novel is, however, Terry’s search for Siva. This is therefore, more than anything, a novel about friendship. Terry’s initial search for his manager is a psychological and sedentary one: he reads Siva’s notes; hunts in his office for clues about the man; watches hours of garage video to try to understand him. When Siva actually does go missing, Terry’s search must become more active and he is forced out of his metaphorical comfort zone into the outside world he dreads purely in order to find the answers he craves: he visits the temples Siva frequents; talks to the man’s friends; breaks into his home; steals from him. To a certain extent, this becomes a sub-type of detective novel, and the rising tension supports this but, at the same time, it does not overpower the real heart of this story or the characters in it. The focus remains very much on Terry, his search and on the discoveries he makes; the reader spends time uncovering character rather than being hurried along by plot, and it’s a pleasure to be guided in this way, thus making it a book to savour rather than one to race through.

The closing scenes in the novel deal with the final encounter between Terry and Siva when the garage manager returns, and are both uplifting and ultimately devastating. A cleverly drawn financial misunderstanding darkens the clarity between the two men, and it is here I think that the novel fails to satisfy for the first time. I appreciate that the trend for literary fiction these days is for a downbeat ending and a sense of the dark, but I would like to question now why that should be so. Indeed I am not alone in this – a whole site has been set up for this purpose only and all power to them. They carry an article published in the Chicago Sun-Times in November 2005, which is also very interesting. People need to read good literary fiction that leaves them with a feeling of joy, not despair and grimness, particularly in these trying economic times. Or at any other time. After all, The Winding Stick is, at one major level, a story about an affair. Not a love affair by any nature of the game (and nor – unusually for me – did I want it to be so), but a “friendship affair” between two heterosexual men. It deals with the essential question of how men form friendships and how they deal with them. Note this incredibly charged but astonishingly clear prose towards the end of the novel:

“The forecourt is empty. The computer is silent. Siva is in his office. Just feet away. Alive. Here. He’s come back. I was late. My heart is singing. And I’m wearing his shoes.”

I think it would have been much braver and far stronger if Siva and Terry had been allowed to resolve their misunderstanding in a positive way, and it would have given an enormous sense of yes to the end of the book which doesn’t currently exist. I think we needed to stay more fully with the feelings engendered by the above quotation.

Nonetheless, it’s still my view that, in spite of this slight but key disappointment, this book is a literary classic in the making and you should read it as soon as you can. More please from Ms Valmorbida.

About annebrooke

Anne Brooke’s fiction has been shortlisted for the Harry Bowling Novel Award, the Royal Literary Fund Awards and the Asham Award for Women Writers. She has also twice been the winner of the national DSJT Charitable Trust Open Poetry Competition. She is the author of nine published novels, including her free fantasy series, The Gathandrian Trilogy, featuring gay scribe Simon Hartstongue. More information on the trilogy is available at: www.gathandria.com. In addition, her gay and literary short stories are regularly published by Wilde City Press, Amber Allure Press and Untreed Reads. All her gay fiction can be found at: www.gayreads.co.uk. Anne has a secret passion for theatre and chocolate, preferably at the same time, and is currently working on a fantasy novel, The Wilderness Room. More information can be found at www.annebrooke.com.

17 comments on “The Winding Stick by Elise Valmorbida – the humanity of religion and friendship

  1. Pingback: ‘A literary masterpiece in the making’ « Two Ravens Press

  2. Lisa
    June 23, 2009

    This book sounds totally different from what I’d imagined. I love that moody cover, and I was expecting something quite heavy and bleak.

    I enjoyed the sections of the text that you quote, Anne. Great writing.

    Did you feel that the book had been leading towards a certain finish and then backed out of it?

    I know you’re not always averse to dark books (hell, you liked my super disturbing novel :-) ), so was it just a case of a downbeat ending not feeling right here?

    A novel about work, colleagues and work friendships does seem quite unusual. I wonder why that is.

  3. Anne Brooke
    June 23, 2009

    Thanks, Lisa. Yes I did feel that this particular book deserved (and indeed was heading towards) a startlingly different and uplifting literary finish – but sadly it didn’t quite have the courage for it. If it had stuck to its proverbial guns and done that, then it would indeed have been perfect.

    And yes, as you know, I absolutely love (and write!) dark, bitter and disturbing books – the more pain the better and bring it on – but I felt this novel was something very different. Or should have been.

    It is interesting about the work side of it – I have no idea why it’s so rarely done! Perhaps we’re all missing a trick somewhere?
    :)

    Axxx

  4. rosyb
    June 23, 2009

    Very thoughtful review, Anne, as always. Interesting this question of literary fiction and downbeat endings. Funnily enough I saw the piece on Two Ravens Blog first this morning and I have to admit to being quite surprised as I know your tastes tend towards the dark and bleak, so I couldn’t quite imagine you were saying that literary fiction had to be Hollywoody happy. On an individual level I would say that each book is what it is and the story is what the writer wants to say. So it comes down to whether the end seemed to match the message/sense the book was trying to get across or whatever. Obviously I haven’t read it and it wouldnt be fair to ask for a spoiler but I’m TOTALLY intrigued as to what this ending – that can be interpretted as downbeat or uplifting – is!!! Argh. I want to know now.

    But the question you raise about the fashion/expectation or the perceived greater “seriousness” of literary fiction works that are miserable or downbeat is very interesting. Sometimes I have read things that seem consciously so – almost as though they believe they are more “important” that way.

  5. Pingback: VandeNikhilam USA » The Winding Stick by Elise Valmorbida – the humanity of religion …

  6. Anne Brooke
    June 23, 2009

    Thanks, Rosy! Yes it was a surprise to me too that TRP assumed I was such a jolly sort of a chap – I felt quite moved!
    :)

    Axxx

  7. elise
    June 23, 2009

    Thank you for this warm review of my novel. It’s such a pleasure to read – compassionate and insightful – particularly your observations about religion and friendship.

    As the author of The Book of Happy Endings (!), I am not at all averse to an uplifting literary finish. ; )

    In fact, I think The Winding Stick has a plausibly happy ending: hope, insight, selflessness, reconciliation, the overcoming of bad faith and the possibility of love… and you know Siva will forgive Terry.

  8. Anne Brooke
    June 23, 2009

    Thanks, Elise! Yes, I do hope Siva does too – that would be very him (I loved them both, as you can tell no doubt …)

    I shall have to get myself to your Happy Endings book, I see.
    :)

    Axxx

  9. Jackie
    June 24, 2009

    Very interesting review. Like Lisa, I was struck my the moody cover, it’s very Edward Hopper-ish. And that is intriguing to note how few books take friendship as a theme, especially male friendship, which is usually only portrayed in war settings.
    I might give this one a try, the characters sound likable & the religious undertones would be an added layer to the story. As always, a well written piece.

  10. annebrooke
    June 24, 2009

    Oh do go for it, Jackie – it’s a great read!
    :)

    Many thanks!

    Axxx

  11. Stewart
    June 26, 2009

    People need to read good literary fiction that leaves them with a feeling of joy, not despair and grimness, particularly in these trying economic times. Or at any other time.

    I find this to be daft on so many levels. Literary fiction – and indeed, any fiction – should be read for what it is, and judged on its own terms, not because a different ending is preferred or because that last page doesn’t leave you with “a feeling of joy”.

  12. Jackie
    June 26, 2009

    I think, Stewart, that the review is saying that many literary novels end on a downbeat note because it’s trendy to do so, not necessarily because the story goes there. You can have an uplifting ending without it becoming a Hollywood musical. If a person is reading for escape, it would be nice to read a well written book that doesn’t add to the gloom.

  13. annebrooke
    June 26, 2009

    Thanks, Jackie! And yes, Stewart – Jackie has exactly clarified what I was (obviously rather poorly) attempting to say. Apologies for the confusion this might have caused you. I’m also sorry that Two Ravens Press seem to have taken it the wrong way rather as well, especially in the light of my otherwise positive review.

    Mind you, you are right in saying that I may well be daft on so many levels – this is undoubtedly true!
    :)

    Axxx

  14. Paul
    July 21, 2009

    As well as the insightful and pertinent comments written above, I would also like to add that it is the language used itself that makes the book special for me. Taut, crisp, economical, not a word wasted, with a fierce, spare poetical sensibility running all the way through.

  15. annebrooke
    July 21, 2009

    I entirely agree, Paul – thanks for the comments!
    :)

    Anne B

  16. Pingback: The Book of Happy Endings by Elise Valmorbida: the problem of truth « Vulpes Libris

  17. Pingback: Spotlight on Elise Valmorbida | BareBoneBooks

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This entry was posted on June 23, 2009 by in Entries by Anne, Fiction, fiction: mystery and tagged , , , .

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