A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
1672. A generation after the Civil War, England is still struggling to return to normal after the bloody conflict. In the village of Spadboro, Jonathan Dymond, a cider maker who lives with his parents, has so far enjoyed a quiet and harmonious life. But the death of his uncle leads Jonathan to secrets which have lain dormant since the war. When Jonathan discovers his dying uncle’s letter to his father, hinting at inheritance and revenge, he becomes determined to unravel the mystery in his family. Under the pretence of making cider, Jonathan goes to stay with his newly widowed and strangely hostile aunt. While he tries to make sense of his own family, Jonathan becomes involved with his aunt’s servant girl, Tamar, who soon reveals that she has secrets of her own …
I came to this book with huge excitement as I’d read and completely fallen in love with McCann’s magnificent first novel, As Meat Loves Salt. In fact I can say in all honesty that her first book gave me the confidence to write my own much more modern psychological gay novels so I do owe her a great debt.
Therefore I was more than prepared to be bowled over once more by McCann’s second and very heterosexual offering, The Wilding. And, believe me, I tried. I really tried. Perhaps it could never be as good as her first, but I made every effort to be open-minded.
Not to say that the writing here is bad. On the whole it’s fine, though there does appear to be a peculiar lack of the extraordinary passion that drove so many readers through to the devastating denouement of As Meat Loves Salt. There’s not that much about the Civil War aftermath here either, and in all honesty I felt as if the book could have been set at any time up to the 1950s. I’m sure there are people just like this in my mother’s village, though we do at least have cars so we can avoid them. Anyway, the story didn’t feel particularly well-placed in its context.
However it’s the character of Jonathan, the protagonist, that’s the big problem. No, scrub that. He’s a huge problem. Jonathan must be the most boring literary man I’ve ever met. Everything he does, says and thinks is incredibly dull, and I had absolutely no interest whatsoever in either him or his family problems. He’s also slightly creepy during a scene where he follows an unknown girl through the woods for no real reason. Nothing happens to her, thank goodness, but it was still strange. There is one point where the wicked aunt tries to murder Jonathan in the cider vat and I was laughing with joy and egging her on. Dammit, but he’s saved from death by a passing servant, an outcome which I found severely disappointing. As it meant I still had another hundred pages or so of the wretched man to read. Oh, and the one brief sex scene is unfortunately rather laughable too. So much so that I can’t even bring myself to quote it for you. Suffice it to say that it does show Jonathan’s condescension, dullness and shallowness, all at the same time – so if sex scenes are primarily there to reveal character, then it does the trick. I just didn’t want this particular man’s character to be revealed.
In fact at one stage, I was all but hysterical with laughter at Jonathan’s pathetic weakness and even his father loses his temper with him in the middle of the story:
I could no longer meet his eyes. My throat now so swollen as to make speech impossible, I let myself drop forward until I slid off the chair onto my knees, holding up my hands in helpless appeal.
‘Up! Up!’ Father said sharply. ‘Be a man.’
A plea the unfortunate father has to repeat whilst Jonathan continues to blubber. Sigh. Did they not have decent amounts of testosterone in those days? Or maybe, by the evidence here, it’s the women that have the balls. How I did love the evil aunt. Anyone who can ride roughshod through the wretched Dymond family, throw her own sister to the evil intentions of a group of soldiers, and attempt to murder that dull nephew of hers gets my vote. She was the most interesting character around and I’m only sorry that the whole novel is written in Jonathan’s point of view. I would have loved to see more of Aunt Harriet, and indeed the servant girl Tamar. At least the women here do have personalities. Unlike the men. Indeed the fact that Jonathan dislikes Aunt Harriet made her much more attractive, in my opinion:
My aunt was not a woman to throw wide her arms, let alone the doors of her house, to her humbler relations.
Really, I couldn’t blame her. So by the time I came to finding out The Dreadful Truth about the family, I didn’t much care either way. I think the additional trouble with this book is that it’s a short story or novella elongated to novel-length. It could have done with a good two-thirds cut and then the sameness of the story – Jonathan travels to see his aunt, he goes home to his parents, he travels to his aunt again, he goes home to his parents, and so on and so on – would have been less obvious.
The plus point is that I did like the descriptions of cider making at and near the beginning – they were quite fun. And charmingly lyrical too on the odd occasion they appeared. Though of course I am an apple farmer’s daughter so may well be prejudiced here:
My days passed in an innocent intoxication of the senses: the scent of crushed apples, the bite of the bitter-sharp cider they brought to me and the burn of the strong cheese they offered me with my bread …
I also warmed, strangely, to the following throwaway sentence:
A writer is always an unknown quantity, never more so than when the writer is a woman. It is a deceitful sex.
Hey ho. But, really, I’d say if you want to read a Maria McCann, I’d choose that glorious first novel over this. By a long measure. It’s an utter mystery to me why this book has been longlisted for the Orange Prize, but literary prize choices do seem increasingly bizarre these days. I trust that in her third novel, McCann will reinstate the usual passion and power of her prose. And add in a more interesting man or two. One can but hope.
The Wilding by Maria McCann, Faber and Faber 2010, ISBN: 978 0 571 25278 0
[Anne knows second novels are tough, but has an overwhelming allergy to blandness. To add a little passion to your life, please click here]