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.
Rosy Thornton’s new novel, The Tapestry of Love, starts with an arresting scene: its heroine, Catherine, is marooned in her car in the midst of a sea of sheep. They are going one way; she was going the other, until they engulfed her. It is the Autumn transhumance, the age old movement of flocks from the high mountain pastures of summer to the winter shelter of the valley farms. We are in the Cévennes, a remote and rugged mountain region in the centre of France, and with this image, from page one, we are plunged into this strange, beautiful but fierce landscape in a strongly visual way. The transhumance comes around and around, to mark the passage of the seasons, and the sense of assimilation into a place and a culture, in this beguiling and beautiful novel.
The Tapestry of Love is a story of an escape, but not one that is an easy option. Catherine is divorced, her children are growing or grown, one at university, the other trying to get to grips with the world of work. Her mother lives in a world of dementia where Catherine cannot reach her. None of the people she has cared for all these years is completely out of the orbit of her concern yet, but if she waits until they are, her life remains on hold. Instead, she buys a house in a place where she was happy once, and plans a new life in the remote hamlet of La Grelaudière. The house is half way up a mountain, old and full of idiosyncrasies – primitive plumbing, intermittent power, no reliable mobile signal, but its solidity and permanence hold out the expectation that it will be a shelter and a stronghold for her. However she is on her own, trailing her residual guilt at having cut ties. Everything that happens to her at first serves to underscore that this is a place that is not just beautiful but harsh, and that she has not just bought a house to live in, but has to make a commitment to a community and a way of life.
The book opens up all sorts of possibilities of which direction it might take. Can Catherine survive or not in this place that differs so wildly from the Home Counties? How realistic is she in thinking that she can live all year round in a place that is stunningly beautiful in the holiday season? She has a business idea – tapestry and soft furnishings – but can she bring to the people of the Cévennes something that they want or need? All these possibilities existed for me when I started reading, but would this work for Catherine, or would the tentacles of her old life pull her back to England, and back into her familiar groove?
I think I need to start talking about why I love this novel. A number of distinct strands are woven together (appropriately enough) into a wonderfully satisfying whole. Of the characters, Catherine herself is the most enigmatic in some ways – I got to the end of the book feeling I knew so much about her, finding her loveable and brave, but then realised that I didn’t really know what she looked like. I felt that I was inside her, looking at the world through her special eyes, that have the artistic gift of translating the physical and spiritual landscape of the place into beautiful textiles. Just a slight sense of a missing dimension – we do not see her through other people’s eyes very clearly, because she is the great observer. Catherine’s two children are distinct personalities, believably emerging from childhood and into adult life in very different ways, gradually stretching the elastic thread between them and their mother. Catherine’s Cévenol neighbours stand for the way of life she has to assimilate. They are portrayed with accuracy and respect, (and not a Chevalier-esque accent in sight – huzzah!). They seem laconic, self-contained and proud; are they going to welcome Catherine, and be open to her ideas and gifts? Patrick Castagnol, her intriguing neighbour, the returning Cévenol son and putative hero (and what a deliciously romantic hero), is also suitably enigmatic, and helps create a satisfying symmetry to the novel: two people still tied however loosely to their past life, who have learnt to value their privacy and independence and to keep secrets.
There are some great recurring themes – I never expected to find a gleeful account of French law and bureaucracy and the situational ethics needed to live with them so absorbing. And another is the way Catherine transmutes her experience into tapestry. There is the splendid running joke of Catherine’s daughter Lexie’s headlong enthusiastic dive into a succession of dubious job opportunities. I loved her invincible optimism, though it’s possible that other readers might not be able to resist the impulse to tell her to shape up. If I had the tiniest question in my mind, it was to wonder at the lack of ‘collateral damage’ from emotional crises and entanglements. Everyone behaves well, or if not, their bad behaviour is coped with in a civilised manner (and that is soothing).
Finally, there is the joy of the landscape – beautiful but wild, difficult, hard, with its extremes of weather, shifts in mood, light and shadow as the sun barely lifts itself above the mountains. The description of it is full of detail that is almost panoramic: colour, contour, climate, plants, animals and terrain. Rosy’s knowledge and deep love for this landscape and its active participation almost as another character are part of the reason The Tapestry of Love is, in my opinion, her best novel yet.
Declaration of interest time: as an online friend, I have been reading Rosy’s fiction since before her first novel was published, and it has been a great pleasure to look on as her four novels have developed. For me, with each one, her voice and her art have become more confident and assured. There is emotional intelligence and empathy in the writing, combined with shafts of humour and a lightness of touch. In her previous novels, she has had the gift of delineating a small world and its inhabitants and drawing the reader into it – this time, she has taken the risk of describing a landscape and a community that is entirely and spectacularly unique and all-encompassing, has succeeded in weaving a story through it that is rooted in it and worthy of it, and in doing so, has written a novel that is wise, warm, rich and immensely satisfying.
Rosy Thornton: The Tapestry of Love. Headline Review, 2010. 341pp