Book Digest: October 30, 2006

A new Digest reviewer brings us old beginnings: The Gate of Angels; Enduring Love; Bel Canto

I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings. Partly this is because it is fall and as the child of an academic, autumn is the year’s first season for me, a much more persuasive time for starting over than bleak midwinter, no matter how much Champagne is involved. Partly, too, it is because I am just getting back to work after the birth of my second child. Odd that the arrival of a baby in one’s life creates such a full stop. It is a new beginning, certainly, but like a signal that shorts out all radios in the vicinity (see: England, WWII, air raids), it brings so many other things to a complete halt. And lastly, I suppose, because I am joining Robert Birnbaum in this book digest on an occasional schedule, at the behest of my dear TMN editors. The esteemed Birnbaum, who has perhaps talked to more living writers than anyone else on the planet, covers the newly released but not-much-talked-about. I’ll be selecting from stranger criteria.

I have a couple of reasons for being worried about starting a regular book column. First of all, the aforementioned baby, who used to sleep through the night, has for some reason stopped that. Second of all, I have a fear of assertions. I don’t mind others making them, I just can’t do it. If James Wood wanted to write about why The Bridges of Madison County was one of the best books of the last century, that’s fine. I’d probably believe every word.

While I was thinking about beginnings, I remembered a few I have long admired. Don’t worry, there’s no summary of an epoch (“It was the best of times…”) or mansions lost (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”). These three are probably not included on a course syllabus just yet, but I think they should be, particularly if the course were about how to start a great novel.

The Gate of Angels, Penelope Fitzgerald
“How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into the town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and the workhouse. On the open ground to the left the willow-trees had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs.”

The passage goes on to include one of the best descriptions of upended cows (are there others? If not, why not?), and a conversation between wry cyclists competing in the wind (again, are there more of these?). But what I love most about this opening is the way you both know and don’t know where you are. Fitzgerald gives us specificity of location (Mill Road, Cambridge) and yet a description of willow trees and cows that is disturbed, bizarre. As the paragraph concludes: “A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason,” which turns out to be exactly what the novel is about. One paragraph as compressed as poetry—and funny, too. It’s enough to make you want to give up writing.

Enduring Love, Ian McEwan
“The beginning is simple to mark. We were in sunlight under a turkey oak, partly protected from a strong, gusty wind. I was kneeling on the grass with a corkscrew in my hand… this was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand, and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout.”

Wind again. It has to be windy here to cause the accident that is about to occur—a horrific event involving a hot air balloon that serves as a catalyst for the story sort of the way the Trojan War serves as a catalyst for the Aeneid—but it seems to me, too, that wind is a compelling natural element for any novelist. It’s dramatic and confusing. (As a symbol, water is overrated, I think; and that includes snow, Mr. Joyce). The next thing we know, the narrator is running toward the accident, “racing into this story,” he tells us. That is what I love, the event unfolding even as we are being told about it from a distance, a narrative position that I might have guessed would detract from the drama, but in McEwan’s hands, drives it forward.

Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
“When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning toward her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands. There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss. They did not see a kiss, that would have been impossible.”

No wind, but how beautiful is this? A kiss seen but not seen, a dark room full of people applauding. A foreboding so lightly done that despite having read the opening pages many times I cannot figure out how it is done.

All three beginnings share a sense of mystery, a certain feeling of events being not what they seem, and so, of course, we want to read on until we understand what’s happening. By that time, you’re hooked. At least, I was. But as previously stated, I’ll not make any assertions about what will happen to you.


TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane

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