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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 5 August 2018

"A thousand paper birds" by Tor Udall

This is the story of newly widowed Jonah, a music teacher at a Paddington comprehensive (but who might have been so much more had he persisted in his musical career after the second album). It is the story of why Audrey, his wife, grieving three miscarriages, died when she drove into a wall. And it is the story of Chloe, an origami artist with a track record of failed relationships. Can she and Jonah overcome their pasts and find love?

There are two other key characters: Harry, who appears to be one of the gardeners at Kew Gardens, and Milly, a little girl, who likes to play in the Gardens and to hang around with Harry having him explain to her anbout trees and flowers etc. From the start there are hints that something is slightly strange about Harry and Milly. In the first scenes Harry stalks Jonah as he travels to the funeral of Audrey. Why is Harry so keen to keep Jonah in sight and yet so certain that Jonah must see him? It becomes clear that Harry knew Audrey but the nature of their relationship is carefully witheld until almost at the end.

I found this a difficult book to evaluate. On the one hand it is charming with some beautiful lines of description and some moments of profound understanding of bereavement and loss. On the other hand I thought that the careful structuring of the book to delay the revelations about Harry and Audrey was too obvious: it felt like the author was trying to manipulate me into thinking one thing whilst dropping half-hidden hints that something else was going on; I guessed more or less the correct answer almost from the very start. On the third hand (there are always more than two!), although I didn't really care about Milly and Harry and their predicament, I was very involved in whether or not Jonah and Chloe would find a path to happy ever after.

And of course everyone is so relentlessly middle-class. I suppose that setting a book in Kew Gardens means that you will inevitably meet nice people but sometimes I long for a book in which bereavement and hurt can happen to people who work in a chicken stuffing factory or find it difficult to make ends meet. Here Jonah is a teacher in a comprehensive in Paddington but of course that isn't his true vocation; he has already had one career as a successful musician with two albums behind him so he is slumming it rather, darling. Chloe is a girl from the wrong side of the tracks but she is on her way to becoming a successful artist and can somehow already afford a warehouse studio even when she has to temp to make ends meet. Audrey was a translator. At least Harry is working class but then he is the gardener; there is a real sense that he knows his place.

And I find it hard to consider a book that uses this particular plot element as serious fiction.

Nevertheless, this is a beautiful book for the very many beautiful descriptions and images and its profound understanding of aspects of humanity.

Nice lines:
Sun streams through the large sash windows, creating ghosts from avenues of dust.” (first page)
As Jonah sits down, his sadness spills on to the upholstered seats; it leaks and drips.” (p 9)
The weight on Harry's back is heavier than all the rain in the world. How can a man made of mist shoulder it?” (p 10)
Its wings are the colour of a bruise as it waits silently, like an old man wearing a coat of straggly feathers.” (p 10) Love colour of a bruise! Super pathetic fallacy.
He now seems like a scuffed shoe in need of a polish.” (p 14) Wonderful image.
He thinks that there should be a place in every town where people could put rescued or found things. Not just objects, but snippets of forgotten languages, or misused time ... It would be a safe for fleeting emotions - the first flush of love, or a particular scent on a sunny day that is never savoured again ... All this would be remembered: missed opportunities, mislaid friends, the smile of a wife.” (p 43)
He sees it all the time: the impulse to create at the core of the universe. It's in every sapling who's only ambition is to bear apples.” (p 44) (Core and apples?) But particularly striking in that one of the key characters has repeated miscarriages.
They walk along the dark cobbles then into the warm, shaking off the rain. As they go up to the bar, there are other people looking for a canopy of skin to sleep under. A refuge is not only made of bricks and mortar.” (p 55) ‘A canopy of skin to sleep under’ is a stupendous description.
He realises he is smiling ironically. It doesn't sit comfortably on his face, as if his features have been intruded upon.” (p 67)
They both stare at the little stone bridges that no one is allowed to cross. But Chloe ventures.” (p 77) More great pathetic fallacy.
The man is contorting himself into any shape is thinks this woman can love. He folds and unfolds his arms, as if he could fold himself into someone dependable, someone his wife could lean upon.” (p 78)
It is a lie they both recognise as faith.” (p 78)
The man in her bed moves his leg. Chloe takes out a pencil and draws his haunches, but as the life study takes shape she shades in another man's frame. The androgynous back becomes broad, Viking. She tries to capture the power of the sea, a tide through his muscles, but it isn't true: there's something of the fallen hero in the fragility between his shoulder blades ... At first she thought he was too old, his suit lame; but now she's interested in his body’s contradictions. Where does he hold tension - in his jaw, his hips ... His hand is supporting his head, she draws his fingers, trying to find the poetry that she knows is in his knuckles.” (p 91) Such a wonderful understanding of how an artist might see a person in their physicality.
He senses that the habits of humans are no different from those of birds. All creatures migrate home.” (p 115)
From balls to bone he knew he should have turned away.” (p 151)
On that first day she wondered if she was some kind of celestial being. But it didn't take him long to realise that she was human and lovely, flawed and engrossed in her own difficulties.” (p 152)
Her physicality is fluid one moment, self-conscious the next; a constantly changing thing that pulls his eye, makes him want to describe it. It's a run of quavers, unexpected rests, a shift in time signature.” (p 162)
The people who usually noticed him were children, not yet addled with civilization and logic. Or insomniacs, addicts and drunks, the kind who slipped between the cracks.” (p 191)
As they embraced under the sunlit trees he forgot that death was around him.” (p 191)
How can he explain that when the world’s memory of her fades, her impact will evaporate? That's when the dying really happens.” (p 223)
She rolls over and they lie like two corpses in a shrine. The silence drips from the ceiling and lands on to her brow. She wipes it off and sits up. Then she reaches for her knickers and pulls them on.” (p 232)
She wants to ask, who hasn't been broken? Who isn't also beautiful?” (p 235)
A gardener is pushing an empty wheelchair along Syon Vista, as if a ghost is being given a guided tour.” (p 243)
It is he who has drowned. ... He lingers in a liminal space: a threshold.” (p 272)
Who would venture towards this life of love and loss? ... Who would choose it?” (p 295)
A relationship is not a thing ... It's not an object you can hold or plan out on paper. It's a movement. Love is what you do. ... It's like listening to your wife when you're exhausted, remembering to unstack the dishwasher, or compliment her shoes. Countless little gestures, the daily attempt to see your partner anew.” (p 309)
He doesn't want to be unable to escape the nagging feeling that somehow he missed the boat ... [people who are frightened to die] have all experienced insufficient happiness.” (p 314)
Possible spoilers if you read the next bit

The names, of course, are carefully chosen:

  • Chloe is one of the names of Demeter, the Greek goddess of fertility, whose daughter Persephone was abducted by the Lord of the Underworld. Demeter roamed the earth looking for her. When she found her she was allowed to bring her back to the living but, because Persephone had eaten six pomegranate seeds in Hades she had to spend six months in the Underworld for each six months above ground. By this the Greeks explained winter and summer. In Greek the name Chloe means 'green shoot' as in the new growth in plants
  • Jonah is the man who spent three days in the belly of the whale, presaging, perhaps, the three days that Christ was dead before his resurrection.

There are other resonances. Kew is a walled garden; paradise is Persian for walled garden and one of the parts of the book is called the Garden of Eden.


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