A Gathering Light – Jennifer Donnelly

9 January 2008
First 50-odd pages
So, a gritty historical novel for young adults…. Like Birdsong, which I’m also just reading, it’s coming at history from an unexpected angle. This time it’s the point of view of a 16-year-old girl, stuck in the realities of a farming family fallen on hard times. Is there a name for this sub-genre? History with the nasty bits left in – or with the nasty bits likely to be brought into uncomfortable focus, like the exploded head and face of the sapper in Birdsong, the realities of genocide in Secret River, the severed leg, stuck in a tree, in Atonement…? Except it isn’t uncomfortable, of course; it’s what we expect as we sit in our nice armchairs. Somehow its conventions are as rigorous as the ones governing what was tasteful in Dickens’ time.

But I’m rambling. A Gathering Light is, so far, following two timelines: Mattie’s fears about the letters she hasn’t burnt, belonging to a young (eloping?) woman who has drowned earlier in the day; and the winter before, when she was trapped by circumstances and a desperate father who wasn’t even going to let her take the job she has in the later, letters/drowning strand. It’s well written… except all the self-conscious references to words and writing (capital Ws needed, I think) are getting on my nerves. Too much targeting of the, er, target audience? All those girls who just love books….

[Later]
To page 100
What was I saying about gritty reality? Now Mattie’s witnessed all the pain and blood of a childbirth, and complains about how nothing she’s read has prepared her for it: ‘not one of them tells the truth about babies. Dickens doesn’t. Oliver’s mother just dies in childbirth and that’s that. Bronte doesn’t. Catherine just has her baby and that’s that…. Writers are damned liars.’ But not this writer, of course – and as though to confirm it, and the injustice of women’s lives, Mattie next gets a smack on the head from her pa, who’s got himself drunk to compensate for the disappointment of the bad price he got for all his (and Mattie’s) hard work boiling sap for syrup. Grit, thy name is Jennifer Donnelly.

[Later]
To page 159
Like the authors Mattie was complaining about, Donnelly’s a damned liar as well. Two dei ex machina. First, Royal (the one who kisses Mattie despite his bicep-elicious bod and her plainness – which we know, of course, isn’t really plainness at all) arrives to save Weaver the Black kid. Weaver has been behaving like Will Smith in a forgettable film called Wild Wild West – but the joke of that movie is that Smith’s character is a sassy anachronism as he treats Wild West white men to some late 20th Century African American attitudes. So what’s Weaver doing, kicking a racist white man’s suitcase around? Where’s he been? Certainly not in 1906, where he would have learnt a bit of common sense.

The other knight to the rescue is Weaver himself, saving Mattie from innumeracy by his sheer kindness and a newly discovered talent for explaining things far better than any teacher…. Shit, girls’ fiction is cloyingly sweet sometimes. Neighbours are neighbourly, nature is naturely, and… inside every harsh father is a kind one trying to get out.

14 January
The middle 50 or 60 pages
Mattie discovers that sex might be even more interesting than books. Not that it’s real sex, of course, not even heavy petting. Royal Flush is being incredibly restrained…. She also discovers that women are supposed to defer to men (easy point-scoring for Donnelly the old-fashioned feminist), and that – who would have believed it? – her unusual teacher is really the most excitingly subversive feminist poet in America.

The other strand has her reading Grace’s letters for the first time, and you’ll never guess: she was pregnant when she died, the boy had lost interest – and her death was, we guess (because the hints are in 72pt bold) murder. In a series of parallels we get Grace and her rich lover, ‘Miss Wilcox’ the disguised poet and her rich husband and Mattie with the boy next door. As things are going, Mattie is going to choose sex over literature and blow her university scholarship, whereas the teacher/poet has left her man for her unsorted stacks of books. But this is 1906, and husbands can have wayward wives committed…. Sometimes it’s hard.. to be.. a wo-man.

16 January
To page 284…
… where Mattie’s had to rush home from the hotel because everyone in her family is ill. Talk about Events. In the last 50-odd pages we’ve had a lot more gritty stuff: the young mother whose twins we saw being born is now in the depths of post-natal depression, and Mattie grimly contrasts such a life of care with those portrayed by the complacent male (and occasionally female) writers in the canon. She vows to avoid it… but then she melts into his arms.

It’s not only miserable marriage she’s scared of: those letters point to the way women are just as trapped without being married – if they make the mistake of letting men, ahem, jam one into them. It’s just a bit contrived that within a page of this memorable image Mattie has her magical melting moment, feeling safe in the way that animals do, gathered in the barn ‘before a bad storm hits.’ Uh-oh. If Donnelly lets her readers off the hook with this one – if Royal Doulton, or whatever his name is, fails to jam one in or even to try – I’ll be disappointed. Please don’t let him be called Royal because he’s better than all the other men….

Irritating touch No 98: the black kid gets beaten up by whites – he’s been behaving even more like Will Smith, talking like a brother from nearly a century later – and, get this: the white lawman sticks them in jail. Yeh, sure. As with the feminism, the liberal attitudes of the good guys are beyond belief. 1960 I’d believe, but 1906? Nah.

[Later]
The fever chapter
Shit, vomit, the friendliest cow shot for her own good…. Grit on grit, trowelled on with loving care. It’s kind of nicely done, in its way, but it can get a bit relentless.

17 January
To page 354
Better. The racists have burnt down the black kid’s house and stolen his college money. Gritty stuff to counter the sweetness of the hotel girls’ revenge against the perv on Table 6. (Which, of course, isn’t all sweetness: Et in Arcadia there are nasty men, with erections….) However, Royal Doulton’s showing his true colours at last: he only wants Mattie for her land – and he’s the one who wants to buy out the poor widder-woman, first for her land and second, sort of inevitably, to stop his pa continually jamming another one in. Doggy-style, of course: I remember coarse sex being shown in exactly the same way in Monster’s Ball – until Halle Berry, in an Oscar-winning performance, showed Billy-Bob how it’s done by civilised people.

18 January
To the end
It turns out to be just another American Dream novel, despite Donnelly having her protagonist and Weaver the black kid agree that life isn’t like books (p 336-7). Through hard work, described in detail, and single-minded determination – of course, my dear – Mattie is able, on the Walpurgisnacht following Grace Whatsername’s death, to fix Weaver’s life, the widder-woman’s life – already put on the right track by Weavers h&d (hardworking and determined) maw. And she sends Royal Tennenbaum’s ring back. Inevitably, the last two words of the novel are ‘My life.’

The murder mystery is a red herring. All those present-tense chapters, where we read the (genuine) letters written by a 1906 murder victim are just, to change the metaphor, the icing on the cake. Mattie doesn’t need Grace’s sad little tale to let her know that all men are bastards and there’s nobody you can rely on except No 1. So you know who you’ve got to look after, don’t you? (Her generosity to all the struggling characters before she gets on her way to the big wide world is insidious right-wing sentimentalism: look how, by working hard, your prosperity trickles down. Good ol’ capitalism.)

The chapter in which the alienation device of the ‘no happy endings’ discussion takes place (from page 354) contains another trick: the widder suddenly emerges from under her pall of booze and fecklessness to become an incipient success story. Donnelly has to have Mattie and Weaver discuss literary antecedents of such a character change in order to make it credible. Oh yeh?

The American Dream ending is full of hope. Girls, don’t you believe Fitzgerald and all that doom-laden stuff at the end of The Great Gatsby; believe the Dreeem.

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