A Tapas Bar with Familiar Friends
(A writer who understands (and loves) women and forgives the frailty of men.)
This is a delicious book, and for all those who flounder about, being writers, upstairs, downstairs in-my-lady’s chamber, taking courses, reading prescriptions ‘take one protagonist, wash down with judicious plotting and a small host of secondary characters’ it has extra delight. It unravels all those edicts like a familiar sweater that needs a makeover by re-using the sharp colours and re-winding good wool.
Trouble is, like all seamlessly original books, it is a challenge to review because to tell you anything about it would be bound to spoil delight. It has to be spooned, a mouthful at a time, through layers of surprise.
The best I can do is simply to use analogy.
Imagine gathering at a favourite tavern you once used for that club you joined when you were exploring where you belonged; before the kids curtailed the hours. Only the cognoscenti knew where it was, down the alley, and past the restaurant you couldn’t afford. There the enterprising sous chef made his mark by placing a succession of bowls to sample and pass along. Mmm? What’s in it? Olive tapenade? Pimiento? Lush cream dip? Sauce as sharp as a shard of glass? Each dish is a small mastery of a different palate.
It is a delight, yes, but it is also a very clever book. It looks at the process of writing through two instruments held alternately to the eye. The kaleidoscope twists the tale into ever changing patterns, scenes as different from one another as a Victorian lantern show in silhouette. Here comes a new husband swinging an axe, there goes that one-time friend on her trippy feet. They may return, they may not, but look here’s a new an-other. Include this? Why not? The other instrument, a telescope, focuses down and pulls back from narrow to wide perspective. The voices in each ring true. The people occupy space, have weight and move along. Outside the day turns.
Since most readers will begin at the beginning when Alma Lolloon announces she is writing a book and proposes to read it to her knitting circle I am not spoiling anything to point out that every writer is asked to envisage their audience before setting forth. They are boringly asked to plot scenes and make sure they hold tension to carry the reader across the temptation to switch off the light. Not many have the wit and confidence to invite the readers to do half the work by making them the characters ( not only helping with plot but certain to sustain their interest, and give them a vested reason to promote it! Now that’s how to market a book!)
Alma’s beta readers held captive ( ah if only I could find a way to hold mine together for long enough!) offer spontaneous critiques, express ridicule and demolish what they find hard to believe. Her knitting circle helps to write the book, and they are a rough, rude and honest bunch who echo what all we writers imagine hearing. ‘You’re writing a book? Never! You!?
So what’s it about? Alma hangs her tale ( as we all do) on the raw encounters of her life and they are diverse, occupying slices of her decades. But it’s really about the writing of a book and the courage to offer it, however unlikely it is; or we are to brave it. Rather like ‘How to Make an American Quilt’ Alma stitches looping life into the fabric of her creation, but the creation surpasses the subject, because of that long telescopic lens through which we view the courage, the anxiety and the tremulous question ‘So what do you think? Did I write a book?” She did. She certainly did.