30 March 2010

The Echoing Grove (Rosamond Lehmann)

I am going home soon, to my family, my friends, my bedroom, my books. I brought one book away with me two years ago when I left Australia. Which book did I deem most fitting to accompany me on my backpacking endeavours?

Since you ask- I brought On The Road, by Jack Kerouac. Oh yes, I can hear the universal groans even from Acton, one of the most acoustically imbalanced areas in London. This is due to the most unfortunate combination of the A40, the Heathrow flight path, three intersecting train lines and the neighbour's illegal parrot aviary.

I can still remember the reasoning behind bringing the Kerouac. My appearance, my expectations, dreams and aspirations all played a part in choosing to bring On The Road. It was a terrible, terrible decision. Yes, the book is brilliant. Hilarious and epic, it makes you want to clench your fists and run. THE FIRST TIME YOU READ IT. At last count I owned three different editions of this book. None of the subsequent readings were comparable to my first foray into Kerouac's world (not even the original scroll) so what the hell I was thinking I really don't know.

When you're travelling you want something that speaks to your soul, is comforting but not gushing, a book you recognise yourself in. It needs characters who are sympathetic but flawed, a plot that has momentum but doesn't gallop, a denouement that satisfies but doesn't pacify.

The novel I SHOULD have brought with me is The Echoing Grove, by Rosamond Lehmann. The story is about Rickie Masters, his marriage to Madeleine and his affair with her sister Dinah. The sisters reach an impasse when Rickie is killed unexpectedly and both must deal with the fallout of a situation both had already found hopeless.

In the interest of full disclosure, I saw the film before I read the book. The cast includes Paul Bettany, which is how I came across the story in the first place. Bettany makes me sympathise completely with Rickie and hope for his happiness- if I had read the book first I may have found Rickie hard to like. The film changes little of the script and plot so it is Bettany's brilliance which makes me see the frailty and beauty in Rickie when I later read the novel.

Lehmann's prose is often described as gentle, although I wouldn't agree with that. I'd say it's more akin to the old velvet glove/iron fist style of doing things. Writing like this reminds you of why male authors really shouldn't write from the female perspective in stories of great love. Madeleine and Dinah are entirely unique yet nothing they think or do would feel aberrant to my character were I to emulate them. The sinking feeling both of them experience with the knowledge that they cannot help but move into something that will cause them only heartbreak is devastating yet, as the reader, you agree that they have no choice.

This may seem to you a rather odd book to classify as 'comforting'. Well, this is my brand of comforting. I have always found more solace in the depressingly meaningful than the vacuously upbeat. Of course, I probably would have been most comforted and sustained on my travels if I had ignored Earhart's insistence that everybody would laugh at me and purchased the blanket with sleeves in duck-egg blue that I really wanted. I bowed to convention and coolness, but I still think about that blanket. I haven't been able to find one since.

Rating: 9/10.
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