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October 25, 2010

El Anatsui and Margaret Drabble, via Heather Mallick

Photo courtesy

When I Last Wrote to You About Africa, the retrospective of Ghanian sculptor El Anatsui now on at the Royal Ontario Museum, was one of the most exciting, beautiful and powerful exhibitions I’ve ever seen. So you can imagine my delight upon reading Heather Mallick’s column last weekend, as she draws a parallel between the show and Margaret Drabble’s ideas as expressed in her latest book The Pattern in the Carpet. Marvelous worlds colliding!

Mallick writes of the exhibit:

I visited this weekend for the second time, for the pleasure of being shocked by beautiful acreage. The possible meanings leap out at me, what El Anatsui is saying about the way we live now.

I like to tell fellow ROM visitors (strange how they back away from me) about my theory, borrowed from the novelist Margaret Drabble, about why people are so angry and unhappy now. Suffering from the illness known as “affluenza”, they are told to view life as an economic ladder, a vertical clamber to success. But people are falling off the ladder now, or are stalled mid-rung, and it hurts.

Drabble says life is not a ladder but a jigsaw. It moves sideways and around, no one event knocking you into the abyss. Suddenly a job loss or a sick child or a bad divorce is just another piece in the broad jigsaw, part of a pattern in the carpet. No section of the jigsaw is more important than any other. This is a comfort when the wheels come off.

That’s what El Anatsui’s metal curtains say. The bigger ones do look like Canada, well-assembled and prosperous, with random wrinkles representing our national miseries.

May 14, 2009

The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble

Oh, but I do wish A.S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble would settle that petty spat about the tea set. You see, they’d have so much to talk about. I just finished reading Drabble’s latest book The Pattern in the Carpet, whose reviewer in The Telegraph was quite correct with “What a puzzle: Margaret Drabble’s memoir cum history of the jigsaw cum paean to her rather dull aunt shouldn’t really work. But somehow, in the end, it seduces.” It did. I’d also listened to the Guardian podcast of an excerpt from the beginning of the book, and so the whole of the book I read in her voice.

It was a very strange book, the kind they don’t let you write unless you’ve been publishing for nearly fifty years and they indulge you. Such permissiveness a good thing, because the book is fascinating. (I’m not sure it will come out in Canada. It is a very English book. Estimates of a limited audience here might be correct, but then again they may not be). The book, of course, is a puzzle in itself (though if I were English, I’d call it a “jigsaw”), made up of memoir, family history, and the history of the jigsaw puzzle. Which comes to encompass a history of games, of amusements and pastimes. (And why does pastime not have two s’s, I wonder, but anyway…) Also a history of childhood, and children’s literature too. Told most unsentimentally, and Drabble admits she’s never had much of an interest in childhood, or explored it in her fiction. But she’s looking backwards now, in light of her own age and her husband’s illness, perhaps because, she admits, she dreads of looking forward.

But The Pattern in the Carpet is hardly a personal indulgence. Drabble was indulged instead in being permitted to publish a book that “shouldn’t work”, whose pieces do not fit together neatly, and together form a whole that is quite difficult to explain/contain. Entire chapters as digressions, anecdotes fitted in for no other reason than that they’re interesting, moving from jigsaws to mosaics, to the city as a jigsaw, production and marketing of children’s games, and reconstruction of ruins, and the “Teas with Hovis” cups and saucers from her auntie’s bed and breakfast. Something called a warming pan, and how Drabble’s mother liked electric blankets, but for Drabble herself the novelty wore off and she sticks with hot water bottles now.

I loved it. Now I’m pretty partial to Margaret Drabble anyway, and have readily embraced her admittedly strange more recent novels that might have put her long-time readers off. But I suspect these readers will find the new book appealing as well, even if they lack interest in the subject matter (and I really couldn’t have cared less about jigsaw puzzles before this book. Now I’m just a little bit inspired). The book is a veritable curiosity shop, scattered with sharp thinking, wonderful questions, and Drabble’s meticulous prose.

But yes, she needs to talk to her sister. Byatt also has a new book out, The Children’s Book, which I was resisting. I don’t love A.S. with the same lack of reserve with which I love Drabble, plus The Children’s Book is 600+ pages and I’m having a baby in a week and a half. The book might just be heavier than the baby, but then I read this review at Dovegreyreader Scribbles, and more thoughts upon the novel over at Crooked House. And now I simply must have it, baby or not. Particularly because of how it relates to The Pattern in the Carpet, to childhood as an invention and its literature. I’m looking forward to it. And maternity leave pre-baby has brought on the return of my ability to focus, and so this whole “reading” idea is not as idiotic as it might seem in the time being.

April 14, 2009

On the new Drabble

Margaret Drabble’s new “semi-memoir” The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History With Jigsaws is out in Britain now. I’ve ordered a copy, as the North American edition isn’t out until the fall, and I’m not sure just how much time I’ll have for reading then. Right now, you can listen to her reading from it on The Guardian Podcast. In reference to the book, Drabble on occupation and overcoming depression: “We all tackle it in our own ways. I have long been a believer in the therapeutic powers of nature, and had faith that a good, long walk outdoors would always do me good. It might not cure me, but it would do me good.” She also claims to have quit writing fiction for fear of repeating herself, which is not so surprising if you examine her oeuvre, and how she has challenged the novel to be something different every time. Perhaps she thinks she’s exhausted the possibilities? But reviews of the new book have been favourable. I liked this from The Telegraph: “What a puzzle: Margaret Drabble’s memoir cum history of the jigsaw cum paean to her rather dull aunt shouldn’t really work. But somehow, in the end, it seduces.”

Incidentally, Drabble’s feud with sister A.S. Byatt is reported to have stemmed from a dispute surrounding– what else?– a tea set.

March 30, 2009

Good Monday

My favourite author has a new book out.

May 6, 2008

Some links

Scroll down for Margaret Drabble’s letter to editor about sorry states of affairs at the British Library. More on Virago Modern Classics– this time from founder Carmen Callil. Listen to an interview with Sharon Butala on Sounds like Canada (from April 29). Writer Rebecca Rosenblum on creation (but not creationism– which is really a strange ism when you think about it). Crooked House passes on some Olivia love, among other children’s lit links.

September 21, 2007

Cloud of Bone by Bernice Morgan

“She hears a sharp crack… Ian is dead. In that instant Judith Muir knows that every thought she has ever had is wrong. All the answers, those grand possibilities, the carefully constructed theories delineating the upward curve of civilization– all false, all a disguise for what we humans are, what she is.”

Here, within the final 100 of pages of Bernice Morgan’s Cloud of Bone, is the point upon which this novel turned for me. On page 335 to be exact, when three remarkably disparate stories were fused into something solid, stories braided together. Until then I’d found these separate narratives rather curious in their connection. The first is the story of Kyle Holloway, a young deserter of the Canadian Navy during World War Two, traumatized by his wartime experiences. Followed by the story of Shanawdithit, who had been the last of the Beothuk people of Newfoundland, more than a century before on the same land Holloway now treads. And finally Judith Muir, a forensic anthropologist whose husband Ian is killed as they are investigating a genocide site in Rwanda.

Kyle Holloway’s story is brief, curious in its casual brutality. The next part of this book, about the last Beothuk girl, is more detailed, chronicling her people’s desecration at the hands of Europeans, “the Dogmen”. Shanawdithit’s role in this novel is similar to George Cartwright’s in The Afterlife of… by John Steffler, though of course this is the other side of the coin. Though well-evoked with Morgan’s magnificent prose, this part went on long for me. I was struggling a bit as I began the third part of the novel, Judith’s portion, when Ian was dead. Here, I felt on more familiar ground, with writing that reminded me of my favourite British novelists Drabble, Lively, Mantel. Their same preoccupations with history, bones and cities underfoot. “Memory dissolving into the earth”. And the whole project suddenly made sense to me, these stories connecting to say something quite profound and disturbing about “what we humans are.”

The brutality here is not gratuitous– Morgan is far too fine a writer. These tales are carefully spun so that reality is not so off-putting, so that the reader is less overwhelmed by violence than what the violence means. Each of these stories functions in their own right, but in their connection is where the possibility of hope lies: “our stories cross over and break away, drift into a future we cannot see, will never know.” Morgan has engaged with the world, with history, to produce a work that is massive in its scope. She has built a bridge from the rather self-contained world of CanLit out into the rest of the world, allowing different stories and voices to engage with one another in a brilliant conversation.

September 18, 2007

Bay window

The very best thing I’ve read lately is R.M. Vaughan’s “Dominick’s Fish: The things we leave behind when we die” in the latest issue of Walrus, which uses an amazing story about aquarium fish to demonstrate that “the concept of disposibility is itself false, a convenient conceit.” And writers’ rooms continue at The Guardian, with two of my favourite writers: Sue Townsend and Margaret Drabble (photo borrowed here [and oh I wish I had a British bay window to call my own]). For more good reading, go here for Ben McNally, and then go to his new shop (which is just up the street from my husband’s building- as if he needed yet another place to be sent on errands to). Rona Maynard gets a great review, and a review of Cloud of Bone, the book I’m reading right now. Giller Prize Giller Prize Giller Prize. Hooray.

August 19, 2007


Now rereading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which I remember nothing about. I read it the first time, according to the inside cover, beginning October 8 2001, and finished that October 27 with a note on blank page at the back, “Wonderful…”. Let’s hope it lives up to my previous reception. And that I read it a bit quicker than I did the first time around, as there are so many books I’ve got scheduled to be read before summer is over. Also now reading the latest Walrus which is proving interesting, though The Future of Reading was less interesting than I wanted it to be.

Earlier today I was happy to be reading a little interview with Margaret Drabble (via Maud Newton). “The biggest fate of all is your marriage partner. It’s extraordinary that you should happen to be at such a party or such a university or even on such a bus ride and meet the man that you’re going to marry, for better or worse. I find these accidental conjunctions that turn the plot of your life fascinating.”

News on the homefront: we’ve just cut into our first homegrown watermelon, and we’ve got a Japanese houseguest arriving on Wednesday.

August 16, 2007

The Raw Shark Lady

An interview with Steven Hall up at Baby Got Books. And yes indeed it is funny to be reading Drabble’s The Sea Lady post The Raw Shark Texts. Two books with very little in common except fish and unconventional narrative structure, but how they inform each other just based on their proximity. I am rereading The Sea Lady because I read it too quickly the first time, so excited was I by a Drabble yet unread. I’m paying much more attention this time around, and loving it just as much.

August 15, 2007

In the underwater realm

“…though in the underwater realm nothing seems impossible, and some of the strangest things are true.” –Margaret Drabble in her acknowledgements to The Sea Lady

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