Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"The Night Following", by Morag Joss

This book can be found on Amazon, and the proper context for this review is there. To anybody who has come here from facebook (or similar) and wants to know more about the book (i.e. the characters, plot outline and so on), that site will probably fill you in.

Although I haven't read other of Joss's books, she is established as an author, and on the basis of this book, it is evident that she is very much in command of her craft.

The book is written in an assured manner, with excellent control over voice, tone, character and plot. It is not the sort of book I would have expected to appeal to me, and yet I found it compelling and read it within a couple of days.

The plot is outlined on the Amazon website. Other people have commented on the redemptive nature of the narrative. There is certainly a theme of redemption there, as the doctor's wife seeks to restore to Arthur some of what she has taken from him. But redemption doesn't normally look much like this - it generally comes with a bit more hope. Both the two main characters are in very dark places - literally, being unable to face daylight. Arthur is disintegrating for the loss of his wife Ruth, the doctor's wife (unnamed) losing her identity effectively due to a lack of love or even interest in her. And there is another big theme - the systematic and undeserved betrayal and incomprehension of women by men. The women are largely committed and engaged (if naive about the men): the men are uncomprehending, abusive, misguided and largely incompetent. Even within the relationship between Arthur and Ruth, his late wife, which is portrayed more positively than any other in the book, it is shown that Ruth is the one with emotional intelligence and depth, whilst Arthur is devoted to her but largely uncomprehending of the depths of her life, being more captivated as so many men are by such things as constellations and bird-watching.
This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead.
An interesting article I read recently reflected on the fact that most literature takes place "under the sun", as Ecclesiastes would put it - as though there is nothing more than purely material causes and effects - there is nothing higher - no God; increasingly no fate; no real significance. Stuff just happens. That's a reflection of where we are generally as a culture. This book shows where that perspective takes us. Random events happen - the woman discovers her husband's affair; Ruth is killed in a road accident - with no real significance - it's just how life is. It is a very bitter perspective, and few people are prepared to accept this - even whilst denying the possibility of a higher power, many people would rather close their minds to the full implications of this, or embrace a vague and un-thought-out pantheism, believing vaguely in some sort of faint guidance of fate, and some perception of their own significance. Joss's book is more honest in that regard - there is only me, nobody else, and I have to make my own sense of my life, give myself some significance.

And yet, for all that the wife of the doctor pursues a redemptive aim, she is still lost at the end. The characters who seem best able to cope with this random life under the sun are those who seem to have least comprehension - the doctor, the blind grandmother. Those who face the world as it is seem to consistently end up wrecked. Only Ruth, perhaps, carves out for herself a purposeful, meaningful place - and then she is killed by an arrow of outrageous fortune.

This is a very good book - it is definitely literature, not simply a story. I would recommend it for reading groups, and anybody keen to read and reflect on what they read.

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