Sunday, March 29, 2009
Green Grass by Raffaella Barker
18. Green Grass
by Raffaella Barker
paperback, 376 pages
I have read many books over the years which are about my favorite theme - that moving to the country can provide joy, solace, and the source of a new beginning to one's life. All of them are a celebration of domesticity and rural living. Books such as the following (including notes from my book journals):
The Quiet Hills by Iris Bromige - theme of nature and the rural life being a healer. Many times the author notes the calm and the peace of this life, and its indoor pleasures in inclement weather.
The Pilchers, mother and son, quite often feature this view of the countryside.
The Tall Stranger by D. E. Stevenson - has a typically wonderful description of a rural home and gardens. A character who is fading away in a hospital is whisked away to the country and is healed by fresh air, good food and rest, and family love.
My Dear Aunt Flora by Elizabeth Cadell - ranks with my top favorite books. It is a cheerful hymn to country living, and the love of family and friends and dogs.
In nonfiction, certainly Gladys Taber would be in the forefront of this kind of writing.
Barker's women are not city girls like Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones or Sophie Kinsella's Rebecca Bloomfield [though I love them, too], and if they do start out in the city they end up in the country, wiser, more self-assured, and with a sense of purpose and joy in their lives. I've read that the author has moved to London after years in Norfolk, and I wonder how this will affect her subject matter. A blurb about a more recent book, A Perfect Life, says, 'Norfolk's extreme ruralness is the backdrop for this novel, which questions the stereotype of the idyllic country life.' I shall wait and see until I read it, since the blurb on Green Grass says, 'so funny and acerbic.' I agree with funny, but not acerbic - not (as the dictionary says) 'sour and bitter' at all.
I found five pieces from The Spectator online which show what a really great wordsmith Raffaella Barker is. Here is the latest one from June 2008, and you may click her name at the end of the piece to read the others. Her writing on an Amy Winehouse performance matches any concert writing I've ever read. She wrote for Country Life for many years, though I'm unable to find her columns online. They would make a great book of essays. Also, from the same time is a blog interview here.
Laura and Inigo live in London with their thirteen-year old twins Dolly and Fred. They are not married but have been together for fourteen years. He's a critically acclaimed, and popular, artist and Laura essentially does all the behind the scenes work. He has the so-called 'artistic temperament,' and isn't easy to live with, though she loves him dearly. Laura, who couldn't wait to escape the country now finds herself taken with the idea of living in a cottage on her brother's land in Norfolk. It begins with just weekends including all the family or only the children, but as time goes on, she is more and more smitten with life there.
She stands on the doorstep with a cup of tea, watching the sun begin to sweep between the trees beyond her garden. It is impossible not to smile. Laura is suffused with a sense of peace, and holds onto this moment while her tea cools, before wandering out to have a proper look at the garden. Surrounded by a small wooden fence, and facing a clearing on the edge of the beechwood, Laura's Gate House is like a child's drawing, squat with a pointed gable above the front door and castellations like steps meeting at the top above her bedroom window. The garden at the front is neat, with a central path from the gate to the front door, and another path leading round the back, past a small orchard and an overgrown vegetable patch, to the shed where Grass [a nanny goat] lives. Beyond that is an area of rocketing nettles and long grass, a small silted-up pond, and then the path reappears by a dilapidated greenhouse, bringing Laura back to the front garden.
I can walk around my house, she thinks, when she has done it. What an amazing feeling. ... Laura does it a few more times, reminding herself of Pooh and Piglet's search for the Woozles as she follows her own footsteps through the long grass and back to the front door.
I love this passage. I can imagine it perfectly, and I can feel her tranquil joy.
Laura's first boyfriend lives in the area, and in another kind of novel this would be the center of the book. Is she going to leave Inigo, and join Guy? Will Inigo leave for an extended stay in New York? Because the author is Raffaella Barker and because her characters are always real people full of complexity and depth, the story is fuller and more absorbing. There are many 'homey' passages about cooking and milking goats and gardening and her new Pug, Zeus. There is real love between Inigo and Laura right alongside the problems. There is a lot about the children, and about Laura's brother's step-daughter. Descriptions and details abound. I loved it and thoroughly enjoyed being in Laura's company. I enjoyed seeing some of the characters from two previous books, Hens Dancing and Summertime. I like to think that Laura is quite like the author. Barker's women are witty and wise and full of good nature and humor. When I read Hens Dancing, I wrote, 'My perfect book! British countryside, warmth, humor, wit. It reminds me of a modern day Diary of A Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield.' That's about the highest praise I can give. And though Green Grass isn't quite as excellent it's still right up there as one of my favorite books.