The Kindness of Your Nature, by Linda Olsson (Penguin, 2011), 216 pp., $40
‘If we could see ourselves from above,’ thinks Marion Flint, the narrator of Linda Olsson’s third novel, The Kindness of Your Nature, ‘we would observe an intricate pattern emerging: a chain of minute incidents and developments, seemingly random, but all part of a coherent process with an ultimate goal’. This reflectiveness might exclude a lot of lives: children, for instance, though the seeing-from-above might begin in childhood, or those whose lives are abbreviated by illness or violence before there is time or leisure to reflect. Just recently I was discussing with a friend the idea of ‘the examined life’ which is supposed to be the only kind worth having. I wondered if there was something indulgent or luxurious about it, with its implications of introversion or narcissism. And yet this desire for coherence and comprehension is very strong, whether in seeking out friends from the past or revisiting significant landscapes.
‘A moment, however fleeting, has a flamboyant past’ is one of the striking lines in Wislawa Syzmborska’s poem, ‘No Title Required’. ‘Dense and delicate is the embroidery of circumstance’. Or it might be a song, ‘Peace Piece’, heard on the radio and closing a circle of memory, serendipitous and finally springing free. Even the sea and a modest beach house is capable of this kind of release.
What I admire most about Linda Olsson’s spare and reflective writing is nothing as obvious as control, though that must be present, but her engagement with the reader as intelligent, possessing similar needs and similar material. Few will have the burdens of the young Marianne, huddled in the cot with her baby brother, overhearing the violence from her mother’s room, and yet even here there are links: her mother’s beauty, abdicated and unused, will find its way, through Marion, on to the cover of Time magazine. The powerful links, discovered finally in a helicopter ride over a sand sculpture too large to view from ground level, flow like the swooping godwits that seem to delay their departure in practice flights.
Moving from past to present and back again, the distance between the two coming ever closer might, in less skilful hands, have led to a tying of threads (or waves, or sand dunes) but the landscape remains and its identity is as mysterious and unfathomable as our human existence. It underpins everything, from restraint in conversation to picking out stars at night. ‘Slowly, slowly I could detect stars in the darkening sky’. Isn’t that slowly always right?
This, more than the plot, is the happiness of the novel. Marianne who will change her name to Marion when it is mispronounced in England, thus giving herself a new start is, when the novel begins, a semi-retired doctor living in an isolated beachfront cottage near Kawhia. But she carries memories and trauma so severe her only way of coping is a tight sealing off of the past, a life of one day at a time. In Sweden, as an eight-year-old child, she had stabbed her stepfather, Hans, who abused her mother for giving birth to her little brother. ‘The two terrified children: two and eight years old, were found clinging to each other in the nursery’. Then a child comes into her life, Ika, a boy as damaged as herself, silent, with two webbed fingers on each hand, a love of music. When he nearly drowns after a beating Marion determines to protect him. Dealings with CYPS (sympathetic) and the help of a neighbour, George Brendel, brings the novel to a close. But the real purpose is to prise open not just Marianne/Marion’s store of memories but Ika’s as well. ‘I finally saw it clearly. I could see her. A panic-stricken eight year old. The same age as Ika. How could I have placed so much guilt with her? A little child’.
Because the novel makes no easy leaps and because it gives a judicious weight to many elements, including the influence of a landscape, its progress has an inexorability that resembles music. The desire for synthesis that will not be deflected makes the notion of forgiveness grave and weighty, accomplished in steps. Watching the breaking of a wave, Marion can conclude:
Such a long, slow build-up.
Such an evanescent climax.
And such an endless aftermath.
Adrienne Rich too, in the poem that is the preface, is against leaping:
which I live now
not as a leap
but as a succession of brief, amazing movements
each one making possible the next.
(‘From a Survivor’)
The Kindness of Your Nature is a delicately patterned novel. The patterns, often from the physical landscape or from Ika’s large conceptual project, merge with the text. At times, the flashbacks are firmly out of sight; at other times they recur with frightening frequency as if a breakthrough is imminent. Yet Marianne/Marion is on a search for order: ‘I think I was hoping for the memories to merge, to become an understandable whole. And ultimately make me whole’. What is being worked out is not the easy simplicity of a half hour TV counselling session by Nigel Latta, but a process, with its own mysterious rhythms of advance and retreat.
Added to Ika’s musical ability to remember tunes and play them on the piano are the rhythms of the sea, clusters of recurring dreams, the liberation of house cleaning. And Ika’s own sensitivities and skills are not ignored. When a visit from his dysfunctional grandmother is imminent he vanishes, because he too has routes through the dunes. Large questions about memories – is their existence mainly for ourselves? — are left open-ended. Each person is different so the answer must be different. Marion’s trauma gives the novel its shape and starting point but the reflections would apply as well to an armchair traveller.
Many recent novels seem to me both overwritten and over-simplified. All that is required of the reader is to run their eyes across the text, scanning it. Plots have become simpler as if only the easiest timeline is tolerable. A great deal of action is needed to prevent boredom. But the popularity of The Kindness of Your Nature gives me a sense of hope. The novel can be complex and philosophical; it can ask perplexing questions without providing complete answers. It can make a gift out of what is at hand (flax and a pre-loved CD, say) and as its strands merge — something that the novel seems to desire — it can perform a magic trick and re-arrange things so that happiness is still happiness.
I had half-thought the menacing compulsive liar, Lola — who is Ika’s stepmother — might re-appear and I wondered what happened to Jasper, the ginger cat with green eyes. Just sometimes things happen a little too easily: the CYPS woman, Claire, seems a little too confiding, despite being curious about George; the locals a little too benign, the half-sister of Lola too like a model client in her speech. But these are very minor points.
Marion, telling her story on the one Thursday Ika does not appear for soup and home-made bread, unable to anticipate in what condition she will shortly find him, describes his presence as ‘my life’s triumphant moment of unreserved love’. A long time later this promise is fulfilled in the most concrete way. Then she feels ‘Hesitant and frail, like the first thin trickle in a dried-out riverbed. But it gained momentum, till it burst out of me. I ran out onto the deck, lifted my arms to the sky. Danced like a madwoman. Then I started to run’. Not too far off is the final sentence: ‘Everything merged and became a whole’.
ELIZABETH SMITHER‘s most recent publications are a novel, Lola (Penguin, 2010) and The Commonplace Book: A Writer’s Journey through Quotations (Auckland University Press, 2011). A new collection of poems, The Blue Coat, will be published by AUP in 2013.
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