Monday, March 24, 2008

winter is for women

The Kingfisher has been quiet of late. It’s not that I’ve not been reading, just that what I’ve read hasn’t encouraged me to say much about it. Until last week, and Wintering - an engaging, researched and accomplished book in which Kate Moses tells the story of the last few months of Sylvia Plath. I thought the book was excellent but was left with questions jumping off the page and demanding further thought, if not answers.

Striking throughout the novel is the tone of the writing , which to me has a strong Plath influence running through it - perhaps inevitable when trying to share her inner thoughts with the reader? But it made me think about whether writers think in the same way as which they write. I’m not sure that I do. I also wondered if the novel wasn’t a convenient outlet for Moses Plathesque ramblings. I wavered between thoroughly enjoying the book, and feeling a little disservice to the dead at fictionalizing / fantasizing what Sylvia might have thought and felt.

‘It is the black husk of another life that blows through her: the cold planetary blank of the crawl space, lightless beneath her mother’s cellar; the flaking of dead stars into her eye as she bashes her head against the edge of the concrete foundation.’

At times I felt as if I was reading a work of parallel fiction (by which a novel refers wholly or in part to another character or work of fiction - e.g. Wicked (Maguire) and March (Brooks) - both of which I liked). This is probably due to the mythology that has grown around Plath, at times turning her into a character more than a real individual. It was both comforting and disappointing to know from the start how the book would ultimately end - that Sylvia would never finish all those jars of carefully hoarded honey.

‘The ruin of winter. Sylvia feels the scrape of those words inside her, efficient and deadly. It’s not the abundance in her life that makes her uneasy; it’s the idea of loss that exists alongside, like some terrible hibernating animal nested within her walls.’

I am fascinated by novels that refer to other literary characters or authors, but I am torn between thinking it’s skilful to add new dimensions to a familiar story or perhaps a little lazy. When does this kind of novel cross the boundary into the realms of hero worship and fall into the pit of fan fiction? I think Kate Moses falls on the right side of most of these fine lines, but I wonder if a less skilled novel attempting to do the same could be an utter mess.