Northwest Passages – by Barbara Roden

I’m due to start below another of my gradual real-time reviews, turning leitmotifs into a gestalt.

And it is of ‘Northwest Passages’ by Barbara Roden (Prime Books 2009).

There is no guarantee how long it will take to complete this review, whether days or years. Indeed, this is said with the knowledge that a busy Season is afoot and many people have calls upon my time. So I do not wish any of you interested in this review to keep returning to this page and finding nothing added.  However, I do not know how to resolve this problem and any ideas would be welcome. (I am also conducting a simultaneous real-time review of another book that will worsen any delays.)

CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the book, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading it. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.

I shall be reviewing the stories themselves before reading the introduction by Michael Dirda and the story notes. (7 Dec 10)

All my real-time reviews are linked from here:

The Appointed Time

“One disagreeable result of whispering is, that it seems to evoke an atmosphere of silence, haunted by the ghosts of sound…” from Charles Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ (in my top ten favourite novels ever).

‘The Appointed Time’ is an ingenious ghost story (and I love traditional Ghost Stories told so well as this one is and in such a well-crafted prose)  but this one is doubly effective for me as it allows the shuffling of books themselves into more than just inanimate objects between readings… (Cf: my first awareness of this phenomenon in my review of ‘Groaning Shadows’ by Paul Finch).  A definite frisson for the Christmas period. Thanks, Barbara Roden. (7 Dec 10 – two hours later)


Endless Night

“The past, where everything has already happened and there can be no surprises, can be a very comforting place when one is old.”

So claims a very old lady as she re-reads (keeping it to herself jealously or for fear of its implications for the rest of us?) an equally old journal of an Antartica expedition.  It is an uncanny tale that works (like a potter moulding clay) with inscrutability (i.e. that of the late replacement of the expedition’s cook), with a form of retrocausality, with a visitor from Porlock in reverse (herself), with a remarkable take on icebergs (that fits in neatly with a quite different book I’ve just finished reviewing), and with a haunting by the subtly interpretable undead. It also contrastively yet inadmissibly reminds me with some subtlety of Blackwood’s ‘The Centaur’. All in all, a very satisfying read, that I hope I have not got to the bottom of, like most crevasses in literature.  Not given anything away of its secrets. Its happenings of exactly 100 years ago today.  (7 Dec 10 – another 3 hours later)


The Palace

“She was like the Ancient Mariner, fixing him with her eye, and he found he wanted to stay and listen.”

A well-characterised group of people and their highly believable ‘genius loci’: the graveyard shift staff and their workplace the Palace hotel in a city with a city’s typically contrasting civilization at day and incivilization at night, a city poised to stage an Expo in a year or two from now.  That sort of believability then helps to make the ghosts believable and hence more spooky, as they did for me. And the fears fed back into the people themselves….  Low key, but highly enjoyable.  Intentionally low-key, I guess.  That’s its secret.  Together with poetic phrases that were almost incantations, eg about the wind talking.

All three stories so far have quotes from Literature.  The Visitor from Porlock is an important image, I hypothesise. It’s as if ghosts are such visitors. Or we are all continually each other’s visitor from Porlock in the audit trail of Fate. And ‘audit’ is an important word in this story. And ‘paycheque’ as one word. That briefly, more than once – amid the audit trail of the text and as one’s reading-eye swims along – hinted visually at ‘psychotic’. (8 Dec 10)


Out and Back

“On the archway over the entrance she could make out the word COASTER, […] some of the letters had fallen off, and what was left was….”

This is the best derelict fairground I’ve ever ‘seen’; in its day it must have been the best ever fairground full stop.  A story of a married couple, she the sarcastic wife who (playfully or seriously?) mocks her husband’s habit of exploring such places for photos to use on his ill-visited website or to hunt out ghosts…?  When they arrive at the unkempt site, they themselves become tantamount to Visitors from Porlock, as it were, or so I deem, when they knock at a house that used to be a caretaker’s house for the fairground, followed by an Aickman-like vision-by-hinting of those therein… 

Later, there is a truly ingenious but bizarre ending that however seems completely natural taking into account what preceded it. And, in general, a genuinely spooky and compellingly page-turning story. (8 Dec 10 – another 5 hours later)

Having slept on it, ‘Out and Back’ seems also to symbolise a marital relationship that I guess typifies (at least in part) many of the story’s readers, including meBut what is the shed on the track and will I ever re-emerge? (9 Dec 10)


The Wide, Wide Sea

In contrast to the relatively claustrophobic city Palace Hotel we now reach the sublimely, oceanically wide, but still potentially yet differently, claustrophobic, plains of Canada where pioneering folk aspired to live off the land. From the book’s earlier close-ordered ‘audits’ and ‘paycheques’ in ‘The Palace’ and ‘COST’ (“the word sounded odd, almost nonsensical, like a child’s made-up assortment of letters”) of the marital relationship in ‘Out and Back’, we have here effectively those free, uncosted parcels of land given away to the pioneers – and an interesting marital comparison in elements of cost to each other – together with a further Coleridge reference, references that pepper this book: and its ghostly visions that are telling in their effect, as if haunter and haunted are mutual Visitors from Porlock to each other. And with the wind’s presence here significant, too, this book is fast becoming a poignant symphony of human relationships paralleled by relationships beteween ghosts (some already ghosts, some about to become ghosts). I am becoming increasingly inspired by this book – in its separate bouts of story-telling but also in these stories’ single audit-trail, a trail sometimes threatened, sometimes enhanced by various ‘visitations’.  The ‘ghost’ here amid the panoply of the Canadian landscape is restrainedly, yet evocatively, drawn, giving time for the reader to savour, including ‘the soddie’ as a differently revelatory version of the earlier tunnel-shed on the track, out and back of beyond. (9 Dec 10 – another two hours later)


The Brink of Eternity

Paychequed by his parents and their riches, this story’s obsessive protagonist (whose physical as well as psychic / spiritual journey is effectively told piecemeal from various arguably real or fictional sources) seeks proof that the ‘crevasse’ is not Endless Night (here a polar complement to that earlier vision by geographical opposition), indeed pursuing a theory of the mid 19th century (during which period he lived) that held that the Earth is Hollow [and indeed it is as I have shown in my own novel soon to be published!]

The protagonist’s obsession to the point of ghosting or slanting into legendary darkness, the treatment of icebergs, Inuits’ natural type of protective ‘group sex’, the echoing of the pioneering landscapes in the previous story, the intangible yearnings to absorb inscrutability as a means of reaching beyond Death that seems to underpin this book, all seem to reach some fine fruition here.  Earth’s own recurringly interruptive visitations to as well as from – and in synergy with – our living souls…  As pair by pair we enter the Ark that is the Earth’s Core. Some is brainstorming but it is brainstorming evoked by the book so far.

“…the ice cracked and groaned and spoke almost as a living person,”  (9 Dec 10 – another 3 hours later)


Tourist Trap

I am a seasoned coach-tour participant so that I readily recognise the strictures of timeliness and the anxieties attached. Even the Porlockian chatterbox whom you can’t shake off. The country houses and their grounds. The film sets and villages famous for a TV “miniseries“.  This is an old-fashioned tale in many ways, but one I really enjoyed. It was a break from my more intense attempts at ‘audit-trailing’ this book heretofore towards a gestalt.  A refreshing break that was about a break that should have been refreshing. But with glimpses of spookier and spookier entrapments that genuinely worked with the narrative flow. As if I couldn’t escape the labyrinth of this book even within this old-fashioned, straightforward tale of lateness and anxiety. Till I felt, with a shudder, that miniseries is not a million miles from miseries…

“Respectable, sensible, intelligent women did not, as a rule…” (10 Dec 10)


Northwest Passage

“To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men / To find there but the road back home again.” Stan Rogers, ‘Northwest Passage’

“Respectable, sensible, intelligent women did not, as a rule…”  (from the previous story). Ah, indeed. And before I explain how compelling this haunting (Willows? Picnic at Hanging Rock?) story surely is, may I say how impossible it is fully to judge it when in the context of the book so far.  The foregoing context seemingly enhances – or simply changes for good or ill? – its wind, its wild lonely landscapes, the widowhood of a 63 year old woman, her sudden facing of inscrutability and sullen youth, its Rite of ‘Passage’ (spiritual and geographical) and much more.  For example, the previous story’s provincial labyrinth has become here something far more sublime, majestic, frightening – but both labyrinths benefit from the comparison to each other, the former retrocausally.

Suffice to say the story flows beautifully, new-fashioned from something inchoate, old-fashioned from something that makes literature and story-telling tick. As I say, impossible to judge it now in isolation, and who knows what else I may have felt with the aboriginal ‘innocence’ of having read this story cold as a discrete entity, i.e. without the surrounding exegetic striving for perhaps a false trail through to different passages or crevasses in the land or in the heavens or in the literary reality that is both.  (10 Dec 10 – four hours later)


The Hiding Place

“The yellow patches were filling in…”

Childhood vision of estrangement and estrangement’s painful results. Echoing the living Words of the book’s first story and the immature “sullen Silences” of the previous two stories.   A landscape of claustrophobia where increased claustrophobia is seen to be its own cure? And the earlier radio channels are here the mixing and fading in and out of family relationships. An effective vignette that sits here more sedately than it actually is underneath. (11 Dec 10)



“Locking me in the attic, or in the beer cellar, because I could not master the printing of the letter H?”

I shall spend hours now watching the clock, wondering why the letter H.  This story, a striking coda to the whole book and sister story to the previous one, brought the name Frances Oliver to my mind, particularly in the ambivalent narration of an adolescent girl. Almost an archetypal Fairy Story that, even with its initial warning that it does not have a happy ending, did not prepare me for the eventual semi-religious blood sacrifice to the literary Host of Ghost Story.  Here, by dint of demonic Mentoring, we see the protagonist being retrocausally unwound from the labyrinth or maze we felt had gradually entrammeled protagonists heretofore in the book, and here, the maze was wrapped round the protagonist right at the start and we re-live her guided unwinding like an oversprung clock being re-jigged from anxiety into timeliness. The Step Mother’s cruelty, her father’s disloyalty, to be avenged quite justifiably.  But justifiability and justice are not the same thing. And “the last chimes” (echoing the earlier sound of windless wind-chimes) “have been absorbed into the fabric of the house“.  The house as the ultimate crevasse towards hallowed hollowness.  As easement, for to be hollow means there are end-walls somewhere to contain the hollowness: each a hopeful end to Endless Night…facilitating our Ghosts or Souls to bounce-back off them and ‘visit’ us (announced or unannounced) as well as inspire us from within such rich, crafted prose as presented by this book and others.

Writing a real-time review is a special reading-journey on the internet – a journey that takes place within a single reading mind, beset by all the foibles of the moment.  The question is: does this affect the journey itself, i.e knowing one is publicly describing that journey as it happens? Also I sense many of you asking why you actually want to read about my eccentric journey with a book.  Eccentric, perhaps. But if we all write in real-time about our journeys with a book, we can all then simultaneously ‘triangulate’ the book via  its communally synchronised shards of random truth and fiction, and discover its ineffable noumenon by co-ordination from every compass point of our respective ways and reading-passages, by audit-logic or emotional response or something even more intangible, and not only from the northwest point. (11 Dec 10 – four hours later)

I shall now read the Introduction and Story Notes for the first time, in full expectation that they will give me further food for thought. But I shall not be back here to talk about them.



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4 responses to “Northwest Passages – by Barbara Roden

  1. Facebook exchange (re Tourist Trap):

    Anyone been on coach tours? The necessary timeliness of return to the coach and the anxieties attached?
    21 minutes ago · Friends Only ·LikeUnlike · Comment

    Willie Meikle likes this..
    Willie Meikle We went on one in Nova Scotia a few years back. Never again. I would have actually welcomed a timely return to the coach, as most of the people on the trip with us took the return time as a “guideline” and were always over an hour late on getting back, leading to long delays, short tempers and some wee Scottish sweary words

    9 minutes ago · LikeUnlike.Des Lewis Just been to St Petersburg and back (including Berlin, Warsaw, Minsk, Novgorod, Moscow, Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen…) and we needed to get up each morining at the crack of dawn – and woe betide anyone who got back late to the coach. Ten of them are still in prison in Russia as far as I know.
    6 minutes ago · LikeUnlike · 2 peopleLoading….Write a comment….

  2. Pingback: Contents of REAL-TIME REVIEWS books | My Last Balcony

  3. Pingback: DF Lewis's Real-Time Reviews

  4. Pingback: Triangulation by Review | The Nemonicon

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