I’m due to start below another of my gradual real-time reviews, turning leitmotifs into a gestalt. A book I recently purchased from Amazon. And it is entitled:-
REVENANTS – A Dream of New England : by Daniel Mills (Chômu Press 2011).
There is no guarantee how long it will take to complete this review, whether days or years.
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.
All my real-time reviews are linked from here: http://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/
In common with my normal practice, I shall be giving the real-time impressions of my reading journey, without first reading the book’s introduction or knowing as little as possible about the book other than it was recommended to me by people I trust.
I. A Sound in the Forest
“It is as if a door is now open: open for the first time, though the room beyond remains unknowable.”
They do say that fiction books take on the colour of what you’ve just read or concurrently reading. I have indeed for the last few weeks been reading and real-time reviewing the huge ‘Dark Tower’ series by Stephen King that I have also been comparing – from time to time – to the TV series LOST (cf: the humming in the woods in this first chapter of REVENANTS) – and I’m taking an intermission from that massive task to review this book by Daniel Mills, received today. The doors opening … the ‘thinny’ that keeps a world like the ancient part of ‘Dark Tower’ separate from other parts and, on first impressions, reminiscent of – if otherwise quite different in execution from – this wooded world (in REVENANTS) of an immediacy of Ancientness and High Fantasy and Dynasty and Young Romance and Darker Undercurrents here inviting me – via Mills’ most limpidly clear yet powerfully evocative prose – to picture or build patterns from characters’ names and their word-painted backgrounds. A family and others in this wooded world, with liaisons and preaching and a preacher’s retirement and time-transcended visions of Christian punishment and internalisations of conscious and/or dreaming streams of aspiration. Yet there have been two girls missing from the community, a la ‘Twin Peaks’ (that also had forest or woods)…? I am already entranced.
“…where twin trees grow together, intertwined at their bases.” (15 Mar 11)
II. Dust and Memory
“Everything appears to be in its proper place, but there is a fine film of dust on every surface…”
Absorbed, as I am by everything in its place, the emerging story of Ruth and Edwin and the cast of other characters promises glitches amid the build-up of name-pictures, the real Cromwellian backstory, the erstwhile travel to this novel’s New World, generations sometimes fitting, as individuals, into jigsaws, sometimes not … and, today, a proposed funeral for one of the two girls missing: the utter sadness of life’s waste as well the utter joy of life’s hope … hope to turn eventually to sadness, sadness back to hope, while (“There was no path to follow, but the understory was mostly clear:”) the stage is set here for the dark belly of Christianity to be an understory to religion’s comfort as background radiation or megrim, give or take the odd mishap of passion or birth… “The real music is in the Word itself.” All conveyed without effort. (15 Mar 11 – three hours later)
III. The Mouth of the Wild
“The Deceiver can assume many guises: birds, cats, men. Even women. The witch-finders of old knew this, though some here have forgotten.”
I somehow felt an emptiness unaccountable solely by the book’s lucid language conveying such emptiness to me. Perhaps, it was the carving of a hollow Christ into a wooden cross rather one in 3D relief. Perhaps it was the soon-to-retire Preacher into whom I have read his own version of existential angst. Or the third girl now to go missing, a girl so important to this book’s jigsaw patterning. And I ‘vainly’ look through my own adopted protagonist’s eyes into such emptiness – surrounded by God’s woods – as he “wonders if fog distorts time as surely as it consumes light and sound…” (15 Mar 11 – another 2 hours later)
IV. Whither Thou Goest
“The forest encloses the village like a closing fist, encroaching from three sides. Its grip grows tighter by the hour, even as men grunt and sweat to beat it back: felling the trees, filling the bogs.”
Whether that be a metaphor, whether Edwin envisions a retrocausal ghost of Ruth in the future’s past, the woods as well as the encroaching emptiness of souls (as ghosts) are almost prehensile, where marks or evidence are found of forces that again stir slight reminiscences of being Lost around the Dark Tower, but I must shake off such thoughts, as search parties are formed, despair cast aside desperately, name-pictures still building of present grief and literally straddling time’s “dreams and memories”, grief and illness, sin-laden pasts, and the preacher whose name-picture is ‘Isaiah’, reminding me of the preacher in Joyce’s ‘Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’, as if he is about to give the same sermon (to himself?)…and we are shown those ‘twin trees’ again. I am utterly consumed by this novel. (16 Mar 11)
V. Ghosts in the Birches
“They are mere suggestions of men and women, black brush strokes threaded throughout the teeming rye.”
The woods and its “logging grounds” represent, in many ways, the central caracter of this novel so far, both visually and by smell and sound, as if some New England ‘Ted Hughes’ is in charge of conveying those particular elements. The people have their own hinterland, too, including an indeterminate war fourteen years ago, as well as hints of sins. And there are vague references to something called “Pobakwet” and tenuous visions of ‘four deer’ and even more tenuous ones (by dint of dream?) of a larger creature that I hesitate to describe even to myself in case it ‘deceives’ me. Hinterland, scat and snarl – the search parties seek their own means of homing in on what they seek. Missing is another form of emptiness. “This country is too large, he thinks, as cold and inhuman as the Atlantic. But even the sea coughs up its wrecks and sailors, given time.” Forest or woods, ocean or sea, nobody ever understands perhaps the size of sorrow – or what to call it. (16 Mar 11 – three hours later)
VI. A Gathering Storm
“With one decision, he aims to bury God and the Devil both, to free his mind from the torment of uncertainty.”
Or “a belief in absence” as, ironically, in this book so far, there are many presences within presences: call them ghosts, call them dreams, call them memories, call them landscapes, amid an exquisitely conveyed shadow-dance of guilt and dread. Shapes and signs, pitfalls, as one world of presences meets the ‘thinny’ between it and another world of presences. Perhaps in one lives the accidentally missing and in the other the deliberately lost, and at their interface seekers fruitlessly seeking different seekers and shadows mutually expunging different shadows by tribal overlap. [I am here extemporising upon a Theme and Variations that I’m personally discovering in this book without fear or favour from the God in the Devil or the Devil in the God of traditional literary criticism.]
“Once there was a bear.” (17 Mar 11)
VII. Into the Darkness
“…the great trees creaking like the masts they will one day become:”
A palimpsest of the past and the later power of past’s retribution for those earlier wronged by war or other human frailty or vanity, now come home to roost upon today’s tipping-point or crow’s nest. A dark tower gelded. Or meat well-hung for lupine or even cervine goring. And a character alone, with neither divine or demon crutches. Wife or daughter, fate hangs in the balance and the reader holds her breath. (17 Mar 11 – three hours later)
VIII. Lookout Hill
I cannot possibly reveal how the jigsaw of name-pictures or the visionary culmination that these random shards of synchronised truth and fiction (just to transpose my normal expression for once) are panning out – but the ‘revenants’ are experiencing memories not necessarily their own. And blame, guilt, atonement are all shuffling and re-shuffling (cf ‘The Dark Tower’) as versions of self and unself address each other and even merge. Isaiah was an important prophet who witnessed the most turbulent times. And our own times today are turbulent. But do not allow me to divert you from the plot. Its easy but stylishly evocative concatenation of language conveys a thrust I’m still evaluating and probably will not be able to evaluate properly until I’ve finished the book in a day or so’s time. With or without such considerations, it’s easy to read and enjoy. [Meanwhile, please let me say, on a personal note, that it has enlightened me significantly – after about ten years of thinking about it – regarding this quotation: “The nemo is an evolutionary force, as necessary as the ego. The ego is certainty, what I am; the nemo is potentiality, what I am not. But instead of utilizing the nemo as we would utilize any other force, we allow ourselves to be terrified by it, as primitive man was terrified by lightning. We run screaming from this mysterious shape in the middle of our town, even though the real terror is not in itself, but in our terror at it.” from John Fowles in 1964 (i.e. ‘The Necessity of Nemo’ in ‘The Aristos’) Indeed, a revelation for me. And in this chapter of REVENANTS we read: “The fear … it was too much. It woke some sleeping part of me, some dark terror of which I was unaware. It banished all logic, all reason. All that made me human. It drove me out into the rain, to what should have been my death.” (17 Mar 11 – another 2 hours later)
[Before starting my reading of the next chapter, I confirm that I had not noticed its title when first mentioning a ‘thinny’ above. And, now thinking of the ‘hum’ there mentioned, and of the concept of missing (Lost) girls, I had not drawn constructive comparison (as I do now for the first time) with the wonderful ambiance of ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ – one peak rather than twin ones, albeit an amorphous ‘peak’ that Ayers Rock is! Just thinking aloud at the moment.] (18 Mar 11)
IX. The Thinning Place
“The town picks through the wreckage…”
Where positive turns negative, as if something unnatural has been required for things to be striving towards an optimum before turncoating into its own pessimum, even in the face of ‘happy returns’ and/or a mother’s recovery from the megrim as if from the ‘yellow wallpaper’ of literature elsewhere. Spiritual angst, amid a hum gradually separating out into lunatic-pines or howls. A thinning out not only of the barrier between realities but also of the human soul when sin-eating. Or of that soul sold or soiled. (18 Mar 11 – another three hours later)
“At last they come to the willows, where the twin trees braid together and sweep down to the water. […] Their exposed roots writhe together, sheathed in slimy bark: worm-like, clinging.”
This book is a form of scourging. Using a limpidly evocative prose-style, it induces an empathy with a Puritan-like outlook: its temptations, retributions, atonements, possessions, guilts, the oxymorons of faith, all strobing, as it were, often imperceptibly, sometimes in poignant defined slow-motion, between people and landscape. The book’s concatenation of name-pictures evokes the solidity of real people but also, in relationship with each other, their attenuities, their thinning-towards-transparencies laid bare upon each other, bolstered, one infers, by a conscious or sub-conscious faith in angel shadows encroaching and staining them back towards a default, ‘existence-needful’ reality. Father and Son. Mother and Daughter. Daughter and Father. Son and Mother. Husband and Wife. Preacher and Flock. Preacher and God. Preacher and the Devil. Sweetheart and Sweetheart, one a future preacher, the other, like all women in the book-story’s world, a vessel. The humming blood of lust. One can only imagine the war this community was once tempted into, the inferred massacres of innocents, matters that pre-occupy us all today, whether natural or man-made massacres. [If natural, Man made God and God made Nature…] A war of means and ends setting in train a concertina of consequences incubated by the interfaces of all the things I’ve listed above, interfaces between people, within landscape as well as through those listed elements of an empty faith born from interconnecting people-as-revenants and their settings. The only un-empty thing being the fulsomeness of fiction itself. This fiction. Hollow-carved with hallowed craft.
“The lad straddles the edge of the forest. He stands with one foot in the high grass and the other placed in the woods beyond.” (18 Mar 11 – another 2 hours later)
6 responses to “Revenants – by Daniel Mills”
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I call it an ’empty’ faith in my concluding comments. The danger is that I’m imposing my own beliefs (as a particular reader of the book) that all such Faith is empty. But the characters themselves believe it is full (because that is what ‘faith’ means to those who have such a faith), despite the fact that they sometimes instinctively or subconsciously are affected by its (for me) undoubted ’emptiness’ (eg. carving a hollow Christ on a wooden cross). My point is the book’s plot is ‘full’ of such emptiness, but none of the events and emotions would have happened without that empty faith.
Having discarded such formal faiths, I do edge towards a belief in ghosts and place- and time-‘thinnies’ and synchronicities – the force of imagination being stronger, perhaps realler [even intrinsically real] than we can possibly imagine. Hence, the power of this book for me. It may not work for others in the same way.
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