Sunday, January 2, 2011
The Still Point
If I knew then what I knew at page 150 I would not have read The Still Point and that would have been dumb of me. I would have missed out on a very, very good first novel. Why would I have given Still Point a pass? The story all takes place over the course of one day. One day. To my small and quick to judge mind One Day equals a tiny cast of characters, low page count and (Mrs Dalloway aside) boredom. I was right and I was wrong. I was right that there are few characters in Still Point and I was right that it isn't very long. It's only 320 pages.(Apologies to author Amy Sackville. I'm sure 320 pages seems just right to her.) But Boredom? Not at all, just the opposite. Good thing I didn't read the synopsis carefully before I started reading the book.
The Still Point is the story of two marriages. Julia and Simon have a seemingly enviable life. He goes off to work and she dawdles through the ancestral home. Appearances though... Sometime in the last few years of their ten year marriage Simon and Julia started keeping secrets from one another. Simon is all restless irritation and helpless to close the growing distance between himself and his wife. Julia has Barbara Cartland ideas of love and is operating just this side of depression. She is supposed to be archiving the papers and property of her great-great uncle, Edward Mackley. Uncle Ed was a famous turn of the century explorer. The second marriage of the novel is his and Emily's. Two weeks after their vows Edward left for the North Pole and Emily never saw him again.
Julia was brought up on family stories of Edward's bravery and sacrifice. She does view him as a heroic figure but it is the left behind Emily that really captures Julia's imagination. As Julia begins to catalog Edwards relics and read his journals she romanticizes their marriage all out of proportion. Two weeks after their marriage Edward left on his expedition and Emily went to live in what is now Julia and Simon's home with Edward's brother and his wife. While Edward's short life was filled with possibility and misadventure, Emily's long life was much quieter. She waited to hear from Edward and then waited to hear of his death but both of their lives were a mental struggle to survive.
My outline of the basic events in The Still Point make it seem like a straightforward, contemporary bad marriage story and it is that but it is also more than that. The study of one marriage that may be ending and another one that never got started is juxtaposed against the individuals in each of these relationships. Edwards reckless quest verses Simon's 9 to 5 office life and Emily's unfulfilled hopes verses Julia's squandered opportunities. Sackville is wonderfully inventive in using Julia's girlish ideas of love to unify both couples stories.
Sackville does step outside of the domestic drama in The Still Point. Through Edward's journals she takes us along on his expedition. We know the end of his trip before Julia ever opens the diaries but that doesn't lessen the vigorous reading experience that Sackville creates. This physically puissant part of the story works well as another opposite to the restrained and secretive lives of Simon and Julia and Emily's life after Edward.
I'm thrilled that I did not let my preconceptions about the whole One Day thing get in the way of reading The Still Point. It was a wonderful novel. The kind of novel that carries you along until suddenly insignificant things start to have new meaning. Amy Sackville's writing is a pleasure to read. If you have missed the great Carol Shields you should give The Still Point a try. It would also make an first rate book club choice.
P.S. What do you think of the covers? This is the U.K. edition and above is the U.S. hmmm... I think that are pretty and that they both reference Victoria Shadow boxes is appropriate ---caged relics of the past---but a little boring and predictable I say.