John Burnside’s 10th novel tells the story of the world’s most powerful nation from the Second World War to the 1990s through the ordinary lives of small town America
IN the last year of the last century in small town America, a young film student is going house to house asking people to tell her about their past. This is for her boyfriend’s project, and she does his bidding dutifully, and with a perpetual hangover. Following the death of her father, Kate Lambert has been only partially aware of what she is doing and why.
That changes, however, when she encounters the elderly florist Jean Culver, who sees at once that Kate needs help, and offers it in a fashion Hans Christian Andersen might have devised. Jean’s house could be the fairy godmother’s cottage.
It sits on the edge of town where, despite her age, she chops logs and bakes cakes and walks in the woods. She tells Kate that if she stays sober for five days, she can come back and hear the story of her life.
As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that Kate’s rapport with Jean comes in part from the loss of her mother, who walked out on her family, never to be heard of again.
The unmarried, lesbian, childless Jean slowly fills that gap, consciously or not, and by the novel’s end has shown herself far more loving, and caring, than many a conventional mother.
Bit by bit, this stern, resilient woman unreels her tale. Its mood is set by the murder of her father in Alabama when she was young, an event witnessed by her brother.
Mr Culver was shot at the corner of Ashland and Vine, a phrase that she repeats to herself thereafter “like a curse”. But there is much more to Jean’s life than that, and like a fly fisherman she keeps adding fresh bait onto her hook to hold her listener’s attention.
Kate recognises the Scheherazade trick of coaxing her back from the brink by the promise of more revelations to come, but seeing what is happening does not diminish the emotional nourishment this brings.
This, the multi-award-winning poet John Burnside’s 10th novel, takes him into new and far more challenging territory.
With his recent fiction, such as Glister and A Summer of Drowning, there has been as sense of retreading the same path, exploring yet again the sinister potential of rural settings and smalltown communities and their volatile or dangerous inhabitants.
As from the outset of his career, with The Dumb House, tragedy and cruelty underpin, or bide their time in almost every tale. With Ashland & Vine, however, he moves beyond darkness and horror, to something rather more hopeful.
The heartbreak his characters have each endured, whether on the home front or in the vanguard of action, ought to make this unbearably dark. In some respects it is.
The pointless and savage catalogue of sadistic, merciless violence and death that has traumatised everyone within its pages cannot be redeemed by any philosophical argument or defence of loyalty or patriotism.
Yet in the tenderness of the affection that grows between the old woman and the young student, and the loving awareness of the natural world with which this novel is almost incidentally imbued, there is also a fragile optimism.
Ashland & Vine is a novel about stories, those of individuals like Jean Culver, but also the ones a nation tells itself to keep a lid on the truth and insurrection. When it begins, Kate has no belief in the power of a narrative to make sense of a life.
“Things just happened, like scenes in a movie. Some scenes were beautiful, some were tragic, or something like it. Some just went wrong, like when somebody gets a boom in the shot, or a car flashes by, drowning out the dialogue. The scenes didn’t connect, though, it was just one thing, then another.”
Jean the raconteur, however, takes a different view. She introduces Kate to the “As If” school of philosophy.
“We accept that these fictional ideas of order and meaning are not true as such, but if we are able to will ourselves to live