People: Hearing the Call of the
by Yvonne Jerrold
Review by Harry Goode for Cambridge Writers
Here is a first novel that is hard to classify – eco-novel, fantasy, cautionary tale, magic realism, fairy tale, murder mystery, exploration of psychological archetypes, thesis on the relationship between art and the natural world, anti-rationalist protest. At times it seems all of these.
Hebe, or Bee as she is usually known, takes time off from her job as a college counsellor to return to Dodder’s Well, an isolated hamlet, where for part of her childhood she was brought up by her grandmother. As soon as she arrives, it appears that its geography is otherworld, at times hazy and sometimes shifting. It somehow materializes all the hazy imprecision that distant memory lends to topography.
The inhabitants too are a shape-shifting crowd, whose sole occupation seems to be gardening. They have perfected the art of keeping out the technological modern world and appear to be assisted in this by natural events. When a motorway begins to be driven through their glen, a flood washes it away.
This Edenic world is not, however, without its problems. A prolonged drought threatens the carefully tended seedlings. A sinister Dr Gotobed lives in the hamlet and may possibly be involved in some unsavoury genetic experiments. Mysterious acts of vandalism appear to be damaging the gardens.
Bee has her own particular problems. She is haunted by persistent guilt at the childhood loss of an evanescent river boy, who is in part the kind of imaginary friend that a lonely child invents and in part a puckish woodland spirit.
The book recalled for me themes that one can find in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer-Night’s Dream. It also shows a deep knowledge of the folklore surrounding flowering plants. However, all this erudition is lightly worn and does not trouble the reader.
At every point of the story, many layers of meaning are interwoven. This may irritate or delight you, depending on your taste in such things, but one of Yvonne’s central themes seems to be that the world is a shifty, tricksy thing, that cannot be pinned down with any precision by language, or even by art. When Bee tries to sketch some the local flora, her drawing transmogrifies in the very act of execution. Bee inveighs against things being “investigated to death”. She wishes her sister “would stop trying to teach me the Latin name of every plant”...
At times a considerable suspension of disbelief is called for from the reader. In what amounts to the creation of a new mythology, we learn that humans are the result of hybridization between monkeys and the group of parasitic plants known as dodders. Indeed, before humans existed, it would seem, to borrow Wordworth's phrase, "another race hath been".
Reviewers have a habit (I think it is to show that they have read the text with close attention) of making the odd pettifogging quibble. Mobile phones only work where there are masts and Dodder’s Well seems to lack such intrusions, in spite of which Bee keeps in touch with the outside world by the use of one. However, this is a very minor lapsus. This is an intriguing book which I can recomment to other members. In one or two passages I find the prose a little fulsome for my palate, but then my tastes are for the lean and sparse, and it is a well-written book.
It is published by Troubador and is available in hardback at £13.99 and in paperback at £8.99 from local Borders', Heffers' and Waterstone's bookshops.
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