I want to talk to you this morning about a little book that I see as a kind of stocking stuffer—perhaps not a great book, not a must-read, and yet a book that I think will reward most who take the time to attend to it. The book is entitled By The Shore, and the author is Galaxy Craze. This is, like so many of the books I discuss, a first novel, and a coming of age story written through the eyes of a girl. The prose is sparse to the point of seeming overly simple, but I think the attentive reader will see that the leanness of the prose is just right for the story.
Almost certainly, this story is autobiographical. Craze moved from London to America when she was ten years old, just as the little girl in the story moves from London to the English country-side. I found myself put off by the simplicity of the writing at first, and then even as I began to warm to the style of writing, to see how well it served as a vehicle for the story, I doubted whether the author was wise enough to inform me of much other than the simple beauty and simple sadness of her tale. I changed my mind slowly, though I think had I given this little book the attention it deserves, meaning had I read it in a day or two rather than a week or two, I would have entered into her world sooner, as I ought. Good novels, read by good readers, are so much more than stories; they invite us into lived-lives, invite us to enter and experience (at least for a time) a different world than the one we inhabit every day. That is why I so often plug short books for the busy city reader; they can be read essentially of a piece. Nothing worse than cutting up a good novel into fifteen minute before-bed-segments over months.
But enough preaching about how to read. Because this book is simple and short, it won’t do for me to try to overview it, or to extrapolate from it underlying political or psychological messages. The importance of the book (aside from its pared down, even elegant style) is the wonderful little insights the girl has, most of them one-liners. I won’t give away too much of the story, but I must say that much of the book has to do with this young girl’s longing for her absent father, and her struggle with herself and her mother over that very longing. We are told that the father shows up only very occasionally in her life, and never for long. Still, she cannot help but imagine a time when he will return for good, drawn to the the magnet of love she feels for him and that she hopes her mother still feels, even if only secretly. No surprise, given her longing, that she sometimes tends to sabotage any interest her mother shows in new men, as well as to deny the overly obvious signs from her father that he cares very little for either her or his family.
In an early scene, the little girl, May, finds herself somehow waiting for her father to turn up, to display some sign of affection or loyalty, and she is reminded of another forlorn being.
May’s mother runs a small boarding house, and a writer seeking quiet and solitude turns up in the off season, a god-send for this almost empty enterprise. May, in many ways more perceptive than either her mother or the lodger, sees the spark of affection between the two, and feels the writer’s kind attention to May as well as her half brother. She sees also how good and flattering it is for her mother to feel this man’s interest, how much she needs at least a friend. But in spite of her own liking for the writer, she cannot give in, cannot help either him or her mother as they step awkwardly towards each other. Instead, she finds herself plotting against their union. When the writer’s secretary (and would-be lover) appears on the scene, May senses her mother’s anxiety, and feeds it. When her mother hears the car start, she wonders aloud where the writer and his secretary are going.
I thought about the polar bear in the zoo, the way he walks back and forth against the bars of his cage, back and forth, up and down. Every day he must wonder, How did this happen, and when will it end?
May sees what would be good for her mother, sees how isolated she is with only the two children to talk to, but cannot quite bring herself to be happy with it, to confirm her mother’s hopes, though she has very good reason to see that there really is a spark between her and the writer. Why should she, “Everything was always about men.”
“They’re probably going out for a romantic dinner,” I said, throwing it at her back.”
When she walked over to the bath, she moved slowly, as though she were walking through water.
“Why do you think that?” my mother asked.
“That they’re going out for a romantic dinner? They’re probably talking about his work.” Sometimes it was like this with us: darts.
“Why do you care anyway?” I asked, standing at the door.
“I don’t care,” she said. Everything that was curious, everything that was like a girl, like a butterfly in her, fell out. “I wasn’t even talking to you,” she said. “I was just talking to myself.”
Still, neither does she, when the secretary bribes her, join in an open conspiracy to keep her mother and the man apart. Wiser than she should have to be at ten, she knows that she could with a word make the writer braver in his declarations, and even easier it would be to convince her timid, burned-too-many-times mother, that this man’s attentions are for real. But to do that would be to betray her father, to betray her hopes and dreams. Returning from a long walk with the writer, and really liking him, trusting him, in spite of feeling it as disloyalty, she finds herself again thinking of the absent father.
Finally, her father does show up, though probably only to boast of his new business venture and to borrow money. May so much wants him to stay, wants him to need and love her. Again, she half gives in to the temptation to send the writer away with lies, and to lie to her own mother so that her mother will put up barriers between her and this new man.
On the way home I would imagine that my father had made a surprise visit from London to see me and that he would be walking from the house, through the woods towards me. But he never was. Then it turned into a phone call, and I imagined that there would be a note on the table in my mother’s handwriting that he had phoned. That’s what happens to hope: it gets smaller and smaller.
Still, she is too wise to deceive herself for long, and finally too aware of her mother’s own needs to persist in her deceptions. May knows she could use her mother’s caring for her, her mother’s guilt about somehow denying her a father, to manipulate and control, but in the end she cannot do it.
Well, enough said; perhaps too much. This is a wonderful little book; it deserves to be read instead of talked about.
‘May’ I heard my mother walk towards me. ‘I can ask him to stay if you want. He’ll stay if you want, darling.’ Her voice was soft, but I couldn’t answer. I held my breath and it stung in the middle of my throat.
‘No’ I shook my head, and my hair fell over the side of my face. My wool coat felt like a shell on my back. There was a feeling in my stomach as tough I had swallowed three small stones.
I heard my mother pull her chair close to mine. The table blurred in front of me, and she wrapped her arms around my shoulders. That’s what made me fall. My head fell onto her chest and my shoulders rose and fell, rose and fell. My breath sounded loud to me like gasps and there was a pain in my chest, a choking feeling. I wanted him to leave, and knowing this is what pulled inside of me. It was letting the brightest purple kite fall down from the sky.