Monday, September 20, 2010

Next Of Kin by Johanna Trollope

There are some writers who provide readers a kind of oasis of hope and solace even when writing about an unpredictable and in many ways menacing world. Johanna Trollope is one such writer, and her novel Next of Kin leaves the reader with a kind of guarded optimism in facing an uncertain future. At least on the surface, this is a story about how families adapt to grief and loss, and even if that were all there is to the novel, it would be well worth reading. Trollope creates characters who seem real, situations that seem in some way or other universal, and moral dilemmas that retain their complexity even as she points the way towards a resolution.

I don’t know about other readers, but I like reading authors who describe our current historical situation and who are willing to reveal the many casualties of contemporary life, in short, writers who choose to tell the truth rather than simply entertaining us or allowing us to escape real life. That said, I have to admit that many writers brave enough to describe the world as they see it also sometimes leave the reader with a sense of despair and hopelessness, since the authors are unable to mask their own cynicism as they describe the world around them. After reading a series of such books describing city life and some of the horrors it contains, I find myself yearning for something that is more positive, something that leaves room for hope and encourages actions that might create a future better than the past. So I turn to writers like Trollope as much for relief as for enlightenment, and she seldom disappoints me.

Next of Kin is about an extended family of British farmers, two brothers, one of whom continues with his parents to produce crops, and the other who chooses instead to begin a stock farm for both dairy and meat production. Both brothers find themselves competing with agribusiness and thus borrow over and over to purchase machinery and equipment that allows a kind of marginal competition in the new world they find themselves in, but in fact brings them ever closer to financial ruin and loss of their farms.

The novel really begins with the death of the wife of one of the brothers. Carolyn, or Caro as she is called, is an American who wanders to England in her early twenties in an existential search for some sort of meaningful life and a kind of permanence that she has never achieved with her own alternative culture parents and their nomadic existence. There she meets and marries her dairy farmer husband, Robyn; they adopt a daughter and then slowly but inexorably drift into separate lives lived under the same roof. The other brother, Joe, marries even later than Robyn, quickly has two children with his very non-farmer young wife, and builds what his parents and others see as a successful and thriving farm; his parents live their lives through him. He is their hero and their hope.

What neither Joe’s parents nor his wife understand is that he has been secretly borrowing for years, attempting to keep up with the demands of contemporary farming, and all the while barely keeping in check a dark, brooding anxiety and sense of hopelessness. For reasons never made clear the death of his sister-in-law Caro destroys a desperate hope he has been able to maintain, and shortly after her death, he shoots himself in a shed at his parent’s home.

Trollope’s deep understanding of human nature and of familial relations comes out in her descriptions of how the other characters in the novel react to Joe’s death. That the parents have lived for and through their son Joe is apparent in their devastation at his death. And his young wife, Lindsay, who has been trying for all of her years with Joe to reach him emotionally, eventually in desperation trying to warn her in-laws about his underlying psychological turmoil, is both devastated and bitter when her warnings go unheeded and her husband flees in the only way he can.

In this story of loss and change, there is one character who plays the role of catalyst for getting the family to move from petrified grief to a kind of healing and carrying on. She is an unlikely candidate for heroine—a punked up city-girl who knows nothing of farms or farm life and who does not even cook or clean for herself. Zoe, the city girl, enters the action via becoming the London roommate of Judy, the adopted daughter of Robyn and Caro, and inviting herself along on a visit to the country.

No doubt, some readers will see Zoe as bit too idealized, a too convenient free spirit brought in from the wings to get the family members to admit feelings and to begin to really talk to one another. But I found her to be almost believable, and a rather ingenious way for Trollope to bring in her own views on grief and change, on parenting, on what gets called conventional morality, even on the whole issue of biological, so-called  ‘real’, as opposed to adoptive (unreal?) parents.

I find the end of the novel to be optimistic and uplifting, although the best Robyn can do in order to actually stay on his farm and continue being a farmer requires him to sell his land and lease it back (just as his parents have always leased the land they farm). Each of the characters in the novel is brought to some sort of realization, one could even call it enlightenment. As Robyn tells his daughter Judy that she can come back from London, can stay on the farm if she chooses, though he must sell the land and hope to lease it back, she remarks, “Even though it’s so hard. Even though it’s always been so hard?”
Yes….I  wouldn’t want to live any other way now. I suppose I may have to, one day, but I’ll only give in at the last ditch.
While I must admit that as a reader I run to Trollope in order to relieve momentarily the gloom and doom of so much excellent contemporary fiction, I get more than the relief I had hoped for. I learn about people, about families, about relationships, and even when what I learn is sad and sobering, it is also tinged with hope.

In the end, even Dilys, the mother of Robyn and Joe, the person who is perhaps the most devastated by his suicide, the most hopeless, comes to some sort of resolution.
Change and loss, she said to herself, change and loss, like a chant, over and over, life carrying you away, carrying things away from you, then bringing them back, some little thing you didn’t look for, didn’t know you needed until you saw it washed up there, waiting at your feet. Change and loss. And growth. Growth where you had never looked for it before, never thought to look.

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