Thursday, 5 May 2011

Notwithstanding by Louis de Bernières

This is an absolute treat. I came by it after reading a review in the Graun that made reference to the Surrey Tyrol where the book is set, which was enough to send me off to the library for a copy. It’s set in that hilly part of the county between Godalming and Haslemere; not close enough to where I grew up to be my stamping ground proper, but near enough for me to recognise the terrain. That said, this book’s appeal is universal. Louis de Bernières has put the whole human comedy onto the pages in a series of interwoven short stories about the inhabitants of the village Notwithstanding.

In Obadiah Oak, Mrs Griffiths and the Carol Singers, the titular Mrs Griffiths is a misanthropic widow who has a disdainful outlook on most things in life, especially young people and the gnarled old countryman Obadiah ‘Jack’ Oak, who hangs around Notwithstanding in a fug of six decades of neglected hygiene.

It’s coming up to Christmas and Mrs Griffiths is preparing to send her cards to the respectable folk in the village. However, a sense of emptiness has come into her life since her husband died, so she’s also decided that this year she will make mince pies and punch for the village carol singers, instead of turning off the lights and pretending she’s not in as she usually does:

Mrs Griffiths covers herself and her kitchen in dusting sugar, she deals with the frustration of pastry that sticks to the table and the rolling pin, she conquers the meanness that nearly prevents her from pouring a whole bottle of red wine into the punch, and then she waits, sitting on the wooden chair in the kitchen, warmed by the rich smells of baking pastry and hot wine, and lemon, and rum.

The carol singers eventually appear, but at her garden gate she hears them discussing whether to bother singing at her door. Coming to the conclusion that she’s an old skinflint who will only hide when they start singing, they miss her out. Angry and frustrated to the point that she cries for the first time since she was a child, Mrs Griffiths starts on her Christmas cards instead. The job requires fortification:

She gets up from her chair and, without really thinking about it, eats a mince pie and takes a glass of punch. She had forgotten how good they can be, and she feels the punch igniting her insides. The sensuality of it shocks and seduces her, and she takes another glass... A rebellious whim creeps up on her. She glances around as if to check that she is truly alone in the house, and then she stands up and shouts, “Bloody bloody bloody bloody bloody bloody.” She adds, “Bloody children, bloody bloody.” She attempts “bollocks” but merely embarrasses herself and tries “bugger” instead. She drinks more punch and says, “Bloody bugger.”

Sloshed on punch, Mrs Griffiths is spurred into uncharacteristic charity. She writes cards to everyone in the village, even to the people who own the pub and vote Labour. She boxes up the remaining mince pies and puts them on the doorstep of Obadiah Oak’s house. After that she comes home and completes what she’s started:

When she returns she finishes off the punch, and then heaves herself upstairs with the aid of the banisters. She is beginning to feel distinctly ill, and heads for her bed with the unconscious but unswerving instinct of a homing pigeon. She reminds herself to draw the curtains so that no one will be able to pry and spy, and then she undresses with difficulty, and throws her clothes on the floor with all the perverse but justified devilment of one who has been brought up not to, and has never tried it before. She extinguishes the light and crawls into bed, but every time that she closes her eyes she begins to feel seasick.

As well she might...

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