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Monday, 16 June 2008
by Sue Guiney
The myth of first novels is that they are autobiographical, coming of age stories about young people, with lots of domestic detail, dysfunctional families, and not much room for ideas. Sue Guiney’s first novel, Tangled Roots, has families, kitchens and coming of age moments, but beyond that it is a book about mortality, about the criss crossing of histories and the ways in which they flow together and apart. It is a book in which time itself is a central character. To quote the book’s epigraph: ‘If there is symmetry in our universe then who is to say that the stories of the past cannot coexist with the present, that the arrow of time can move in one direction only…’
John is a scientist who has come to a crisis point in his life, a point at which he must travel back in order to move forward. His story alternates with that of his mother, Grace, who re-lives her personal history and the history of her time. She is a woman who ‘survived tragedies and infidelities only to cheat death and rediscover life.’ These stories are intertwined in crystal clear prose that allows the reader to be the more moved in that it dos not dictate the response. The theme of mortality is present in both stories: the understated but heart wrenching death of a child, the end of a marriage, the maiming of a young woman. It is there in a rush of tenderness, a surge of anger, the inability to say the right words until the moment has passed. Grace says ‘ …everyone has a childhood. But you see perhaps it is not in the having. Perhaps it is in the remembering. Perhaps history is nothing more than everyone’s childhood all linked together.’ And in the remembering, time shifts again.
The minor characters are beautifully drawn, the settings , of Boston, Russia, London, Martha’s Vineyard and New York are skilfully and economically evoked, the Russian scenes being particularly vivid. I also enjoyed the descriptions of baseball, which are among the best pieces of writing in the book; the game creates a vivid sense of life and acts as both mirror and metaphor of the lives of the characters . This book engaged me on many levels, both as an engrossing story and as a thought-provoking meditation. An outstanding debut.
reviewed by Kate Beswick