Saturday, March 8, 2008

A World Lost

Ok, so this is my second book review of the day... the second book so good that I started and finished it within 3 hours. I am a little more pressed for time than I was on the first review, so I will be comparatively briefer.

This book was recommended to me and to sort of everyone within earshot by Todd Cullop after service at Convergence a few weeks ago. Todd has used some Wendell Berry excerpts during our worship services and I have wanted to just sit in silence and meditate on them afterwards. I remember his use of symbolic visual imagery was really powerful and I was struck by how his writing causes a sort of stillness in the mind.

After reading the book, I have a wider perspective on why this is so. A World Lost follows the narrator, Andy, through his recollections of his childhood, all centering on one particular tragedy that affects the entire family. The book opens with an idyllic scene of a perfect childhood day and then describes briefly the tragedy, then returns to it again and again and again, picking up different perspectives, all described by the same central narrating voice, and moving seamlessly forward and backward in time. The book crescendoes with the narrator's retelling of the incident that has haunted his family for 50 years, using the few facts he knows as scaffolding and filling in the rest with his knowledge of the people involved and his imagination. The book concludes with a reflection on all those in his family who have gone before the narrator, a cloud of witnesses who share his history and whom he hopes to see when he dies.

The mental stillness I experience when reading Berry's writing comes from his camera-sharp rendering of visual detail, and his simple evoking of emotion through descriptions of sights, sounds, but especially smells. The first chapter whisked me right into the story by the incredible clarity of the images he portrayed of a young boy playing around on farmland. Maybe I've been reading non-fiction for too long, but I had forgotten the delights of a writer making me feel the heat of the sun and the wonderful relief of cool pond water on a hot day, of rendering the sound of wind, the smell of hay. Throughout the book, he uses smell --the sense that we all know brings back the most powerful memories (I've read the neurological explanation for this but can't remember the details)-- as the predominant sense... or maybe this is just how I perceived it. The smell of pipe smoke mixed with sweat, of cigarette smoke mixed with perfume, of wet grass, barns, hay.... I've SMELLED these things and when he described it it's like his memories became mine... I felt like I was there.

That precision is also in his telling of how family memories are made, and this is maybe what is most powerful for me. He touches on a theme dear to me... of how what we don't know about our families is almost more powerful than what we know; of how we arrive on the stage of life with history all around us, of other people's dramas aging and hardening, other people's mistakes and successes all around us, forming the miasma into which we enter; and finally, the deep power of a major tragedy that happens when you are too young to understand it, but which affects you forever. There are two notable ones in my childhood, and Berry's telling of it is spot on. You spend the rest of your life trying to explain it, trying to fill in all the details you didn't know so that you can make sense of something so huge. You construct a story around it, and that story in part defines you, because it tells you as much about you as it does about what actually happened. It tells you what you want to know, what you can live with about the world, and about your family.

This book will stay with me for some time... and now I've got to go.

1 comment:

Todd said...

Glad you liked it--great review! I'm reading another of Berry's--Jayber Crow. You'll love it.

hope you're having a good weekend!