This week so far: a great novel & an exhibition

Yes, this is my week so far. Coffee, cake and culture – perfect! I have done some knitting, but need more photos for a proper post, so that is on its way!

I have blogged about visiting our local art gallery, Smiths Row, before. It’s a lovely, clean space and they get interesting, accessible exhibitions there. Oh, and it’s free! At the moment, it’s hosting two exhibitions: Caroline Wright, On Tides and Fathoms, and Elin Hoyland’s The Brothers. Wright’s piece is a film piece, looking at three Suffolk locations – a beach hut, a shepherd’s hut and a beach lookout – and the landscape around them. On Tides and Fathoms seems to suggest the inevitability of time passing, but also to consider how these small, purposeful buildings are – or aren’t – used and their role in the Suffolk landscape.

Hoyland’s The Brothers is a fascinating series of black and white photographs of two elderly farming brothers in the Norwegian countryside. Lots of Scandi jumpers here, worn with utilitarian authenticity! The sparseness of the brothers’ home against the mountainous countryside is beautifully recorded.

I was very excited to get Tessa Hadley’s novel, Clever Girl, from the library. I’ve read all of her previous books and have always found them beautifully detailed in their depiction of everyday sadnesses, joys and incisions. This is a completely captivating novel. It tells the story of Stella, from her childhood with her mother (who tells her her father is dead), to her adult life as a parent, student, lover and wife in her fifties at the novel’s close. The story is entirely in the first person, encouraging the reader to empathise with Stella, but also lending the dilemmas, choices and moments of indecision she experiences a vivid plausibility. If you’ve read any of Hadley’s other works, you will be prepared for the startlingly precise scrutiny to which she subjects the world around her characters and this is part of the novel’s charm: she conjures up the world of Stella’s 60s childhood and adolescence lightly but convincingly. For example, Stella’s observation of her boyfriend, Valentine’s, family is succinct but deftly suggests his social class: “his mother had a ruined face and watery huge eyes, she wore pearls and Chinese jade earrings at the dining table in the evenings (unlike us, they actually ate in their dining room).” Hadley is willing to probe, through Stella’s character, the joys and limitations experienced by parents; parental absences, whether permanent or temporary, recur. Stella’s attitude to her children seems always ambivalent. She disappears in the night, then returns at will, to her son’s stoical comment, “Mum’s back.”

A poem I’ve always enjoyed is Liz Lochhead’s The Choosing. In it, she compares herself, carrying a pile of books from the library, to a married, perhaps pregnant school friend whose life has taken a domestic rather than an academic path. Hadley plays with the same ideas here when Stella proclaims: “Men or books? With relief, I chose books.” Is that “clever”? The title, and the dreamy pencil-sketched cover portrait of a schoolgirl staring into the middle distance, make the reader wonder, at the end, what “cleverness” is.

You can hear Liz Lochhead read her poem here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00nq5l3