Writer's Refuge by Pamela Norris
Salley Vicker's is an audacious
writer, who dares to tread where few in this apostate
age would wish to venture. At a time when the Chuurch
of England is struggling to persuade its dwindling congregation
that faith is still relevant in the twenty-first century,
Vickers writes quietly and confidently about the relationship
between nature, humanity and the numinous. Her first
novel, Miss Garnet's Angel, describing the spiritual
odyssey of an ageing spinster, was an unepected bestseller.
Her second, Instances of the Number 3, was equally gripping,
not least because one of teh characters, like Hamlet's
father, keeps popping back from purgatory to sort out
unfinished business. In Mr Golightly's Holiday, she
sets out to revise Milton by explaining the ways of
man to God. The result is a brilliantly funny roman
à clef, simultaneously funny, sad and surprising.
The novel is set in the fictitious
village of Great Calne Ion Devon, where a successful
business man has rented a holiday cottage. Mr Golightly
is the author of a work of dramatic fiction which has,
over the years, become the basis of a global enterprise.
Protected a team of loyal helpers, his secretary Martha
and the troubleshooters Mike and Bill, the writer has
become increasingly remote from his audience, but as
sales of his book fall off alarmingly, he recognises
that it is time to update his work, perhaps in the style
of the television soaps which, he learns with astonishment,
are now the favourite entertainment of millions of his
former readers. Armed with a laptop and The Shorter
English Dictionary, he sits down to rewrite his drama,
only to find himself caught up in the real-life soap
opera of the inhabitants of Great Calne. And, as so
often happens when one is on holiday from routine concerns.
Mr Golightly finds his mind returning obsessively to
events of his own life, and in particular the catastrophic
death of his beloved son.
While Mr Golightly frets, like
a heartbroken parent, over where it all went wrong,
his neighbour, Ellen Thomas, is experiencing her own
equivalent of the road to Calvary. Singled out, like
Moses, by a ‘sweet and terrible’ voice that
issues from a golden bush, Ellen testifies to love in
the only way available to her, by sheltering an escaped
convict, and listening to his broken tale of suffering
and loss. In the meantime, Bill, a handsome youth with
impressive biceps and long fair hair, has a close encounter
with a virginal barmaid, Mary.
Despite these weighty themes,
Vickers’s novel is as fresh and hopeful as one
of Shakespeare’s comedies, and for similar reasons.
Like the soap operas Mr Golightly struggles to emulate,
she relies on a succession of rapid, dramatic scenes
to carry the action, and is not afraid to mingle tragedy
with slapstick. The village setting allows her to draw
on a full cast of characters, who bicker, drink and
defraud with all the vigour of the inhabitants of Gomorrah.
She can mimic the idiom of a range of speakers, from
Jackson the jobbing builder to the woman who runs the
beauty parlour, and has the pace and timing to make
the most of her comic effects. More unusually, she seems
as comfortable discussing metaphysics as she is with
estimating the likely effects of a bikini wax (Brazilian-style),
and can even inveigle our sympathy for Mr Golightly’s
main business rival, an incendiary gentlemen with eyes
like ruined stars.
Vickers’s strengths can
veer into weaknesses. She has a fondness for gnomic
sayings which don’t always survive close scrutiny.
The comedy can sometimes collapse into caricature, and
her prose occasionally falters in the struggle to describe
intense feeling. But these are minor flaws. Vickers
is never less than original and, when conveying her
understanding of human frailty and potential, she can
be sublime. Her characters find solace in the countryside
from the pains of existence, and Vickers depicts its
glories with a painter’s eye. Depressed by human
malevolence. Mr Golightly seeks refuge on a tor above
Dartmoor and surveys ‘the green and brown and
gold chequered moorland floor’ and the reservoir
‘where light shone like polished silver on the
water’. All this, he observes, is good. ‘So
what was wrong? Why were nature’s creations so
gracious and vital compared to humankind?’ But
as Mr Golightly discovers, grace still survives in the
human world. Salley Vickers’s splendid novel is
ample proof of that.
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