Sally Thomas: Works of Mercy (and one or two other things)
I've been meaning to mention this novel, and putting it off because I felt that it deserved a fuller treatment than I had time to give it. But today I'm giving up. I have a busy few days coming up, and rather than put it off again I'm just going to say a little and then direct you to more extensive reviews.
"On Mondays I cleaned the rectory for the good of my soul." The speaker is Kirsty Sain, a widow in her...well, I'm not exactly sure about her age, but let's call it early elderly, as she seems to have been an adult in the early '70s. The next sentence suggests the way the story is going to open out from this simple and even dull routine: "I did it, too, in those days, for the good of Father Schuyler, who was young and untried." As the story goes on she's going to be called upon for the good of several others, including a most unlikely cat (but don't worry, this is not a cutesy cat story).
The rectory belongs to the small Catholic parish in a small North Carolina town in which Kirsty has lived for many years, for most of her adult life, but where she has never entirely fitted in: "stranded on the wrong side of the world," she says of her arrival there as a newlywed. She had grown up in the Shetland Islands, and I have to say I was initially puzzled by that as a fictional choice; it seemed arbitrary. But it works, the stormy, isolated, half-Nordic environment of one of the smaller islands prefiguring the isolation of her life in the U.S.: married, but childless as a result of a disaster in her youth, since her husband's death almost entirely alone, and not uncomfortable that way.
I was happy, or something like it. All my life I had lived among people. Now, although perhaps my days sound dull, I was well enough satisfied with my own company.
There is nothing very dramatic in the way she is slowly drawn out of that somewhat isolated self-sufficiency. Small occasions in which she is needed arise, and she responds, somewhat passively, somewhat resignedly, maybe reluctantly but not unwillingly. One such is her involvement with an anarchic Catholic family with children of such number that Kirsty has difficulty fixing the exact count in her mind. This family encounters great suffering, which Kirsty cannot undo or heal. But she is stalwart in doing what she can.
Before I turn this over to serious reviewers, I have to say that this is one of those books where the simple act of reading, sentence by sentence, is enjoyable. I cannot say that about, for instance, Dostoevsky (though maybe that would be different if I could read Russian). Kirsty's narration is often wryly funny, often poignant. Her account of being photographed for the parish directory:
On my appointed day, I had shown up in a spirit of grudging resignation, to be jollied intolerably by the photographer and to enter my name and address on the appropriate paper form. In that issue of the directory you can find me still, looking every inch the retired lady berserker, my faded hair standing out in puffs either side of my face. My expression betrays the itchiness of my best moss-green wool dress and the lameness of the photographer's jokes. I am recorded in those pages as the worst species of witch, who eats children for breakfast and enjoys every mouthful.
The "berserker" reference is to her northern ancestors.
And another thing: one of the great pleasures of Sally Thomas's book of poems Motherland is her skill with the visual. (I wrote about it here.) That's very present in the novel:
The October days looked caught in amber. Amber was the color of the land as it rose and fell beneath the high, dry sky. At night the moon rounded and rode above the soft edge of the trees, breathing its calm blue light. The word at this time of the year felt enormous, tall and wide and empty.
It's from Wiseblood Books, by the way, who are doing great work, and if you want to buy it you might want to order it directly from them.
Those more serious reviews:
Fr. Dwight Longenecker in The Imaginative Conservative
Aarik Danielson in Fare Forward
I had never heard of the first and last of those two publications. The last one, Fare Forward, is intriguing. The phrase is from the "Four Quartets," and the magazine is
a Christian review of ideas founded in 2012 by a group of young Ivy League graduates. Trained by our time in the campus journal movement (now known as the Augustine Collective), we set out to start a publication that would be creedally orthodox, intentionally ecumenical, politically unaffiliated, and welcoming to all readers, regardless of faith or lack thereof.
Good for them. I cannot help saying that any group calling itself a "collective" is automatically a little suspect and/or ridiculous in my eyes. But they're young and probably don't have the same associations with the word that I do.
Another note on Big Star: I listened, not very attentively, to Alex Chilton's solo album Like Flies On Sherbet. I'm not sure whether my impulse to give it a fair chance (i.e. several hearings) is strong enough to overcome my wish not to hear it again. Either way, I can't imagine that it could ever be anything but a big disappointment compared to Third / Sister Lovers or for that matter the other two original Big Star albums. AllMusic says it "isn't quite the car wreck it once appeared to be." Praise can't get much fainter than that.
Maybe the Fare Forward folks should read this piece, and also a little history: "Why journalists should avoid the word ‘collective’" https://www.cjr.org/language_corner/collective.php
'Regardless of its history, the noun “collective” is being revived to mean a group of people with like-minded experiences or goals. For example, at Kent State University, a new group called the “KSU Collective” calls itself a media-based group, but seems to emphasize fashion and the arts, keeping with the use of “collective” in the arts.
In Birmingham, Alabama, a local businessman announced a software-as-a-service company called “Biso Collective.” He said he “included the word ‘collective’ based on the definition: ‘a cooperative enterprise marked by similarity among the members of the group.’” No hint of forced labor there.
And Ugg brand seems to want to have it all. Its “Ugg Collective” is “a group of real people who embody our values and the spirit of California. They are artists, surfers, writers, activists, and free spirits, and in telling their stories, we tell our own.” A “collective” of people marketing a “collective” group of products.
We’re not sure a line of clothing can be a “collective,” but marketing and advertising can do what they want if consumers buy into it. Journalists, though, should shun “collective” unless the context is clear, and stay with “collection,” “group” or some other, er, “collective” noun. The lessons of history inform the connotations of today.'
Posted by: Marianne | 02/22/2023 at 01:39 PM
Heh. The first paragraph of that article describes me perfectly, except that it's "and" not "or." On the one hand, the serious communist use of the word. On the other hand the somewhat ridiculous somewhat stoned hippies running a health food collective.
Posted by: Mac | 02/22/2023 at 03:02 PM