Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Robinson by Muriel Spark

Okay, so I said that 2006 was a great reading year, but so far 2007 is kicking ass. Robinson was a great book to start with. Robinson is a great book full stop. Because it came after of the amazing The Comforters, a first novel envied even by me, a person with no ability or desire to write fiction, I expected something fitting Muriel Spark’s gift, but maybe not-so-good, a space filler in a long and distinguished career. I came away from Robinson totally sated, wishing I could reread this again for the first time.

“I feel that we were all unwelcome on the island. The emergency is over.”
The book opens with a map of a place that does not exist, including places such as “Burial Ground,” “The Furnace,” and “Secret Tunnels” in the key. Is there a better way to immediately suck a reader in? The map is of the island of Robinson, a small, privately owned island where a plane crash-lands, leaving only three survivors. One is our heroine, January, who at the advice of the enigmatic and stern island owner, Robinson, keeps a journal of her time on the island, waiting for the pomegranate boat that is sure to arrive in a few months, bringing itinerant workers and a manner of civilization. He urges her to “keep to the facts, that will be the healthiest course,” a constriction that Spark goes wild with. Well, wild in her quiet, powerful, British way.

The book is a first person retelling of January’s time on the island and weaves in effortless detail about her life before and after that J sneaks up on you—pop! — as a fully formed character. Passages from her island journal litter the narrative to provide support to J’s later claims, or to give urgency to a story that, to J, increasingly seems like a dream. January is a converted Catholic with a sense of humor (as many of Spark’s main characters are), has two sisters and two brothers-in-law, one son and a wild past. Her pre-island present, which was much monitored by one disagreeable BIL, is sketched this way: “And when I tell you that I have another category of acquaintance, certain dry-eyed poets and drifters dear to my heart, you may see the extent of my temptation in the matter of accepting Jimmie.” So dry, somebody get me a brandy! The other characters pop and crackle their way into existence with Spark’s delicious sentences and major flashback skillz. All these gifts are evident in Spark’s later novels, especially Momento Mori. Check it out…

One very realistic touch that I love is January’s fear of becoming too close to the other islanders. She feels that if she cares too much or gathers too much information about these people, they will become real and therefore cancel out her life before the island and, perhaps, extinguish her life after. This feeling is so near-sighted that Spark’s attention to it and emphasis on it shows just how far she got into January, and how fully she imagined the situation. No sketchy details here.

There is also a short primer on how to teach a cat to play ping-pong: “You play it close to the ground, and you imagine the net.”

“And sometimes when I am walking down King’s Road or sipping my espresso in the morning—feeling, not old exactly, but fusty and adult—and chance to remember the island, immediately all things are possible.”

I may be woozy from too much tea, or happily blinded by the afternoon sun, but I think this book is perfect.

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