I loved Jo Baker’s Longbourn, but, believing that it was her debut novel, wondered if it was the elevator pitch or the prose that had most drawn me in. ‘Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants’ is a fantastic hook, but not one that could easily be duplicated in a second book. However, I’ve now learnt two things about Baker. One, that Longbourn was marketed as a debut but in fact wasn’t Baker’s first published novel at all. Two, that Baker is an impressive writer even when the story she’s telling is less high-concept.
A Country Road, A Tree begins with a boy in Ireland jumping from a tree. However, this is a more dangerous venture than it sounds, because he is flinging himself out into thin air and not landing on his feet. ‘The ground slammed up. It knocked the breath out of him, knocked the light out of him. Made him still.’ Nevertheless, the boy refuses to believe that he will fail. ‘This time, this time, this time, he would skim up to join the clouds. This time, he would fly.’ This very brief prologue – only a couple of pages long – is an arresting opening. As somebody who spent a lot of her childhood jumping off high things to see if she could learn to fly – fortunately, with much less painful results – I instantly found this project familiar. For a reader who didn’t have a childhood obsession with flight, the boy’s efforts might symbolise a theme that the novel returns to throughout; the often thankless, exhausting task of becoming a writer, the rejection, the self-doubt, the self-disgust. Because, as we discover in the course of the next couple of chapters, the nameless boy in the tree is in fact a version of the avant-garde writer Samuel Beckett.
I know very little about Beckett’s life, and (as usual!) I agree with Victoria at Eve’s Alexandria that the triumph of this novel is not presenting a fictionalised biography of Beckett but, instead, using Beckett’s experiences during the Second World War as inspiration to write about a character more loosely connected to the real Beckett. We care about our nameless narrator in a way we might not care about somebody more tightly pinned down by historical fact. The spare, clever way that Baker invokes the past strengthens our attachment further. Bogging down an historical novel with too much detail can be distancing; Baker keeps closely to the lived experience of her characters rather than namedropping newspapers for the sake of it, or trying to infodump too much material about the progress of the war. Because of this, we live through our protagonist’s zig-zaggings across France with his lover, Suzanne, as he does, managing to forget that we know how this all plays out.
A Country Road, A Tree is a very different novel from Longbourn, but they share a close attention to the physicality of their characters’ lives that roots them even more deeply into the times in which they are set. This is evident from the very beginning of A Country Road, A Tree, before the hardships and injuries of war even start; our narrator ‘lifts the skin off his coffee, a greasy caul’; his nieces ‘smell of wool and boiled milk and soap, when they are kissed’; walking up a hill near the sea, ‘gorse rattles its seed pods in the wind and his own breath rattles in his chest, and with exertion now the scar pulls.’ On the run across France in later years, physical concerns centre around two points of anguish: feet and teeth. ‘His feet are all bones, bunions and blisters and ragged yellow nails… the one toe with the missing joint’. After the war is over, our narrator, at the dentist, knows ‘things in his mouth are not as they should be; the snags and edges, the deep throb of nerve, the tender itchy gum’. He has to have several teeth out. These two points of contact, with the ground, and with the poor food that he’s had to eat, not to mention the stone that he likes to suck, leave the greatest physical legacy of the war.
Finally, Baker has pulled off something difficult in this novel; she has written about somebody that she truly admires, without flattening her characterisation or making their choices seem trite or easy. While, as I say, I don’t know enough about Beckett to suggest whether or not this is accurate, this was certainly the kind of character she was trying to create. As she writes in her afterword, ‘the war… presented [Beckett] with a series of extraordinary moral choices. And in impossibly difficult situations, he consistently turned towards what was most decent and compassionate or courageous.’ The skill of this novel is that we only gradually realise how much good is in our narrator, as he feels so torn between the demands of others and his own selfish impulses – and that another interpretation of his actions is possible (like the boy who hurt himself falling from the tree, some of our protagonist’s choices feel a little perverse). This is obviously not the kind of hero-worship pursued by our deranged narrator in Losing Nelson. But it reminds us why writing about people who do heroic things is important, but hard. It’s easier to undermine somebody’s reputation then to demonstrate why you believe it is deserved.