Friday, 31 May 2013

Conjuring Trix

Every novel which features characters who vocalise (internally or externally) is an act of literary ventriloquism.  As readers, we expect such inhabitants of books to project a sense of credibility (whether as 'realistic' people or creatures, or as fabulous ones) through their mental and vocal utterances, unless a novel is striving for effects created by deliberate deviation from such an approach. As has often been observed, this does not mean that fictional monologue or dialogue can be mined directly from the real world, as most transcripts of real-life conversations would neither be replete with literary merit nor hold a reader's attention.  Fiction writers who choose to populate their pages with 'real' historical characters (I hear there's a certain Ms Mantel who shows promise in this regard) must face the additional discipline of securing a secondary level of plausibility within their particular framework, which involves considerable challenges in terms of vocabulary and register as well as in describing their characters' psychologies and thoughts.  Even if an author does not attempt to replicate historically authentic speech patterns and vocabulary, the system of utterances employed by each character still must convey an appropriate identity, and bear an accurate relationship to those of the other characters.  The test of how successfully all this is done is, I suppose, whether we can see the author's lips moving.  Mary Hamer hurdles these obstacles beautifully in the Virginia Prize-winning Kipling & Trix, which is based on the lives of, and relationship between the creator of 'If', Mowgli, etc. and his sister.

One of the joys of the book lies in being reintroduced to a life and body of work (Kipling's) from unusual perspectives, especially that of his familial concerns and his complex, rich and troubled relationship with Trix.  Another source of pleasure is the skilful portrayal of characters who, although relatively minor in the book, have left a significant footprint in history. Edward Burne-Jones, for example, produces a pleasurable frisson as he walks these pages, grappling not so much with weighty matters of Art and Culture as how to keep his family healthy and happy (Kipling was his nephew by marriage).  Another very successful aspect of the book for me was the rendering of the kaleidoscope of locations through which the characters' lives are twirled, including India, Britain, America and a richly-recreated South Africa.

The character and story of Trix are engagingly-drawn, especially in the observation of how her psychology and development are warped as her fierce, instinctive desire to write (the book is very good on writing) is confronted by the conventions and restrictions of her culture and society.  Hamer handles this minefield of cliche with deftness and ingenuity, producing a convincing but never sentimental portrait of a beleaguered, intelligent woman, and vividly conjuring the atmosphere and preoccupations of the time.  Hamer uses her embodiment of Trix to examine the conflict, jealousy and guilt that characterise families, as well as to celebrate the profound, transfiguring joy that family relationships can bring.  If, as was the case for me, Kipling, his world and his family are little more than indistinct cliches, Kipling & Trix will provide very absorbing education.

I should not neglect to praise the quality of Hamer's writing.  An expertise with dialogue is obviously a prerequisite for this kind of novel, but Hamer supplements this skill with some fine turns of phrase:

'Alice spoke from the wooden embrace of the old Windsor chair'

and some excellent comic observation, such as of:

'A dark tower of a town house where, Trix suspected, the air was haunted by the steam of suet puddings'

and there are some very well-wrought set pieces.

In conclusion, I ought to say that (a) I am working part-time for the publisher, but that I wrote this post while intimately connected to a lie-detector and (b) on finishing the book I reserved Kipling's complete verse from the library.  On seeing the size of this tome, I realised that the world prolific needs upgrading.  Whatever negative epithets you feel may justly adorn the work and character of 'Ruddy', slothfulness cannot be among them.

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