I fell in love with Alice Hoffman's magical realism rich writing more than twenty years ago. But I just haven't been able to get into her couple most recent adult novels and I haven't been entirely sure why.
Reading Lucy Wood's debut novel reminded me of what I used to love about Hoffman's work (and I wonder, now, whether Hoffman's style might have changed in the last few years... or perhaps I just haven't been in the right head space when starting her recent novels).
"A dog barked. She knocked again. The dog barked louder and then ran out from the back. Ada stood rigid as it skidded around her legs. 'Good dog,' she said. 'Bugger off.' Dogs were like the worst drunks - lunging at crotches then pissing over other people's shoes."
"There were notes stuck to the fridge. She squinted at the one closest to her. Blue with orange, blue with orange. What did it say? She knew it started with a 'b' at least. But words were devious; they twisted and played tricks so that you ended up writing, 'I have brown hare' and everyone laughing. What you had to do was look at the out of the corner of your eye until they turned blurry and almost disappeared, and then you didn't have to worry about them any more. It was the same with cracks in pavements and clocks with heavy, swinging pendulums."
Weathering is about the dead as much as it is about the living, about the animals and the the natural world as much as it is about the humans. The river and the house are central to the story; emotions and actions and spirits are rooted in the constant turbulence of the river and the creaking stairs of the house.
Weathering may not have high-stakes, life-or-death action. But it is scarred with emotions, rich with imagery and a haunting. No one is terribly surprised at the haunting (which is quite typical of magical realism), treating the specter almost as if her presence is expected, natural.
I have a couple of qualms about Weathering. There are long, somewhat florid descriptions regarding the environment, particularly the river, and particularly near the end of the novel. I was impressed by the heavy, exciting atmosphere she creates, often using words in unique and interesting ways, but ultimately it felt like there was too much of it all, that it could have been edited down at least a bit so that I didn't start skimming near the end. Please note that my copy of this novel was provided for review by Bloomsbury USA, and there could have been some editing changes made before publication (January 19, 2015 in the US). I do also wish there had been some level of place setting at the beginning - it didn't even have to be all that specific... even just England could have helped. For some reason, I spent at least the first third of the book imagining somewhere in New England, but when British phrases and colloquialisms started creeping in, I looked it up and saw that Wood lives in Devon, and I imagined that it was intended to be set in England. I sort of struggled with these two differing places in my mind for the rest of the book, which didn't make sense for a novel that was weighted so heavily in a particular sort of place.
Though, of course, it could also be argued that a concrete location would work against the overriding feeling of Weathering: it is dreamlike and surreal, with one scene bleeding into the next, creating a sometimes jarring realization that something different is happening now (in a good way!)