Love Among The Graves Essay, Research Paper
Love among the graves Courting Shadows by Jem Poster 278pp, Sceptre”I had expected bones, of course, though not in such abundance.” As first lines go, it’s a good one. Eleven unassuming little words, but so seductive, dramatic and drenched with implication. What bones? And why expected, and why so many? And who is this person anyway, so suddenly compelled to share this sinister observation with us? If great openings are meant to make the reader turn the page, let’s just say I turned it – and kept on feverishly turning to the very end. Jem Poster’s first novel is as intelligent, daring and profound as it is highly, bewitchingly readable. It’s the winter of 1880 and John Stannard is a tense young architect from the provinces who has come to a remote English village to oversee the restoration of its decaying church. Well-educated, well-meaning, yet disastrously arrogant and hugely lacking in self-awareness, he finds the small population maddeningly superstitious, unhelpful and backward-looking. They find him brutally lacking in awareness, disruptive, unfeeling. In fact, they wish he’d go away. The village – poor, honest, tightly knit – is a place where everyone knows everyone’s business. And soon a great deal is known about Stannard. First, that in excavating the church’s foundations, he has uncovered a somewhat recent coffin and, rather than leave it respectfully alone, has had it brought up out of its grave to facilitate the building work. As if that weren’t ill-judged enough, when a local man is injured while working for him, Stannard is – despite the desperate interventions of the local vicar – uncharitable about sick leave. And then something else: a beautiful local girl decides she wants to get to know our hero better and starts sending him love letters. Stannard – uptight, awkward, sexually and emotionally ignorant of women – is both drawn and disconcerted. Drawn because Ann Rosewell is beautiful and he’s lonely, but disconcerted by her apparent willingness to do the pursuing. From the start it is she who approaches him suggesting they meet, she who dares to take his arm, put her face close to his and tell him how she feels, and sends him notes. Is it because she’s brave or – more worryingly – because she has done it all before? Poster’s meticulous examination of what Stannard finds himself feeling – an all-too-convincing blend of pity, social superiority, attraction and revulsion – is dazzlingly done. “How easily we may be caught off balance,” he observes with rueful self-pity. As if the very act of feeling something – anything – means losing his certain place in the world, his sense of being upright and in control. And, among other things, that’s what this novel is about – loss of control, of faith in the way we see ourselves, in the stories we spin to justify our worst acts. It’s a fantastically tightly written, read-every-word novel – unnervingly shadowy in places, starkly, devastatingly well-lit in others. Every description roots you more firmly in this place of graves and bitter winds, every conversation takes you somewhere more unsettling, every new utterance further muddies the options. Much of it could, you feel, have been written by any author of the period, but not all – and that’s the point. Where Poster’s slow-burning narrative suddenly bursts into flames is when Stannard – not only caught off balance but falling fast – finds himself having sex with Annie on a hillside. Quick, muddy, orgasmic sex – the kind of sex that your Brontës and Collinses could only hint at or dream of. So we hear about the “tender obscenities” and see the “splayed legs” and the “woman supine on her hoisted skirts, her white skin smirched with woodland muck”. Or, as Stannard’s terrified Victorian sensibility immediately coins it: a “sorry tableau illustrating man’s subjection to the flesh”. This is a subtle first-person narrative, told in a bleak past tense, some time after the events described, and in a tone that swings carefully between self-justifying and appalled. As a psychological thriller, it’s as close to wonderful as anything I’ve recently read. But Poster’s biggest achievement is that he creates a young male voice of such unnerving complexity and moral turmoil. Stannard is a stunning creation – awkward, difficult, dangerously self-deluding and, ultimately, someone who moves you to inspect your own damaged soul. · Julie Myerson’s latest novel is Laura Blundy.