But it’s the kind of time that makes a writer ask: “Why write?” And I particularly appreciated reading about Gilbert’s writing.
It’s been a few years since he’s published a book. And his wife, Phyllis, dedicated to “feigning a polite and admiring interest”, to express her “wifely duty”, is impatient. She has firm opinions: “Culture was right and proper.” But little interest.
And Gilbert’s endless reading “with an almost passionate concentration”, as though a student studying for exams, doesn’t cut it for her. “There was something solid abut a book with covers.” Her questions about his daily “work” become more pointed, and her tolerance ebbs.
Readers are drawn closer to Gilbert’s perspective. We feel his uncertainty keenly, his grappling with questions about how to and whether to shape narrative in times like these.
With how to start: “No matter where you begin, someone else has brought the story to that point; no matter where you end, someone takes over from you and carries it on.”
With the sense of inadequacy and futility twinned with necessity and compulsion: “All you can do is to record a fragment of human experience-anywhere, any time, for every moment gathers in the past and propels the future.”
A few scenes transport readers to the past, where we see Gilbert fall in love with notebooks and what he can do with them. (I can relate to this.) We witness his first purchase of a shiny-covered black notebook, for a week’s worth of pocket money, his “obscure creative urge to express himself”, how the “mere act of buying it was an assuagement of unrest” that “gave him a kind of affinity with Keats and Browning”.
There are so many great plot points in the novel, so many reasons to stick with the story (and as in any home-front war-time story, there are some significant losses).