Choices: made or not made

Thanks to a very lively and interesting discussion on In Our Time on Radio 4, I went back to reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles, so to illustrate what I am thinking about this time I shall use it to exemplify something I have felt about fiction and because I really cannot be accused of spoiling the plot (or not by many people). Obviously, in this Thomas Hardy novel there are lots of moments when one or other protagonist makes a choice which turns out to have good or bad consequences – but there is one Rizla paper moment (when there is not the tiniest division between two moments but whose consequences are huge either side) when the whole plot might have swung on a different tack.

Angel Clare and Tess are married and on their wedding night they both confess to having had sexual congress with another person, since guileless Tess has taken Angel’s confession as a permission to spill her story, the outcome from her point of view is entirely unpredictable. That Angel decides that he can no longer entertain a real marriage with Tess (the now sullied object of his devotion) so that they have to part, comes as a blinding shock. The reasons he gives (spurious possibly) make a sort of sense to her, so though completely bewildered, she consents unequivocally to his rash and unfair decision. Thus three days later, they leave the dreaded d’Urberville mansion early, giving the mill owner the pretext that his mill workings are too ancient for Angel to learn what he needs and they take a carriage (a fly) off together and later change to another carriage (a subterfuge necessary so that no one will know what has happened).

At a midway point, when Nuttlebury had been passed, and where there were cross-roads, Clare stopped the conveyance and said to Tess that if she meant to return to her mother’s house it was here that he would leave her. As they could not talk with freedom in the driver’s presence he asked her to accompany him for a few steps on foot…
These things arranged [Angel has set down the proposed arrangements for money and contact, and given her a substantial amount of money to tide her over] he walked with Tess back to the carriage, and handed her in. The coachman was paid and told where to drive her. Taking next his own bag and umbrella – the sole articles he had brought with him hitherwards – he bade her goodbye; and they parted there and then.
The fly moved creepingly up a hill, and Clare watched it go with an unpremeditated hope that Tess would look out of the window for one moment…

This is the Rizla paper moment. In another parallel universe, Tess does look back and Angel Clare realises that he does still love her and chases after her and all is well; or all is well until the scandal catches up with them again as adumbrated by Angel when he explains his decision; or the tables are turned on Angel and although he and Tess live happily together for many years, by chance he encounters in some town somewhere the woman he had seduced, only to find she had a child…the variations are endlessly fascinating. What if Tess had looked back?

There are these moment in nearly every good novel.

Cart Justin Cartwright‘s new novel Up Against the Night is based on an historical South African story of misunderstanding and massacre which still bears some weight in future generations. The quasi-historical characters are Dingane and Piet Retief, Retief is a Boer who wants to expand his holdings and ventures into the Zulu kingdom of Dingane, finding that someone has stolen Dingane’s cattle he goes after them and returns the herd; thinking that this act has given him permission to stay he goes willing with his companions to Dingane’s kraal with no weapons, and they are massacred. Dingane knowing full well that Piet intends to take away his land…

Many years later his descendant, Frank McAllister, returns to South Africa, bringing his wife, Nellie, and her son with him. Meanwhile, his unreliable cousin, Jaco, who has many faults, has also returned, he a troubled man and is hiding out at Frank’s place which he has located with some difficulty, only to find Frank away (visiting the ancient site and memorial of his forbears). The Rizla paper moment in this novel comes when Frank allows Jaco back into his life…

ForsterI was in the middle of reading How to Measure a Cow when the news broke that Margaret Forster had died. I shall greatly miss her writing. Always perceptive, sometimes funny and sometimes heartbreaking. I have loved her books, there is not one from which I have not received some new insight or pearl of wisdom, she had a gift for breathing life into her characters so that they stay with you for weeks after you have closed the book. A consummate story-teller.

This oddly titled book has, as its main character, a young woman, Tara Fraser who has made a terrible mistake and paid for it. She has now taken on a new identity and is living in Workington, a location she picked at random by sticking a pin in a map of England. So all her flamboyance and drive are gone, in their place is mousey, bland Sarah Scott. She rents an unassuming house in a dreary street, gets a job and tries to blend, blandly, in. But in the house exactly opposite lives nosey Nancy, Nancy also has a secret but that doesn’t stop her wanting to pick away at Sarah’s life. But in a small town people notice things: who is it that Sarah meets each week? Her choices, as Tara Fraser, up to now have not always been good, but at least they were really her…what would happen if she revisited her old haunts again…

SlovoGillian Slovo has used as a background a highly fictionalised account of the police actions that led up to the London riots of 2014. That is to say, in this novel, a death during an arrest leads from one wrong choice to another and a peaceful vigil leads to a mass riot, looting and mayhem. The whole novel is interspersed with redacted police report sheets, so that while the actions are unfolding from one perspective, the reader is also getting the police viewpoint through these terse and unemotional police logs.

There are several other angles as well, a new police commissioner, politicians manoeuvring against each other – but at a critical moment a police officer chooses to ignore someone upon whom much of the action is predicated, the reason only becomes plain in the last pages…

Not her best novel, I fear, but a very good read all the same. Tense and tightly constructed, utterly believable.

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