Monday, December 21, 2009

Talking to Animals, Creating Myth & Returning to Reality

As a child I loved Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books and read all of those held by my local library. When I recently found the first book in a nearby second hand bookshop I couldn’t resist it.

Reading it again more than 40 years later I can understand the appeal the books had, but I wondered whether such a book could remain in print today considering some of its very politically incorrect portrayals of black Africans. However, a quick look at the website of a major seller has shown me that The Story of Doctor Dolittle is still being sold.
Now I wonder whether it has been modified in anyway to remove references to “Darkies” “Niggers” and “Coons”. I also wonder about an incident in the book where a black African prince dislikes his colour and turns to John Dolittle to change his face white.

Otherwise, the story is a simple adventure of animals (both domestic and exotic) and encounters with pirates.

Another favourite revisited was Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. I found a hardcover copy in the same second hand shop mentioned above a few weeks ago and looked forward to rediscovering why I enjoyed it so much when I first read it. Not long after I bought the book I found out that the author had very recently died .

This book is the first of a series. None of the subsequent books is a true sequel, they merely explored different aspects of the world introduced in the first. However only a month or two before Holdstock’s death Avilion was released and that book apparently returns to the characters of the first novel to continue their story.

The main “character” throughout the series of books is Ryhope Forest, one of the last remaining wild woodlands in Britain in which man’s deepest mythological memories are brought to life. The Mythago’s of the title are the people and places originating in the wood that have been formed out of the racial memories of the humans venturing near or into the forest.
As someone who has always had a love of British legend and mythology this book offered a mature exploration of a doorway between our “real” world and the world of myth. Instead of children finding a way to Narnia through a wardrobe (as in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe), Mythago Wood presents darker more brutal reality behind the stories that became legend and its world is entered along hidden trackways into and through the forest. Take the wrong path and you merely find yourself back at your starting point. Take a correct path and you enter deeper into the forest and its mysteries.
If the book has a weakness it is its lack of sustained emotional engagement. The characters are stoic ex-servicemen who don’t let their guard down.
The exception to this comes through the early relationship between Stephen Huxley and a female Mythago, Guiwenneth. Only during their deepening relationship is there a genuine sense of emotion involvement between reader and characters. It is this relationship that provides the motivation for Stephen to enter the forest and seek the paths to its heart.

A Patchwork Planet
was something new that I hadn’t previously read. I had seen that its author Anne Tyler is a favourite of both Nick Hornby and Roddy Doyle, two of my own favourite writers.
I don’t know how this particular book fits within her overall work, whether it is one of her best or one of her lesser novels, but I enjoyed it enough to something else she has written.
Unlike the fantasy and adventure of the two books mentioned above, A Patchwork Planet deals with very realistic characters facing very real situations and at times gives a very moving account of relationship issues that most (if not all) of us face at some times in our lives. The emotional complexities of maintaining relationships in a broken family where a child has little contact with one parent. The effects of old age, in which physical and mental decline can strike suddenly to significantly change a person’s relationship with those around them. The way emotional blackmail can be utilised to create and maintain dependency of one person upon another.
It is a simple book exploring complex matters of relationship without any sense of exploiting or manipulating the reader emotionally.


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