Thursday, January 09, 2014

Ten White Geese

Right about this time of year, after the holidays and months before spring break, when the weather is dreary and the days still short, I start to long to run away to a little cabin in the woods.  Ideally, it would be me, a stack of books, and no cell phone or internet.  I desire the solitude, the lack of responsibility for anyone but myself, and permission to hunker down and wait for warmer weather.  Of course, since I like my job and my house and my wife (and would like to keep all of them), I have never actually run away to the forest, but I do think of it from time to time.

So when I began reading Ten White Geese, I was at first envious of the main character-a woman whose
name we don't learn until the very end of the book.  She is a professor of literature, specifically a scholar of Emily Dickinson.  Something has happened, though at first we don't know what, that has caused her to leave her husband and her job, and to rent a small house deep in the forest in Wales.  When she moves into the house, there are ten geese living on the property.  One by one, they start to disappear.  In addition, there is a badger that only she can see, a surly neighbor who acts as though he has dominion over her house and her person, a nearby town full of small people with small concerns, and eventually a boy and his dog.  The woman, who calls herself Emilie, slowly comes apart before the eyes of the reader, despite the best efforts of the boy and his dog to care for her.

Not being all that familiar with Emily Dickinson myself, I can't really speak to how much the plot of the book may or may not have paralleled her life, but the other women in my book club assure me that there were definitely some elements that spoke to her work.  Both the main character and Dickinson withdrew from society, both undoubtedly were suffering from depression, and both longed for human connection, but only on their own terms.  Dickinson had her poetry, and Emilie had a garden-a garden that she was trying to plant, despite the wrongess of the season, so that at least something would be left behind when she was gone.  In the end, the futility of her endeavors only added to her belief that while she may revere Dickinson and her work, she can't possibly live up to her example.

This novel is odd and spare and fairly bleak.  It's set in November and December in the Welsh countryside, a time between-between fall and full winter-and Emilie herself seems to be in some in-between place in her life.  Slowly over the course of the novel her layers are peeled away, until what is left is merely the shell of a woman who is trying desperately to have some control over a life that has gotten away from her.  By then end of the novel, I was certainly not envious of her running away to the woods anymore.  Instead, I felt the loneliness and despair that drove her away from everyone and everything she knew, and I was relieved for her when it all finally came to the end-an end that was as tragic as it was inevitable.

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