The New York Times: Meg Wolitzer praises Gardam's "superb stories."
Date: Jan 2 2015
Jane Gardam’s ‘Hollow Land’
By MEG WOLITZER
Just as devotees of certain television shows dream of finding lost episodes and Beatles fans imagine opening a box and fishing out recordings of forgotten studio sessions, so readers long for ways to extend the pleasure they receive from beloved writers. In this regard Jane Gardam has been more than accommodating. After American readers began to embrace the British writer’s novel “Old Filth,” released here in 2006, they learned that Gardam had been publishing fine fiction regularly since the 1970s. Her backlist is extraordinary and deep, populated by titles published only in Britain as well as ones that also appeared in America but had essentially been hiding in plain sight, the way books sometimes do when they don’t find their audience.
Gardam’s “new” book, a collection of linked stories called “The Hollow Land,” is actually one of the old ones, having originally been published in Britain in 1981. Making the analogy to a “lost” anything may be a little unfair, since “The Hollow Land” won a prestigious Whitbread Award in 1981 — but in the children’s novel category. Now Europa Editions is publishing the book, in a volume that’s clearly meant for readers of all ages.
This seems about right. Reading these superb stories and, as a result, thinking back on the protagonist of “Old Filth,” an elderly barrister named Edward Feathers (described by an acquaintance as an “old coelacanth”), who reflects on his remarkable life from his childhood as a Raj orphan to his current incarnation, I had the sense that Gardam, a sensitive writer regardless of subject matter or genre, may not draw much of a distinction between “children’s” and “adult” books either, at least when she’s writing. Her territory isn’t young or old; it’s the heart- and brain-matter of people, their desires and worries and fantasies and intricate interactions. All of this is set capably against a particular landscape, and the result tends to be vivid and real.
“The Hollow Land” is made up of nine connected stories about two young boys, Bell Teesdale and Harry Bateman, whose families live near each other for part of the year in the Cumbrian countryside. The Teesdales are full-time residents and farmers; the Batemans are vacation renters from London. Though the perspective shifts throughout, there is a tonally consistent quality to the stories, in part because of the steady nature of the boys’ friendship. This is the case even in two stories in which Bell and Harry are genuinely imperiled. In the title story, they go exploring in an abandoned mine, but soon find that “a barrier of earth and rocks completely blocked the tunnel,” and “there was not the least chance in the world of getting out.” In “The Icicle Ride,” the boys share a brief moment of transcendence: “And there, round a corner to the left where the beck fell sheer, stood high as the sky a chandelier of icicles.” But then “they turned to go back, gasping a bit into the snow, and found that the lights of the few cottages at Outhgill had disappeared.” It’s not long before Harry, the younger boy, starts to cry. “We’ll die,” he moans.
Yet even in these briefly alarming moments, the dramatic tension is less central than the power of seeing the boys’ first independent encounters with the world. Harry and Bell are vessels for experience and feeling; together they’re almost one entity. Writing about their families, Gardam brings her piquant humor to moments in which different cultures come into close proximity — not entirely clashing, but almost.
A misunderstanding during the visitors’ first stay almost keeps the Teesdales and the Batemans apart for good, and the two small boys and their mothers are the ones to set everything right. Later, in a story called “The Egg-Witch,” Mrs. Bateman manages to insult a “big square woman” during a squirmingly awkward scene in which one of literature’s more unappealing teas is served: the cakes look old, the milk tastes of meat. Harry’s misbehavior at the end is both a shock and a relief.
In the wryly funny story “Sweep,” Kendal the chimney sweep, who has offered to teach the “big London lads” how to fish, shows up on a miserably rainy day to make good on that offer:
“ ‘Wonderful idea,’ said the father. “ ‘Great. Grand. . . . It’ll be an all day affair?’ he asked hopefully.
“ ‘It will,’ said Kendal, ‘and you’re welcome to come with us.’
“ ‘Ah well now then,’ said the father, ‘it just happens that I can’t. There’s a phone call coming from abroad. I have to wait for it.’ He looked out at the deluge. ‘Great pity,’ he said. ‘Long time since I’ve had a day’s fishing.’
“ ‘The telephone lines are down,’ said Kendal. ‘The wind took them in the night. . . . There’ll be no phone calls.’
“Mr. Bateman gave Kendal a look, picked up the phone, found it dead and gave him another look. ‘Yes,’ he said. He glared thoughtfully at Kendal as if Kendal had arranged the wind, and Kendal stared serenely back.”
The only unnecessary flourish in the collection (and it’s a small one) is a repeated emphasis on a late-arriving character known as the Household Word, a famous woman who comes to stay with the Batemans and whose character is deliberately never filled out. But the young daughter who accompanies her makes an amusing appearance, and eventually her presence becomes meaningful.
Though the stories stand as separate entities, near the end of the book Gardam takes much of what’s come previously and brings it into a stirring new context. It’s perhaps characteristic that she does so not at the beginning or end of a story but in the middle, after a line break, without calling undue attention to it. This kind of subtlety might be what kept American readers from knowing about the pre-“Old Filth” Jane Gardam. It’s not that her breakout book was high-concept, but it was a real achievement while also being deeply original, and it did have a feeling of “bigness” as it looked at one man’s life against the backdrop of a century. “The Hollow Land” is a different sort of book. It too includes perceptive observations about human nature and is descriptively accurate, but because it often uses very young characters as its eyes and ears its ambitions are, if not smaller, then perhaps closer to the ground. The beauty and evocation of place are reminiscent of Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia,” which is read by both children and adults.
Looking at Jane Gardam’s long bibliography, it’s hard not to think about the way some fine books simply slip through the cracks, winding up on the shelf of a fake bedroom in an Ikea display, next to an old copy of, say, “Airport.” While it’s frustrating that so much of Gardam’s earlier work failed to attract much attention on this side of the Atlantic, it’s gratifying that it’s now in the process of being discovered. “The Hollow Land” is a beautiful little book about how people live, in families and in communities and in one particular patch of world. As Gardam was able to see the small boy inside the “coelacanth” of “Old Filth,” so can she also clearly see Harry Bateman and Bell Teesdale, who, for most of the time we spend with them, are held fast in childhood — a place that, to the author, is just as interesting as any other.
Meg Wolitzer is the author, most recently, of the young adult novel “Belzhar.”