August – Gerard Woodward (2001)

August - Gerard WoodwardThis is the first volume in a trilogy (but excellent as a stand-alone piece), and tracks a couple of decades in the lives of the Jones family, a despairingly middle class English group, as they navigate their annual holiday camping in a field in Wales. (Sounds a bit dreary, right?) When the story first begins, it’s all happy enough but as time progresses, the wife/mother starts to sniff bicycle puncture repair glue (an issue that the family tries to avoid) and other family members have their own struggles.

The common thread throughout the years covered by this volume are the rather dismal family holidays of three long weeks spent in a tent during the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s. Despite this grim situation, the holiday becomes something to mostly look forward to for the family, especially in the younger years when the children were small and more compliant. As time goes on, the family struggles with what to do with their addicted matriarch and their growing children, and, understandably, the holiday loses its allure.

This story rather reminded me of the book “A Fortnight in September” by R. C. Sheriff [1931] (pre-blogging days so no post) which also focuses on a family holiday, although that book was in the 1930’s England in a more “innocent” time in some ways. In both cases, the motivating force behind the holiday is the father who views the event as the glue that holds the family together.

It’s interesting that, in one aspect, glue is a positive force in this tale – it holds the ever-changing family together (through the group denial of this substance abuse) and, used to mend punctured tires, glue provides the freedom for happiness that is entailed through the activity of bicycling. (Bicycling plays a big role in this book, both as a form of basic transportation but also as a precursor to the upcoming holiday. It signals the beginning of a happier event as some commute by bicycle to the camp field.)

And then, on the other hand, in Woodward’s book, glue (and its addictive properties) becomes the force that cleaves the family apart – they rarely address the downward spiral of their mother and so there is a push and a pull of this substance throughout the narrative – both sticky and repellant at the same time.

“August” is rather a witty and poignant look at a fairly unremarkable family as they grow up and grow out of the family unit. The eldest child and son is a talented piano player who is unhappy with his predicted role of being a piano professional along with all the associated pressure from that (especially from his father). The father figure is a school art teacher whose dream of being a professional full-time artist is unfulfilled but accepted. (He knows that he doesn’t really have the talent that it would take to be successful in that role.) It’s curious to me that he (the father) is accepting of his own artistic limitations for himself, and yet he pressures his son to meet similar expectations. It’s that push-and-pull again – encouraging/pressuring the boy to be an artistic success and the boy pulling himself away from all that the family represents to him.

The eldest son, Janus, plays a large role in the narrative as well, and what’s interesting about his name is that it is a Roman God who has two faces, one facing backwards and one facing forward. I thought this was a nice tie-in with the father’s expectations of him:  the father looks back in time at his earlier goals of being a full-time artist (not fulfilled) and then looks forward in time to the future success of his son being a famous piano player…

Lots to think about and a good read. I have the next one ordered on ILL so we’ll see when that comes in.

Janus

Janus

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