by Juhi Singhal Karan
Books come and go out of fashion regularly, and literary tastes are as much subject to the tides of time as anything else. This month we feature five books that were thankfully rescued from oblivion and that found their way back to the reading public.
The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton
The Moonflower Vine was first published in 1962. Its revival was partly thanks to Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley, who included it in her Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. Of its autobiographical elements, Smiley said “[Carleton’s] method of imagining the inner lives of each character [is] so daring that she seems to have been unconstrained by fears either of remembering things wrongly or of offending her relatives.” Smiley cites the novel as one that thoroughly explores a “constant theme in American novels:” “[t]he conflict between who a character feels herself or himself to be and what is acceptable to friends and colleagues.” Robert Gottlieb, the editor of Doris Lessing and Joseph Heller, said of The Moonflower Vine, “Of the hundreds upon hundreds of novels I’ve edited, this is literally the only one I’ve reread several times since its publication.”
The Peregrine by J.A. Baker
Set over a course of a single year, The Peregrine takes the form of a journal as Baker tracks and records the course of two pairs of peregrine falcons over the Essex landscape. Comparing Baker to Ted Hughes, Robert Macfarlane called Baker “a metalworker, heating the language until it became pliable, then bending and torquing it into new shapes.” Reissued first by NYRB Classics, and subsequently Harper Collins, the book’s “astonishingly inventive and precise prose style,” has been variously referred to as “soaring,” “rich, sensuous and occasionally extravagant,” and as having “a magnesium-flare intensity.” As The Times Literary Supplement recently put it, “The Peregrine has been hugely influential, to the extent that the term ‘lyrical’ in discussion of nature writing can often be read as synonymous with ‘Bakeresque’.”
Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson
Reissued first by Persephone Books, and later New Canadian Library, Hetty Dorval was Ethel Wilson’s first publication at the age of 59. In the afterword to the reissue edition Northrop Frye wrote that Hetty Dorval “is a typical first novel of a writer of great ability and a sure sense of direction.” Writing in The Spectactor, Charlotte Moore wrote that the book is,“in essence . . . a young woman’s psychological journey,” and is “reminiscent of Edith Wharton or of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, but is clearer and prettier than either.” As “one of the first Canadian writers to capture truly the rugged and unsurpassed beauty of the BC landscape,” the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize—awarded to a resident author of the B.C./Yukon area—is named in her honor. Her small yet significant oeuvre earned Wilson several accolades, including the Order of Canada Medal of Service.
Wish Her Safe At Home by Stephen Benatar
Wish Her Safe At Home was a Booker Prize nominee when it was first published in 1982. Its subsequent descent into obscurity was swift and brutal, to the point that Penguin Modern Classics refused to reissue it despite a “glowing introduction” by John Carey. It was only due to the efforts of its enterprising author Stephen Benatar, who self-published the novel and took to “proffering [the] paperback book” to customers at his local Waterstone’s bookstore, that Wish Her Safe At Home was finally reissued as a NYRB Classics in 2010. The book’s heroine, in the words of John Carey, could be, “the next-door neighbor of the Beales of Grey Gardens or a sister to Jane Gardam’s oddball protagonists.” Doris Lessing called the book “a most original and surprising novel, and one difficult to forget: it stays in the mind.” In NPR’s Jessica Crispin’s opinion “the book, nearly three decades after its original release, couldn’t be more relevant.”
The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût
Maria Dermoût was in her 60s before she became a published author. The Ten Thousand Things tells Felicia’s story as she returns to “the Spice Islands of Indonesia,” her birthplace, with her infant son. She watches him grow only to see him killed later. Felicia’s “ritual of remembering her son . . . in an act of commemoration that becomes, finally, a celebration of life” was hailed by Hans Koning, the original translator of the book, as “at once a lament and an ecstatic ode to nature and life.” In his introduction in the reissued edition by NYRB Classics, Koning also mentions Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, in which Strayed wrote of The Ten Thousand Things, “Each of Dermoût’s sentences came at me like a soft knowing dagger, depicting a far-off land that felt to me like the blood of all the places I used to love.” Upon the original publication of the book in 1955 The New Yorker had called Dermoût “an extraordinary sensualist,” comparing her to Thoreau and “early Hemingway.”