When I began Max Gate, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Damien Wilkins’ book takes its title from the house where Thomas Hardy lived on the outskirts of Dorchester and is set in the immediate period leading up to, and the aftermath of, the great writer’s death. Was I going to read a book so mournful and stuffed full of grief that I’d come out the other end in tears? As it happens, no. Wilkins’ approach to his story left me dwelling on what I read each day, taking it with me into my every-day life. There is much to dwell upon in this book.
The narrator of Max Gate is housemaid Nellie Titterington, a feisty young woman who views the goings on surrounding Hardy’s death with a critical eye. The timeline wanders a little – there are passages where Nellie is telling her story from a future where she is a grandmother with boxes of possessions in her garage (quite a departure from her early life), but for the most part we are taken through events chronologically. Nellie is a somewhat unreliable narrator. I am not the only reviewer to question the author’s decision to tell his story through Nellie’s eyes. There are many passages where the housemaid was not, could not be present. The first instance of this is semaphored rather clumsily when Nellie tells us about a ‘device’ she has hidden in the fire to allow her access to conversations in her absence. Hmmm… Personally, I think I would have preferred a multi-narrator approach, but this is a quibble.
I have also read reviews criticising the language Nellie used. When she chats with her fellow maid Alice, her speech is rich with local dialect and in keeping with what you’d expect from a woman in her position. But when she narrates the story, the language is quite, quite different and totally out of character.
You may think, having read the above, that this is a purely critical review. Far, far from it.
There is a wonderfully claustrophobic feel to the first part of the book where the characters are besieged by the demands for news from the rest of the world.
Wilkens language is quite beautiful and the book is ‘literary fiction’ at its best. His descriptions of the environment his characters inhabit is detailed and poetic. Changes of scene are often preceded by short prose-poems. Take the following examples which so wonderfully set the scene for the ceremonies for Hardy’s burials.
“Pain, nakedness. Faces of suffering, babies. Little animals crouching in the shadows. A dog on a chain, a bird in a cage. Light coming through the clouds like arrows. The blue windows.”
“The Abbey animals with bulging eyes, wings, coming out the sides of the building, hundreds of feet above. God believes in them. Leaping stones. The overgrown coffin covered with a white satin cloth. Pigeons flying outside. On the path, the broken bits of a crowshell, picked clean of its river-mussel.”
These short, stubby sentences carry so much emotion and beauty, sitting proud of the rest of the text. This is not to belittle the rest of the language. It is beautiful and nuanced and a joy to read.
The author’s portrayal of the female characters in Hardy’s life and death is both subtle and complex. I was left feeling great sympathy for Florence Hardy, the famous man’s second wife who went from his secretary to life partner in a short time. The union didn’t seem to bring her happiness as Hardy appeared to be fonder of his first wife Emma in death than in life.
Max Gate also makes us consider fame. Do we, who are removed from the life of the celebrated have any claim to him? And if so, just how much is enough? We are all familiar with the mass outpourings of grief when a celebrity dies – Princess Diana, Elvis, Alan Rickman and many, many others. Do people who were distant in life have any claim to the man in death? Does the respected reputation of a person mean that their wishes should be ignored in death?
There is some black humour sprinkled throughout – when you get to the part about the cat and the biscuit tin you will either laugh or grimace – but the cover suggests a lighter read than you might expect.
Today I have ‘book hangover.’ Max Gate will stay with me for quite a while and it wouldn’t be fair to start another novel until I finish processing just how much I loved this one.
I received a copy of Max Gate from Netgalley in return for an honest review.