Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Repetition in Like Bees To Honey

For reasons too complicated to arrange in any sort of order, I received a free copy of Like Bees to Honey with the promise I would review it. For other reasons, wrinkled beyond repair, I have been slow on the uptake. Caroline’s book has already been well reviewed. Here are a few:

So rather than a straight review, this is more of a commentary – with no spoilers.

Like Bees to Honey is Caroline Smaile's fourth novel. It is an account of a journey as much figurative as literal. It describes how Nina comes to terms with the loss of her first-born, her son, Christopher. She travels to Malta, the island where she grew up, the island from which she feels ejected, rejected. Nina's guilt, her grief, is compounded by her feelings of isolation from her family, her father especially.

Caroline does not chose easy subjects, her first book and its sequel, In Search of Adam and Disraeli Avenue, deal with child abuse, and her second, Black Boxes, with depression. (As a consequence I have yet to read it, being occasionally too close to the topic for comfort.) But she handles her material with a deft hand, avoiding the glitter of cheap sentiment and any attempt to manipulate the emotions. You suffer no slap in the face, no hysterics. You are led gently into the depths of grief that Nina experiences with the use of wit, great invention and an idiosyncratic style.

Words like haunting, lyrical, effortless, stunning have all been employed to describe her work, with justification, but it is Caroline's style I want to comment on as it is singularly individual.

A significant example is her use of repetition. Repetition plays a central role in the human psyche and fascinates children, psychologists and philosophers alike.

Children (okay, I am extrapolating from a research sample of one, namely myself) will repeat a word or phrase over and over to the point where all that is left is the sound stripped of its associative meaning, a noise that sounds plainly ridiculous on its own. And in this context, it is relevant to point out our word barbarian derives from the Greek barbaros, itself based on bar-bar, a meaningless repetition the Greeks employed to mock the sound of foreign tongues.

Freud, a child on a large scale albeit too clever by half for his little cotton slips, ties himself in knots in Project for a Scientific Psychology, his earliest work, trying to explain the function of repetition in terms of memory. I shall not repeat his mistake and tie myself in knots attempting to unravel his pseudo-scientific explanations.

The 19th century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, under the nom de plume, Constantin Constantius, wrote a work of fiction called Repetition. (Coincidently, while checking out if Like Bees to Honey was yet in stock in Waterstones, I came across a copy of Repetition and would have bought it but for the price. If only bookstores would desist from sticking prices on books, I would buy them all.)

This is the quote that prefaces the book:

‘Repetition and recollection are the same movement, only in opposite directions, for what is recollection has been: it is repeated backward, whereas repetition properly so-called is recollected forward.’

Kierkegaard, with Hegel, is one of the fathers of existentialism and you can see this thought emerge in the split between the passivity of recollection and positivism of repetition. For Kierkegaard repetition is fundamental to his faith. Unlike the Catholic Church, against which Kierkegaard stood and in which he identifies the repetition of the Mass as a form of passive congregational recollection, the individual, for he believes the relationship with God is individual, must constantly renew his or her faith in “the power which posited it” through positive acts of individual repetition.

Finally, to demonstrate this obsession in defining the role of repetition is thoroughly contemporary, I quote Jacques Derrida from Spectres of Marx:

Repetition and first time, but also repetition and last time, since the singularity of any first time makes of it also a last time.’

Despite the apparent randomness of these references, they can all be applied in one way or another to Like Bees to Honey.

The mother of the child, the one who goes back to Malta to find the direction forward in her life, is the child of the novel. She searches out her mother for forgiveness, for comfort, for reassurance.

          the heels of my boots clip clap

           ~cl -ip

          ~cl -ap

          ~cl -ip

         ~cl -ap

There is a therapist, a most unlikely therapist, but one who listens to her, who guides without leading, one who asks difficult questions of her.
     Jesus [the unlikely therapist]: Good, then I'll tell you how St Thomas Aquinas was a saintly man who asked the very question that I know you are seeking answers for, Nina.

There is the smell of incense everywhere, Malta is a Catholic country, and like all lapsed Catholics the mother is but a Catholic who has yet to find the certainty of answers.

    St Paul's Church looms in front of me […]

    I stand on the pavement, in front of, before the limestone building. I curse St Paul

   'You've fucked up too many lives,' I whisper.

There is also the barrier of the language, Malti, to quote, ‘a Semitic language, filled with borrowings from Italian, Arabic and English’, a very foreign language, and one that needs constant repetition if we are to understand. (Though Caroline omits how we are supposed to pronounce the words.)

    Wienħed, tnejn, tlieta, erbgħa, ħamsa

    ~one, two, three, four, five

Finally, there is the repeated endearment of Nina’s mother – qalbi: my heart – repeated regular as a heartbeat with every beat resonating for a first time and a last time to a different tune, its meaning subtly altered by the circumstances in which it is uttered.

Repetition can be threatening, instructive, loving, or indicative of boredom, frustration or emphasis. It can also be irritating but such is Caroline’s deft touch it rarely, if ever, proves so, and when it does it is only to draw your attention to her use of repetition and cause you to think on her reasons.


Leatherdykeuk said...

An interesting commentary. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

A Fabulous review - I really enjoyes reading it , thankyou.

DOT said...

Thank you both for your comments.

(Sorry I'm so late to respond to yours Leatherdykeuk, but usually my only correspondence is with the council and I feel dutybound to be tardy in replying to them and I'm afraid the habit has spread.)

I use to live in Dolgellau as a kid, magicgardencymru, in a rented house with huge gardens, though all I remember are the midges.