Monday, 30 March 2009

Untangling the Roots

Someone once asked how much modern fiction I enjoyed. The answer was, very little. I’m a fan of Ian McEwan, I like some Faulks (but not Engleby) and enjoy Julian Barnes. But modern fiction can be rather inward-looking, and I although I admire the stylists (like John Banville, for example) I’m always on the look-out for ‘ideas’ books. To find a novel in which style and substance co-exist – and do so happily – is rare. But ‘Tangled Roots’ is just such a book, and as Sue Guiney’s cyber-book tour stops off here today, I thought I’d ask her all about it.

So first, the style. Sue Guiney’s prose is highly-polished. Words are placed with great care and attention paid (as you would expect from a musician) to the cadences of sentences. The result is poetic and slightly hypnotic, and I was interested to find out whether Sue deliberately conceives her work in this way.

“I do believe,” she said “that all writing should all be poetry in a way. I write and read a great deal of poetry and my first published works were poems rather than prose. I tend to write with my ears, so to speak, and I am always aware of the cadence, rhythm and euphony of a sentence.”

And how much effort does that take?

“I revise A LOT, going over every sentence many, many times, reading it out loud and labouring over individual words and phrases. If anything though, I do sometimes get lost staring at the bark of the trees and forget about the surrounding forest. So I guess I would have to say the relationship between what is first written and the "final" product is the difference between a smooth stone found on the beach, and that same stone polished and worked into a necklace.”

For anyone who hasn’t read the book (and I can’t recommend it highly enough) two first-person narratives interweave to tell the story of John – a cosmologist – and his mother, Grace. I wondered how important it was for John to be a physicist and how much research Sue had had to do.

“John was always a cosmologist to me. I see him as a man who, because of childhood events and pain, moved away from his mother - or at least he tried to. Rationally he did. But his emotional ties were too deep, too "tangled", and in many ways he is very much like Grace. So although he rejected her forays into spirituality and religion, he is still drawn to the same questions - who are we? How did we come to be here? How are we connected? But he approached those questions through rational thought, math (as opposed to his mother's use of words and language to tell her stories), and so became a physicist. I never had any formal training, but I've always had a layman's fascination with it. And I do believe physics is just an alternate way of asking these big questions. I did a great deal of reading in physics as I researched the book, and everything I read led me to the same conclusion. The idea of quantum entanglement or entangled particles which John often refers to is actually a scientific expression of the idea that everything is connected to everything else and you can really only understand something in terms of how it relates to something else. Grace came to understand this concept in her chapter about seeing a fox during her walk in the woods. And so really, all of this dances around the question of whether there really is one knowable reality. And I guess that's one of the biggest questions I tried to address in the book.”

Now before you get the wrong idea, I should point out that quantum theory isn’t the only metaphor for Sue’s investigation of appearance and reality. Popular culture features too, from The Doors to Mel Brooks. Sue says, “I'm a HUGE Mel Brooks fan and the quote about being ‘wet and hysterical’ is one my sister and I have teased each other with forever. Rock n roll is just as important, and The Doors are often in my head, punctuating my life. Music in general is central to who I am and I still play the violin. But for some reason, it remains separate from my writing. I can't listen to anything at all when I write. But I am longing to write about music sometime, and I'm playing around with a concept for novel 3 centred around music. I have to finish novel 2 first though.”

Tangled Roots is an immensely satisfying read. It’s out in paperback from today and deserves to do really well. And as I’m adding Sue to the select list of living authors I enjoy, I hope the wait for novels two and three won’t be a long one.


Eddie Bluelights said...

Hi, noticed you signed up as a follower - thank you and I am honoured. I shall return the complement - I am a newcomer to bloggy world, starting in January.
I must confess I have not read "Tangled Roots" but will. Not a great deal of time for reading these days - blogging seems to take up it's fair share along with my ambulance work.
As for writing, I am a Beethoven and not a Mozart. The latter got it in one, having worked out everything in his head and committing it to paper flawlessly. I can't do that - I revise and revise and revise. Bests wishes Eddie

Gadjo Dilo said...

Sounds interesting, Dot, I'm particularly partial to prose that's written with poetry in mind. Like you I don't read much modern fiction, but I may start soon.

The Dotterel said...

You can't do better than to start with this, Gadj. Honest!

I think Sue would probably side with Beethoven too, Eddie. And as an orchestral musician, she's probably played quite a bit of his stuff, too.

BT said...

A marvellous read. Come to my blog on 6th April as it's Sue's Irish stop on her tour. I hope she wears her wellies!

Momo Fali said...

Thank you for providing this review. It sounds quite interesting.

The Dotterel said...

I'll be there, BT. And I can guarantee it is, MF.

French Fancy said...

I'm in Eddie's corner with preferring old Ludwig over Amadeus. As for John Banville, I'm at a loss to know why 'The Sea' got the Booker over Barnes' Arthur and George.

I've not hear of Sue Guiney but I'll put her on my list (vast as it is) of books I must get in the next twelve months.

Grumpy Old Ken said...

Interesting. You remind me of the days when I considered myself a bit of an academic. Alas, days long gone. Ah the joys of getting old.

Exmoorjane said...

Am always desperate for a good recommendation in modern fiction (which I love in general) so shall put this on my list. Might I offer David Mitchell? Every line a poem IMHO....
Huge thanks for dropping by my off to peruse the rest of your writing. Also intrigued by your book so need to investigate that too.

sallymandy said...

Hi Dotterel: What a fascinating blog you have here. I much enjoyed your review of this book. And I thought it interesting that you mentioned Ian McEwan. I also like his work, and picked up a new one at a thrift store yesterday.

Thank you for visiting my blog recently. Best to you.

disa said...