Maybe it’s because Sussex NB is now my hometown. Or maybe it’s because Joan Clark wrote an amazing book about family and place. Whatever, I read her 2015 The Birthday Lunch with only grudging stops for my own lunch.
It’s about a death, sudden and unexpected, and how the woman’s husband, kids and sister cope. It mostly takes place over the following week, summer of 1981 in Sussex. The shock, the whys and hows, the obituary, what would she want done, the funeral. In the course of that week, we learn about the lives of these people and their friends, neighbours and family members present and past.
The son having believed he may have fathered a child with a local girl seemed a pointless tangent, according to a reader’s review I read. But keep following that string. It will give you the skein that is life in a small town. Your history is not yours alone, everyone in town shares in it. Ms Clark isn’t slapping you in the face with this, but the intertwining of lives is there on almost every page.
Neighbours and friends aren’t slapping it in anyone’s face either. They are just there, like the streets, worn hills and creeks. A woman who watches passersby on Main Street with binoculars sees a lot more than who’s walking where. A neighbour, knowing from the loss of her husband how painful words of condolence can be, silently leaves meals for the family on their doorstep. These are good, but not cloyingly good, people. They simply have learned from their own hardships.
The person who has learned lessons from her problems, but maybe not the most useful ones, is the dead woman’s sister. Laverne is probably the least likeable character in the whole story but one who lives the most interesting life inside herself, inside her walls. She has done something that I’ve never thought of, yet once you read it, you think well, why not?
Woman with a Child in a Pantry
Laverne lives inside a 17th century painting. (The book, of course, explains this.) Noted in passing is that she doesn’t care that the woman and child are missing in her rendition. They’re central to the artist. But to Laverne, I think, what’s central is the artist and maybe the sense of love or belonging. Conveyed in a painting, there is no reciprocal obligation. In her small time capsule, she is central. She does not share any of this with anyone else, not even really with her sister.
Another peripheral, but important, character, is fascinated by Laverne’s creation and thinks of how he can use it. Does he wonder about who this woman is that she could, and did, do it? No. But he’s mightily impressed by her ability to adapt architecture and real light to perspective and painted light.
A beautiful book about Sussex. A beautiful book about anywhere where an accident causes a family and a town to grieve. Regret and remember. Come together in some places and pull apart in others.
Laverne made asparagus and Stilton soup and scallops for the birthday lunch. Here’s how I make any cream soup.