Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bad Blood?

I don't think of myself as much of a one for memoir, but I read Lorna Sage's Bad Blood for my book group and by and large enjoyed it. Her account of growing up in a northern Welsh vicarage, largely raised by her eccentric and embattled grandparents is probably the most striking part of the book. Her own early identification and preference for the man she sometimes refers to as 'The Old Devil' appears to be the issue she is still trying to illuminate for herself.
As a professor of English who taught in both England and the U.S., it perhaps goes without saying that she writes well and interestingly. But as sometimes happens with memoir, the reader may find her or himself arrested by parts of Sage's life that don't seem to strike her in the same way. 'Bad Blood', for instance, would seem to rate a much darker, more defective past than is really in evidence here. In fact, as the members of the group sought out this book, we learned that there were quite a few current books with the same title--a murder mystery, a romance novel(no doubt having something to do with fangs), a true crime account, and so on. The Sage family drama was by far the tamest of the lot.

Which isn't to say it's boring. I think the word I would use is 'inscrutable'. It is in some ways still hard to account for this family, even after all her description. I won't give too much away, as there is a certain level of suspense that comes into it all. I will say that I haven't heard her dismissal of the nuclear family described in quite the same way.

"The fact that I somehow belonged to them [her parents], and with them, had been obscured to me in my grandparents' divided dominion. For a husband and wife to get on together,to gang up with each other, seemed strange and unfair.(Perhaps this is why people dream back with nostalgia to the extended family? Not because you get more parenting, but because you get less? Who knows, perhaps we secretly long to avoid being eggs in just one basket, which is what you get if your parents build a nest on just one branch of the family tree.)"

Well, this doesn't seem to be a particularly secret longing on Lorna Sage's part.

The book isn't new. It fell out of print (I think) and has recently been reissued, but probably to the interest of a fairly small audience, at least here in the U.S. So it was with some surprise that I found myself approached in the laundromat by a young woman who asked me eagerly where I had gotten it. She and her mother formed a somewhat odd, not to say dysfunctional pair, and I was absolutely sure that she was really after the horror novel or whatever of the same name, which I ventured to her. "This one is about a girl growing up in Wales? In a vicarage?" To which she replied, "Yeah, yeah--I read the sequel. Well, not sequel it was more of an article in a collection."

Well, I am still not sure whether we were talking about the same book, or whether this 'sequel' exists, though it would make a certain sense, with Bad Blood ending where it does. (And a small failing of the book is that the ending does feel somewhat rushed and unexplored in comparison to the beginning--I'd say as a whole that Sage finds her own story less intriguing than that of her ancestors, even though the reader may not.) But I did learn that readers shouldn't be judged by their covers anymore than books should. In the book biz, you can get pretty jaded--thinking you can judge in advance what people are going to like--but every once in a while you're completely wrong.

This, by the way, is a good thing.

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