Monday 22 October 2018

Guest review by Stephanie Butland: A PIECE OF THE WORLD by Christina Baker Kline

Stephanie Butland has written four novels, including Lost For Words and The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Rae. She lives in the north east of England where she writes in the studio at the bottom of her garden, and walks on the beach in all weathers.

My relationship with this book began in the best possible way. I was chatting to Jo, a bookseller in Waterstones in Newcastle, and admiring her table of what she considered to be underrated novels. Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements, which I had thoroughly enjoyed, was on there. So was A Manual For Cleaning Women, short stories by Lucia Berlin, a book I’d been recommending to anyone and everyone since it was given to me as a gift. Jo picked up A Piece Of The World and asked, “Have you read this? It’s amazing.”

Reader, I bought it. And I started it, idly, while having a coffee that afternoon. It’s a novel based around American artist Andrew Wyeth’s celebrated painting Christina’s World, which I recognised in the way you’d recognise the Laughing Cavalier if he passed you at the bus stop, but had no real knowledge of. I read it, hungrily, in all of my spare moments over the next few days. And I finished it, with the happy/sad feeling that comes when something is over, but it’s enriched your life, and you are so very glad that you found it. (See also: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, and Parks and Recreation on microwave mug cakes.)

This novel is a life of Christina Olsen, the woman in the foreground of Wyeth’s painting. She was born into a farming family in Maine in the early 1900s, and had an undiagnosed degenerative condition: in Baker Kline’s imagining of her life, it gradually eats away at her mobility and her confidence, and she becomes as good as imprisoned in her family home. When a friend brings the then-unknown painter Wyeth to visit, he is inspired by both the farm and Christina herself, who becomes a muse to him.

If it sounds as though nothing much happens, well, I suppose it doesn’t, but that’s kind of the point. Christina’s world, as portrayed in Wyeth’s painting, is both spacious and eerie, both lonely and comforting, and the novel feels, to me, like a prose rendition of the characteristics of the artwork that inspired it. As we follow Christina’s story, in memories and flashbacks, we’re sucked into her world; the storytelling is compelling enough to make you hold your breath. And the writing is simply beautiful.

“… I put my hand over his, and he lays his other hand over mine. I feel the way I do when I lose something – a spool of thread, say – and search for it everywhere, only to discover it in an obvious place, like on the sideboard under the cloth.”

And oh, what a wonderful narrator Christina is. Made bad-tempered by constant pain and all of the ways she is unfulfilled, she alienates others and rejects all help. And she does not care. She has decided her own limits and she lives within them and she resents them. And I loved her and respected her for it. She doesn’t try to please people; she can be cruel, dismissive, and awkward. But she knows herself, understands herself, and is honest with herself and with us. I think that might be my favourite thing of all about this novel. It made me feel - trusted.

“All at once I am so tired of this-of the constant threat of humiliation and pain, the fear of exposure, of trying to act like I'm normal when I'm not- that I burst into tears. No, I am not all right, I want to say. I am fouled, degraded, ashamed, a burden and an embarrassment.”

I read a lot of books, and I love a lot of books, and often even the books I love I forget almost as soon as I’ve read the last page. This book has stayed with me. (Literally as well as figuratively. It’s still on the bedside table; I’m not ready to shelve it.) It’s partly because I admire the writing so much - there isn’t so much as a misplaced syllable from start to finish - but it’s also because the way Christina Baker Kline evokes the world she writes about makes it genuinely unforgettable. She asks us readers to listen to Christina’s voice and, if we do, the rewards are rich. 

A Piece of the World is published by Borough Press. 


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