(Photograph of Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse from the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)
Well, I’m never going to be ready for the assault on J.G. Ballard and his weirdness if I keep reading stuff like this.
The Country of the Pointed Firs is described in most places I’ve seen as a collection of short stories, but it could equally be a novel. Either way, nothing happens. A writer goes to stay in a seaside town in Maine and takes lodgings with Mrs Todd, a much-beloved herbalist, and meets many of the other residents of the town. I think I should admit to you that the problem here is not the book, which is prettily written, but me. When I was a younger, more rash person I thought that I hated all nineteenth century writing but the real problem was that I had tried to read the wrong Dickens, wasn’t ready for Austen and people kept trying to make me read Thomas Hardy. I mean really, who likes Thomas Hardy? (purrer of the spotted hue, never was pet mourned as you A HA HA HA HA).
The Country of the Pointed Firs brings back those dark thoughts, and I kept thinking ‘well of course I don’t like it, it’s nineteenth century.’ Here’s what I did like: there’s a knitting retired sailor who calls the markers that he’s put on rocks that might ding his plough ‘buoys’ and talks touchingly about his dead wife. An old friend of Mrs Todd – Mrs Fosdick – breezes through town, visits to gossip and demands Mrs Todd’s best Oolong tea, and the two of them share their bad opinion of a priest they knew. The directness of the two old friends talking to each other is a relief after the writing style of most of the book which sometimes can be a little dainty for my taste. And then there’s this sentence:
There was a patient look on the old man’s face, as if the world were a great mistake and he had nobody with whom to speak his own language or find companionship.
Which I like very much.
But that’s not much to go on, and though the characters are likeable enough (though they’d probably be a lot more likeable if the narrator would stop telling us how marvellous they are) I can’t help but feel that the people would be just as great but the book would be a lot better if something happened to them. There’s a point when the narrator receives an unexpected (and unexplained) visit from a retired sea captain. His visit is dealt with over two chapters, and the narrator tells us towards the end of the first that she is beginning to find his stories a little dull. Fair enough (she should have heard how I felt), but then he builds to a big reveal in the second chapter – which is itself quite dull.
We know that Mrs Blackett is adorable because everyone tells us she is, we know that Mrs Todd is good likewise. For all the life-affirming reunions and being presented with surprise doughnuts and all the rest of it, all of the older characters seem to think that the town is in decline, the youth are all useless and so on.
If you’re more of an atmosphere than plot person, if you particularly would like to hear about New England in the nineteenth century and if you don’t mind pretty much all of the reported speech being written as dialect, this might be the book for you. Certainly other people seem to like it a lot more than I did.
The book itself and what others thought:
The Country of the Pointed Firs at Project Gutenberg
Books for a Contemplative Life has the book as part of a collection that includes The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon – which is an interesting coincidence. I was just thinking as I was writing this, before I saw that site, that the Pillow Book is a book I have been obsessive about, and one I really love, but it’s just as inconsequential. So why does it bother me so much with this one?
Book Snob likes it a lot more than I did…
…but Old English Rose not so much