Monday, October 19, 2009
Inappropriate Happiness, Tom Saunders's excellent character study, revolves around the naturally private, reticent narrator, Edward. After the death of his father, Edward moves into the old water mill the old man had been renovating, determined to live his own life, finally out of the shadow of his disapproving father. On the opening page, Saunders writes, "We had separate lives he and I, such separate lives. No, I take that back, not separate, parallel, together but not together; now apart, finally."
As Edward settles back into the life of the small town in which he grew up—and in which everyone knows his history—he allows two stranded artists (Belle and Kitto) to stay at the old mill temporarily. This is against his better judgement, and his private nature too. It is also something his father would never allow or approve of; maybe that is exactly why Edward lets them stay.
Here the novel kicks into gear, and becomes very Hemingway-esque in the simple strength of its distinct characters, and the love triangle that inevitably develops. Saunders brings the characters to life, not only with their words, but their actions. Here the smitten Edward watches Belle sketch a young man working:
I am astonished by how quickly and confidently she draws, the bravura way she captures the turning of a leg and the lifting of an arm on paper. If she makes a mistake she remedies it with a rapid stroke of her pencil, each new line a refinement of the one before, the figure a series of shapes placed on top of one another, dynamic rather than static: the arc of the hammer, the angle of the back, the slant of the hips, the splaying of the feet. Somehow the boy and his everyday job are transformed by the sketch, the pose becoming heroic, timeless even.
"You're making him uncomfortable," I say.
Several seconds go by. Then, just as I am starting to think she is not going to reply, she stops drawing and says, "He'll get over it."
"I don't think I would."
"Who said you'll get the chance?"
Kitto, Belle's boyfriend, is the opposite of Edward: brash, arrogant, selfish. Why the world doesn't love his paintings as much as he does is a mystery to him. Why Belle stays with Kitto, who takes Belle for granted, is a mystery to Edward, a frustration that gnaws at him as his own relationship with Belle grows.
Inappropriate Happiness is a great literary work; one that should be read widely, one that should be honored with awards, and studied in writing courses. The size of the press limits these chances, but my dream is that Oprah will pluck this gem out of the small publishers haystack and give it the exposure it deserves. In the meantime, you can order it directly from the publisher, Reuben Books, or at Amazon UK.