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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

April 24, 2013

Book Review: Yesterday's Sun

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Fate is a funny thing. In general, we tend to operate under the assumption that our decisions are freely made apart from some predetermined end - spare the errant Calvinist among us. But Amanda Brooke's novel Yesterday's Sun (Publisher: HarperCollins; On Sale: Feb. 12, 2013; Cost: $14.99) challenges this convention with an interesting story about human choice amid the reality of insight into a dark fate.

The bulk of the story focuses on Holly and Tom. The two newlyweds have just left the smoggy streets of London for the fresh air of the countryside. Tom dutifully works long hours as an investigative reporter for a local TV station. His assignments take him far and wide while Holly struggles at home as an artist of moderate renown. Naturally, the two never lack for money.

As the couple settle down for a life of country living, Holly finds herself in the unenviable position of trying to fit into a community with which she has no friends, no attachments and no genuine desire to change her situation. The malaise leaves Holly far more interested in settling into the new place than she should be. Eventually, her rummaging unearths a peculiar stone tucked away with a mysterious past and strange properties that give Holly a glance into a nightmarish future.

At this point, I'm a bit concerned at giving away too much of the plot. This is a concern I always have where novels have an element of mystery to contain. But it is sufficient to say that Holly finds a stone that reveals much of her future, providing answers to questions that she could never otherwise know, answers related to future children, her husband's career, and even her own death. The whole revelation is poignantly written and leaves much for readers to consider. The best summary of the novel comes shortly after Holly discovers the stone's prognosticatory properties:

"The choice of path isn't free? What does that mean? Does it mean I have no free choice or does it mean something else? You said there was a price to pay." p.175.

As I read Ms. Brooke's novel three related questions came to mind and remained in my mind throughout. The first question involved whether such knowledge of the future is so powerful as to be altogether maddening. The second question was how such knowledge of the future might impact one’s life in the present. And the third question was how knowledge of another's future might impact ones dealings with others. In sum, three classic questions, really, about the nature and utility of fate and its impacts on one's relationship to the self and one's relationship to others.

First, Holly's discovery of the mystical moon stone provides clues and insights into her own death. This topic by definition is a morbid one; one we humans tend to avoid and when we cannot avoid the matter, it is one we tend to handle awkwardly, as recent diplomatic kerfuffles regarding the death of Lady Thatcher indicate.

But assuming it were possible to know one's expiration date, so to speak, how would this impact life itself? It strikes me that it'd be quite difficult to enjoy much of anything - particularly as life's end neared. Imagine waking up next to a spouse or partner and realizing day by day that the end was rapidly approaching. I suppose this accurately reflects our lot in life but the rub comes in the knowing - the day, time, and perhaps even manner of one's end. This knowledge is at least deeply troubling, and even assuming it is not maddening, then it is certainly troublesome enough to turn one into a bit of a nihilist, which is its own special brand of mad.

Second, I suppose that knowledge of one's mortality would also initiate a number of profound changes within an individual. It's not difficult to imagine one with knowledge of their end who becomes a compulsive planner. For if nothing else, death sets the ultimate deadline of deadlines. Procrastination simply will not do. Knowledge of the day of one's death might also have the effect of making an individual a superb manager. Envision being able to delegate tasks or manage one's obligations with the crystal clear knowledge of whether the issue will matter in the end. Not interested in the afternoon, work social? Don't go. It won't matter when you're dead. More inclined to take the trip than, save for retirement? Take the trip - or for that matter, don't, depending upon the proximity of retirement and one's untimely demise. 

And in many ways that's the attitude Holly takes in the novel. Once she catches a glimpse into her future, she makes decisions based upon what she presumes to be inevitable. The result is that she transforms as a person. From one that is as self-centered as any young spouse without obligations might be, to one of abject selflessness as she considers the future of her husband and child rather than her own. She gains perspective. She reconsiders her priorities. Such is the clarity of mortality.

Finally, inner change is relatively uninteresting unless it is manifested in some external form, and indeed the novel abounds in examples of Holly reconfiguring her priorities in relationships with others. Rather than indulge the artistic whimsy of a wealthy client, Holly stands up to the client and asserts her own artistic expression. This is an important moment in the novel because Holly finally realizes that her inner principle of honesty is more important than any commission she might receive. I suppose this might be a bit Pollyanna-ish but the sentiment is easily mocked because so few of us live in a manner that is true to ourselves. 

The knowledge of her end also transform's Holly's interactions with her family and friends in a number of ways. With her husband, she begins to promptly encourage him to pursue his passions rather than weighing him down with admonitions. It's remarkable, really, to see how their relationship transforms when this occurs, leaving one to wonder whether more marriages might be better off with an ounce of preventative encouragement than with a pound of curative apology. With family and others, Holly becomes much more open. With one friend, in particular, she allows herself to be much more vulnerable in sharing her secrets. The sense is that the burden of knowledge of the future is too much for any one person to bear and so Holly shares it with a person who is non-judgmental enough to listen. This is true of many of life's burdens. The natural question that follows is why we try so hard to keep our problems hidden, rather than seeking the cathartic help we need. And I think these responses closely mirror what many others would do in a similar situation. Relationships with loved ones, friends - these things would all take precedence over a number of competing obligations, including professional ones. We also would probably be more apt to live lives of truth rather than lives that conform to perceived social mores.

When times becomes our most precious commodity, it's amazing how one's priorities can change. 

One of the great benefits of reading a work like Brooke's is that it forces readers to reconsider their priorities. We may not know the day and date of our death, but it is within each of us to live this day as if it were our last. And that's what Brooke's work reminds us of. A moment spent with a friend, watching a baby jump in his bouncer, or having a drink with a spouse or partner, these simplicities make life worthwhile. And Ms. Brooke's eminently readable novel brings that thought to the fore of a reader's mind. 

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April 1, 2013

Postcards and Pints


Today is a University holiday here in Hamilton. With the day off and nothing to do, I popped into a local pub to draft a few postcards to family and friends back home.

The Abbey is a most agreeable establishment. Sponsored in part by Stella Artois, the Belgian brewing company renown for its premium lager, the pub has all the features one might expect of a quaint pub including wood floors and dark paneled walls.

As I sat at my table and began to write, I could not think of a better way to while away a lazy fall afternoon. There's something eminently appropriate about a pint and a pen.

And whilst I wrote to my family, I couldn't help but think of life in America, of life back home. The nostalgic trip down memory lane reminded me of how much has changed in recent months.

Roughly six month ago, my son was born in Tucson, Arizona (10/15/12). At the time, I could not have forecasted that six months later I would be writing postcards in a pub in New Zealand having missed his first Easter.

"Oh the places you'll go," as Dr. Seuss said.

Like most extended separations, the time here is bitter sweet. It has been a tremendous opportunity to be here and serve at the pleasure of the Centre and my colleagues. Yet, it is difficult not to miss home and family and friends. Particularly when things settle down on days like today.

It's interesting that my Māori friends so often inquire as to my family's welfare. Their culture is one that values family, or whanau, above all else. To see a new father, so far from his family is a difficult thing for them to process. I suppose things in America and New Zealand are not that different after all.

And so I'll draft and mail my postcards with fond thoughts of home. I will down a fine pint imbibed in a foreign land to steel my resolve. And I will say a brief, post-Easter prayer with love for their well-being - because when one is so far away, there's not much more one can do.


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