"If brief enthusiasms can make independent booksellers seem fickle, some redemption may be found in our loyalty to individual authors. We often have longer memories than both chain retailers and publishers, and our customers’ support depends on our taste as much as our efficiency. Hot news quickly cools, but the favourites abide: Shirley Hazzard, Javier Marías, Robert Edric, William Maxwell, Penelope Fitzgerald."So begins an article in the most recent issue of Slightly Foxed (no. 22) on an author I have long enjoyed, Barry Unsworth. Reading the article last weekend, though, I was struck by the coincidence that I had on my last library visit chosen a book by a writer hitherto unknown to me, Robert Edric, and there he was being recommended by John de Falbe.
In Gathering the Water, set in 1847, the narrator, Charles Weightman, is so alienated by grief at the death of his fiancée that he regards moving to a Yorkshire valley to oversee its flooding as an acceptable “new start”. Here, regarded with hostility by the villagers whose eviction he is to superintend, he forms an alliance of sorts with another outsider, a woman caring for her mad sister. Actually, Mary Latimer isn’t really an outsider in the literal sense – she was brought up in the valley but moved away, and has only recently returned. Her alienation is every bit as great, though, since with the loss of their already crumbling home, she will be forced to send her sister to an asylum. She and Charles do not become friends, they are simply bound by their isolation and by the weight of their pasts.
This is, in all sorts of ways, a difficult book. For a start, it is 250 pages of unrelenting oppression, not a single moment of lightness or warmth that I can recall. The writing is sparse, there is no grandiose description such as you might expect from a historical novel, no set pieces to indicate place or community. Dialogue is elliptical and indeterminate. I wasn’t entirely sure what Weightman was there to do, and neither, I think, was anyone else. This is writing that conveys more in the absences than in what is there: here are events which seem to have significance, yet are never explained, relying instead on the weight (there is that word again) of impression to convey a brooding sense of tragedy. Again subverting the historical novel, there is nothing epic about this tragedy, but rather dirt and ordinariness and inevitability, the villagers’ realistic expectation of inadequate compensation, Charles’s uncertainty about the real remit laid upon him by his indifferent Board. All conversation turns to loss. This is a novel, not of purification by grief and adversity, but of bathos.
All this might suggest that there is no pleasure in reading Gathering the Water, but that is not the case. While it is evident that Edric is an author who expects work from his readers, there is no lack of generosity here – you are not left, as in some books, with an aggrieved feeling that you haven’t been given enough information. Where meaning seems unclear it is not that the narrator is wilfully withholding what you want to know, it is rather that it is too painful to address, or that he has failed to penetrate the murk himself. Moreover, there is grace and precision in the writing, and always a sense that the writer is in control, with a narrow focus on the task in hand – no unnecessary flourish, nothing of the baroque. The language and imagery reflect the setting:
I asked them their names. Most of the people here shared the same ten or a dozen Christian and surnames. As in all other things, there was no superfluity here, no exotic flowering amid the grasses and reeds. There were Riggs and Cloughs, Lumbs and Cleggs and Scales, all of which might just as likely have been the names of the features around them; thus were the two – people and place – bred into each other.Edric has written a number of other novels with historical settings, as well as a trilogy of detective stories set in Hull.