One witness tells me that in the festive season his family always embarks on an elaborate puzzle of many thousands of pieces. This keeps his mother-in-law happy and busy for hours, but alas, her eyesight is failing and she tends to misplace pieces with rash confidence, so he has to get up in the middle of the night, sneak down and undo the work she has done. (Margaret Drabble in the Guardian, 20 December 2008)Nan recommended this book when I was struggling with The Sea Lady last year. It's subtitled A Personal History with Jigsaws - I suppose if you really hated jigsaw puzzles you might find it hard going, but it's so much more than that. I could have constructed an entire month's blogging out of things that Margaret Drabble reminded me of, as she talked about her family, and the house on the Great North Road where she spent many holidays (the road is the A1, the trunk road from London to Edinburgh - I grew up on its extension, the A9 from Edinburgh to Inverness, and like her I remember the lorries thundering south in the night).
Drabble interweaves her family memories with her investigations into the history of the jigsaw puzzle, a pursuit which takes her on a journey through childhood as a construct. From the very adult predilection for cutting out and assembling works of art - mosaic, for instance - to the more domestic but still adult hobby of découpage - to childhood pleasures such as the doll to be dressed in a variety of paper outfits (how I adored those when I was small) and, eventually to the early dissected maps (mentioned in Mansfield Park), notions of leisure and education are gently explored. Not that the book is without its challenges - family dynamics are probed too, and Drabble's inroads into her family's history and relationships make the reader stop and consider their own. But there's no breast-beating, even though we know that there is a famous rift with her sister, evidently over the rights of each to write about her mother - Drabble deals with this area with a scrupulous tact, I think, recognising that it's dangerous ground but nonetheless asserting her own choice in the matter. She's more concerned, anyway, with her memories of her mother's sister, Phyllis, who introduced her to jigsaws and who, as a spinster teacher looked down on by Drabble's mother, seems to have been a much better provider of entertainment, comfort and solace than her brighter, depressive sister.
This is a book full of digressions, and one of the most interesting for me was what she had to say about Alison Uttley. Like me, Drabble loved the Little Grey Rabbit books, and Uttley's enchanting memoir A Country Child - I think it came as a shock to many when a biography revealed that Uttley had been a difficult, if not deranged, woman who wrote because she was so indignant to see Enid Blyton making a living. There seems to be a parallel not-being-drawn here, because although Drabble describes jigsaw puzzling as an antidote to anger, and a means of avoiding unhappy thoughts (when her husband was taken ill puzzles again were to provide a solace), the reader cannot help but be conscious of a good deal of unhappiness at the back of this work. But it's not hard to read - it offers a coming-to-terms with the bits of family history which are apt to trouble and, as I've suggested, channels the reader's own experiences while gently wittering on about diverting distractions. It's both a history of jigsaws and of coping strategies and, as such, something unique.