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Laura Beatty, Pollard – TLS

10/11/2008

The heath and the wood: are these the most revealing landscapes in Northern storytelling? Shakespeare’s imaginative terrain, as always, seems definitive: the heath in King Lear, that great existential wasteland on which man is exposed as a “poor, bare, forked animal”; and the enchanted wood in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where humans forget themselves while fairies romp and plot.

In Laura Beatty’s intriguing first novel it is the “teeming” wood that presides. Anne, just fifteen, a lardy, clumsy, moonfaced girl, wanders out of her cramped house and into a new life under the trees. Days pass, and then weeks, but no one comes looking. She finds a pollarded tree and builds a makeshift shelter from branches and bin bags. For a while she raids the family home, foraging for food and tools, but soon her keys won’t turn the lock. Is Anne too dim to realize she’s been cast out, or simply denying her family’s cruelty? Years of bullying have given her the dogged, submerged quality of the victim, and though she comes to know the wood, she has little sense of herself. Nor does she ‘develop’ in any conventional manner. It is a mark of Beatty’s ambition that, without alibi or manifesto, she allows her character to retain this creaturely mystery.

What is certain is that the wood provides refuge for Anne and, with trial and keen observation, food (there are scraps left by visitors, berries and nuts, and in the surrounding fields she learns to milk cows and trap rabbits). Perhaps as important, it gives her the example of survival – the graft and cunning it requires. She grows to admire her scavenging competitor, the yellow-eyed fox. But this is no fairy tale. The return to nature means enduring starvation, solitude, the “hard and pinching fist” of winter. This materialism is apparent in the wood’s adaptability: it has survived man’s workings (the pollard itself is a symbol of resilience and cooperation); and in Beatty’s inlaying of the language of the wood (glen, rides, fossick, scrimmage, hoick, scratty, scuttle), with the junky chatter of modernity.

As the wood fills with bikers, dog-walkers and rangers, Anne brushes up against other lives. Steve of the dump, whose world of recycling parallels her own thrifty existence; and a puckish lad who mesmerizes Anne with his quick movement and gold-flecked skin. Steve is a “Falklinds” veteran, divorced and living with his chair-bound mother. Anne thinks him possibly the planet’s “only kind man”. With the tact of the oddball or outcast, this rough pair make room for her, sharing their giant breakfasts and putting her to work stripping furniture or salvaging parts. Their kindness draws her out: she senses the beginning of something like hope. But when the old woman dies, Steve’s mate stitches him up with his ex-wife. The family emigrate, the dump closes and, once again, Anne is abandoned.

Beatty, who has previously written a biography of Lillie Langtry and a children’s book about Anne Boleyn, is well-versed in female outlawry. This fictional Anne, though, in escaping the world, has none of the intellectual purpose of, say, Jane Bowles’s Serious Ladies. But her eccentricity, like theirs, undermines the realism of the writing. Beatty responds with a circular design, resembling the rings in a tree-trunk: a Prologue tells of Anne’s end as a bag lady atop a mountain of rubbish; while the Epilogue returns us to the beginning, when Anne was first “taken”, under trees threaded with light, ecstatic in “a storm of glitter”. And slicing through the novel is a Chorus of Trees, indifferent witnesses to human behaviour.

The message is clear: the wood will not mind if we destroy it, but we will.

This review first appeared under the title ‘Wood in a Wood’, in the TLS, 10.10.08.

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