Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 15, 2017

The Lost Life, by Steven Carroll

Is it possible to fall in love with a book?  I think I have, with The Lost Life

This is how it happened.  The publisher has sent me a copy of A New England Affair which is book #3 of Steven Carroll’s The Eliot Quartet (and just happens to have one of the most unappealing covers I’ve seen in a very long time).  And I realised that #SmacksForehead I still hadn’t read not only its predecessor Book #2 A World of Other People, (with a not quite so ghastly but likewise unenticing cover) but also Book #1 The Lost Life, both of which I had bought as soon as they were released because I love Steven Carroll’s novels.  I love his contemplative style, the way he notices the very small things about life, and his extraordinary perceptions about the inner workings of the human mind.

I found the books on the C shelf, tucked away behind a pushy double row of shiny new Ds and Es.  I couldn’t believe it when I opened up The Lost Life and realised it had been sitting there since 2009!  It is such a beautiful little book, the size of the original Penguins, and designed not by the Harper Collins Design Studio but by Sandy Cull of gogoGinko.  The sepia toned image of the paper roses is on a separate half-sized dustjacket on gorgeous textured paper (which I carefully removed to read the book because I didn’t want to damage it).  Underneath, the book boards are imprinted with the faint image of a single large rose.  I was falling in love before I’d even turned a single page.

And then, the book.  Steven Carroll is sheer genius.  With the most intricate of allusions, in a captivating story about different kinds of love, he stirs memories of so many other pleasurable hours of reading other books. It’s like those Winter days at the beach with a loved one when you walk hand in hand remembering all the other seasons when you were falling in love and looking forward to a future together.  The present is all muddled up with the past and the future, enhancing all three.  Which is a very ordinary way of saying what T S Eliot says so elegantly in his poems about Time…

Alas, my copy doesn’t have the dustjacket…

It was late, and I was reading in bed, but next thing, I was up on the library steps peering at the top shelves hunting out my Faber & Faber first edition of Eliot’s Collected Poems 1909-1962.  Carroll’s novel begins at Burnt Norton, a mansion in the Cotswolds, and I remembered the poem of that name.  (You can see a picture of the mansion here, and also an analysis of the poem if you are keen). ‘Burnt Norton’ is the first of The Four Quartets, and it begins like this:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is irredeemable.

(I am ashamed to say that this beautiful book of poetry is marred by inane marginalia, noting such intellectual gems as ‘twist’, and ‘circular not sequential’ and ‘irregular lines’.   These marks (fortunately only in pencil) date from my days at university, and they didn’t stop me re-reading the whole collection before pressing on with Carroll’s novel. But, trust me, you do not need to know a thing about TS Eliot and his poetry to love The Lost Life…

The story opens with Catherine and Daniel, two young lovers, trespassing on the grounds of Burnt Norton, long vacant but still with a glorious rose garden to admire.  They have a lot in common these two, he doing his final year at university and she about to embark on her first.

It is no surprise to either of them that they agree on many things: politics, books, the town and just about everybody in it.  And even when they disagreed, they were united by a shared passion to do so.  The only books worth reading, he’d say, were the ones that shook the world up.  By this he meant, of course, that books – poetry, novels and yes, the bloody doddering theatre – had to be political in some way.  No, no, no, she came back at him, again and again.  Too simple – a charge that Daniel took calmly and happily because he knew they were both on the same side.  Poems, novels, stories, Catherine would say (and Daniel from the start admired her confidence. a confidence beyond her years), give people the lives they will never live and fill them with a yearning for something else, something more.  A way of living in the world that doesn’t yet exist.  Doesn’t yet exist but dreaming about it just might make it so.  And books that speak about these things just might make it so by inspiring people to go out and create their lives, not have their lives imposed upon them.  Isn’t that shaking things up? (p. 15)

Although Daniel is a Marxist and theoretically not submissive to British class consciousness, he just as quickly makes himself scarce as Catherine does when they think they are about to be discovered by the owners.  But the other couple in the garden, though middle aged, are likewise trespassing lovers in search of privacy.   Catherine and Daniel covertly witness a romantic scene between the couple who turn out to be T S Eliot and his would-be mistress Emily Hale.  They exchange rings, and then – because of the need for discretion – they bury his, together with a personal note and some roses, in a tobacco tin in the rose garden.  And after they have gone, Daniel, who’s inclined to be a bit of a prankster, digs up the tin…

As luck would have it, Catherine knows Miss Hale because she cleans the Hale house while she’s on holidays. And so begins a curious relationship in which Catherine is entrusted with certain familiarities despite their difference in age and class.  She becomes, like Leo in L.P.Hartley’s The Go-Between, a participant in the struggle between Eliot’s women, his wife who ‘will not let him go’ and The Other Woman, Miss Hale who is tired of being hidden in the shadows.  (She thinks she is Eliot’s muse, his ‘hyacinth girl’ in ‘The Wasteland, lines 35-40).   But Catherine, older than 13-year-old Leo, is alert to her own treacherous shifts in her sympathies and the reader can enjoy observing whether Mrs Eliot’s warning that go-betweens get damaged in the end’ is going to come true.  

The third-person narration offers Catherine’s point-of-view, and Catherine’s highly observant interpretations of the other characters:

This is a different Miss Hale again.  Catherine knows the refined Miss Hale, even the prim Miss Hale.  And she has also glimpsed the blunt Miss Hale who once liked you but doesn’t any more and drops the social niceties, as well as having witnessed the theatrical Miss Hale who lets herself go and subtly alludes to things she can’t possibly tell you. Now there is this other Miss Hale.  Not the Miss Hale who hints at different kinds of love at the different stages of one’s life, but the Miss Hale who seems quite comfortable talking about sheep paddocks and the kinds of girls who use them. (p.122)

(Catherine is not keen on letting her ardour result in grass stains on her skirts, if you take my meaning.)

I have enthused about this book enough.  I must now decide whether to read Book #2 straight away, or let things mull for a little while….

Author: Steven Carroll
Title: The Lost Life (Book #1 of The Eliot Quartet)
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), 2009
ISBN: 9780732284800
Source: Personal library, purchased from Tim’s Books, Camberwell $29.99

Available from Fishpond:The Lost Life

 


Responses

  1. I agree Lisa about the quality of his writing. A wonderful writer.

  2. Hmmm, I’ve had this book on my shelves for some time now (but not as long as you). I’ve not been that enamoured with Steven Carroll before but will give this a try at one point.

    • I’m keeping my fingers crossed that you like it:)

  3. Yes of course you can fall in love with a novel.

  4. Now you’ve made me want to go off and read Eliot…

    And yes – I’ve managed to love novels many a time! :)

    • I think people get scared off Eliot. But really, he’s like James Joyce. Of course there’s stuff you won’t understand, not unless you have a PhD in this and that, but I just let it wash over me and enjoy the things I do understand.

  5. You’re on a roll. Read it straight away. You never know about that proverbial bus…lol.

  6. I love Steven Carroll! And this link to the TS Eliot poem about time is such a great hint of one of the overriding themes in his work, such as in the ‘train’ series! My favourite book of his is The Love Song of Lucy McBride. I once did a writing masterclass with him and he gave me what turned out to be the best and true advice ever, even though it seemed harsh and possibly wrong at the time: if you share early drafts with a writing group, your writing becomes ‘writing by committee’.

    • I once did a masterclass with Steven too, Annette. Isn’t he lovely, and generous with his ideas? I haven’t read novels 2 and 3 in the series. Must get to them. Thanks for the prompt, Lisa! Lovely review.

    • The Love Song of Lucy McBride? I’ll have to get a copy of that too…

  7. I vote for reading the next one right away – I’m curious to know if the next two are as good as the first! :)

    • Your wish is granted. I am almost finished A World of Other People and can already tell you, yes, yes it is.

      • Oh good!


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