A Curious Earth
by Gerard Woodward
Reviewed by Donald Revell
In taking up the latest in a given author's sequence of novels, I am too often instructed by jacket copy that the book in my hands may be thoroughly enjoyed entirely on its own. It isn't true, nor should it be. Time is real in every direction, and as Robert Creeley was beautifully inclined to say, "I want to take the whole trip."
If there is any trip sublimely worth the taking in contemporary fiction, it is Gerard Woodward's three novel sequence -- August, I'll Go to Bed at Noon, A Curious Earth -- concerning the catastrophes, the outrages, the angelic goofiness and visionary transfigurations of Aldous and Colette Jones and family. On the day I finished my first reading of August, I sent out a blizzard of e-mails and postcards to friends and acquaintances announcing that we now had, over in England, a novelist writing prose the way William Blake would be writing it if he owned a bicycle. (August opens with an Englishman's bicycle accident in Wales; Aldous literally tumbles out of 1950's London and into the pastoral -- a dairy farmer's field, or perhaps a Samuel Palmer painting, which soon becomes his family's annual campsite and second home.) Having just completed my first reading of A Curious Earth, I can, with the deepest conviction, avow what Blake avowed in his letter to Thomas Butts, 22nd November 1802: "My enthusiasm is still what it was, only enlarged and confirmed."
I will not discuss too plainly the circumstances and events of A Curious Earth, lest I spoil the surprises and drama of the two novels which precede it and which You Must Read. Suffice it to say that this is Aldous's book, the tipsy picaresque of a retired art instructor whose haphazard journey leads from London to Ostend, from erotic encounter to dental mishap, from a genuine satori before a Rembrandt portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels to the gentle rebuke of a South American tribal grandchild's pious torture of a neighborhood cat. And though it is Aldous's book, his wife and children are present as presences -- sometimes chiding, sometimes cajoling, sometimes simply beaming from the spectral plane -- in every scene, although you may not see them.
Most importantly, this is a novel of uncontrollable reconciliations, a marriage of heaven and hell consecrated time and again. The tone is set early, when Aldous attends a performance of The Winter's Tale:
What had Shakespeare thought he was doing? This was utter madness. A woman presumed dead for sixteen years makes her reappearance, going through the masque of posing as a thing of alabaster? When the line came -- "what fine chisel could ever yet cut breath?" -- it cut into Aldous's own heart. A laughable plot, yet the eventual stirring of that convincing stone (how had she managed to remain so still, kneeling?) had been too much for Aldous, and the subsequent sequence of reconciliations ("You precious winners all") had him calling out, as though drunk, "That's lovely. That's lovely."
This passage, in both its explicit and its intricately eventual allusiveness, tells the entire story of Woodward's beautiful trilogy, completed now. Begin reading it, soon. And when you come to the luminous closing chapters of A Curious Earth you will, by grace of a nature incrementally sea-changed, believe quite naturally in miracles.