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A Wrongful Death by Kate Wilhelm

For reasons unclear to me, a phrase popped into my mind the other day. I was, of course, reading a book and admiring an interesting plot development. The phrase was, “You’re too clever by half.” It’s a put-down used to make children feel bad about their own cleverness. It was something my grandma used to say. Indeed, when I do think of my grandma, my first instinct is to characterise her as a walking compendium of idiomatic English, full of interesting and idiosyncratic phrases (as one might expect from a Victorian woman transcending the Edwardian into the Georgian infinity and beyond). But this misrepresents the way our memory works. Our two lives overlapped by some thirty years and, during that time, I must have heard her utter several million words. Yet all I remember are the most interesting turns of phrase. All the other millions of mundane words have long lost their lustre and dropped out of memory. This is the natural function of editorialising. Human data storage cannot expand indefinitely, so our life’s experiences are distilled down to whatever passes for the irreducible minimum. Whether advertently or inadvertently, we remember what was most interesting and enlightening, most pleasing and obscure because, even now as we enter the twilight of our own lives, these words can still bring a smile of recognition to our lips.

In fact, this is the reverse of what a novelist does. The characters populating fiction’s pages must become memorable with the minimum of information, allowing the reader to extrapolate and fill in gaps from everyday experience. The more the character’s actions and motivations are corroborated by our own observations, the more real he or she appears to be. We co-operate with the artist, sculptor or author by fleshing out the Lowery- or Giacometti-style matchstick men because they are endowed with the essentials of form and structure with just enough provocation to engage our imaginations.

In both fact and fiction, time is one of the most fascinating human concepts. We always feel obliged to quantify and measure its passing, never content simply to accept our lives. In this context I picked up the most recent Barbara Holloway novel, A Wrongful Death from Kate Wilhelm. This is enriched because I have every book she has written in my collection. I have been reading her from the day her first novel appeared on a bookseller’s shelf. This makes the reading experience not only the study of the characters on the page, but also the study of the mind of the author. After reading so many of her words, you get to know and appreciate her qualities.

The interesting thing about Wilhelm is that she plays a fairly consistent kind of metaphorical game. The internal and external landscapes have a complex relationship where the psychodrama of the characters is matched by features in the environment. For example, in Fault Lines, the fracturing of the landscape through an earthquake reflects the broken and somewhat dysfunctional nature of the trapped woman and her relationships. So in A Wrongful Death, the cold bleakness of the weather is a context in which a woman who is surrounded by those who love her must decide what value to place on her life and her life’s work. This is an example of the so-called mid-life crisis — a period of doubt and anxiety when those who have devoted themselves to a particular way of life reach a halfway point in terms of years and reflect on whether they want to continue in the same vein in the second half. There is something slightly ironic when an ageing reviewer considers a book written by an older author about an emotional state that affects many around the age of forty. I can nod wisely and recall similar doubts about my own career. Wilhelm herself has been publishing fiction for more than fifty years which is a fairly consistent career path.

Yet in both the real and this fictional world, the cold seeps into the lead character’s bones and threatens to erode her will to continue. As the temperature drops, many do fall asleep and die. Others have the strength to carry on and accept the warmth of family, friends and lovers. So at Christmas and New Year when everything that is precious in a family could be a beacon showing you what is important, we are reintroduced to the cast of characters that have populated Barbara Holloway’s “legal” life and collectively they resolve the problem, each one contributing on the way.

This is not quite the standard Barbara Holloway novel because we do not build up to a set-piece court case. Barbara finds herself unable to take on the case because she is a material prosecution witness. That said, the legal problem is an engaging one and, although the practical resolution is a little on the melodramatic side, it is nevertheless pleasing. Which all brings me back that that pesky phrase, “Too clever by half”.

For the most part, I read books with the mind disengaged. It is the willing suspension of disbelief as I follow where the author leads. Except where that passage is disturbed by something high on the scale of cleverness (or awfulness). Briefly, you drop out of autoread to consider the situation. In this case, I was amused. The “hook” is not original but, in this context, it is a pleasing and natural extension of the original premise. Wilhelm, as ever, does the plot device “justice” and so the cleverness at the halfway stage in the book is not too much for her. I only hope that she does manage to write a few more novels (or has some in a drawer awaiting publication). A world without a new Wilhelm novel to look forward to will be a sadder place.

For another book in the Barbara Holloway series, see Heaven is High, for a stand-alone book, see Death of an Artist.

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