Evenings at Five is a
delightful collection from Gail Godwin, which includes the title novel, five
stories, and a 'Reader's Guide', an interview with the editor of Godwin's
diaries. Godwin is an established author who has written a series of novels
winning endorsements from noted writers such as Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Joyce Carol
Oates. The book is dedicated to Godwin's late partner Robert Starer who died in
2002, and was clearly the inspiration for Evenings at Five.
Five of the stories focus on the
life of Christina, a southern girl brought up by her mother and grandmother,
reunited with her absent father in adolescence, and who in adulthood faces the
loss of her long term partner Rudy, the moody composer with whom she shares a
love of words.
Two stories from Christina's early
life follow her first confession and her exposure to a wealthy aunt whose
generosity she finds both disconcerting and tempting. 'Possible Sins' and 'Largesse'
show a young girl already sophisticated enough to see complexity in what might
otherwise be ritual rites of passage. Christina feels inadequate as a saint,
but equally inadequate as a sinner; she is drawn to the wealth of the Texan
Aunt, but 'ruined' by independence inculcated by her mother to the point that
she cannot avail herself of her aunt's offer of material salvation.
In 'Old Lovegood Girls' Godwin
explores Christina's coming of age, initially in a rebellious fling she feels
lucky to escape from. A reunion with the father she hasn't seen for years
allows Christina to attend college and assume the role of ingénue, a role made
easier at the somewhat austere Lovegood College. Having introduced Lovegood
through the eyes of a cynical outsider, Godwin shows how its apparently naive
traditions of loyalty and virtue provide a context which for Christina is a
refuge from a too precipitous entry to the adult world. When her father despairs
after breaching her trust by reading her letters, Christina responds with a
maturity gained through her time at Lovegood. She returns the words of her
father who, on becoming involved in Christina's life, told her 'You have made
me have something worth being good for'. This story is warm and touching.
Although not altogether happy, we are able to see Christina live through her
disappointments, wiser but not bitter.
The title novel is a reminiscence
in which Christina, by this time a writer of fiction, faces the pain of
separation by death from her partner of thirty years, and in the process deals
with an alcohol addiction her own ill health. 'Evenings at Five' is a stark and
restrained piece. The language is spare; the emotions raw. But a story which could
easily become maudlin and sentimental never strays in that direction.
Underlying the narrative is Godwin's wry humor and an almost playful treatment
of her subject. Christina's grief becomes a vehicle for exploring the meaning
of death, and what it means to be separated.
The final two pieces are not
fictions, but autobiographical writings. 'Waltzing with the Black Crayon'
recounts Godwin's time at the Iowa writers' school, and her tuition by Kurt
Vonnegut Jr. This story provides an interesting insight into a writer
developing her craft, and contains writing advice offered by Vonnegut to the
young Godwin. She was clearly an attentive pupil. In 'Mother and Daughter Ghosts,
A Memoir', Godwin recounts a week spent with her mother Kathleen at a
spirituality retreat. The retreat didn't go as expected for Godwin; Kathleen
made a better fist of the course activities, denying Godwin the pleasure of
rebellion she anticipated sharing with her mother. The week together was their
last contact, as Kathleen died shortly afterward.
Godwin's rendering of these stories
is delicate and understated. The pencil illustrations of Frances Halsband are a
perfect counterpoint for Godwin's deceptively simple language. I was enchanted.
I could sympathize with Christina's tragic father, her condescending aunt, and
her mother and grandmother, as much as with Christina herself.
In the notes at the end of the book
Godwin talks of a future book featuring 25 Christina stories, including some in
which she anticipates her own death. Put together this would amount to a
significant novel, but as a series of separate stories looks certain to be a
tempting collection to be dipped into for the pleasures of the crystalline
vignettes of Evenings at Five.
© 2004 Tony O'Brien
M Phil., Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland