The latest from Catherine Chidgey is a very demanding book to get into. But it is certainly worth persevering.
She describes it as a found novel – I guess that as objets trouves can form pictorial art works, so this is a collection of found words which combine to form a picture of a year in the life of the novelist and her family and friends.
When you look at a picture composed in this way it’s often quite easy to see where the pieces connect, what drew the artist to them and how the composition developed. I found it much harder to work out the connections, particularly in the first two or three months of the book.
Also it’s perhaps a bit of a writerly conceit to say the words were found, rather than collected or recorded – surely they must have been in some format which made them easy to retrieve, given the complexity of the conversations and how well they ring true. Or else Chidgey is just remarkable at recreating these moments. Or maybe, like Topsy in the old (and not PC) story it ‘just growed’.
Many of the people in her book spring to life through these snippets of conversation. Her mother, with increasing memory loss and confusion, springs to life – but so does the way in which memory, both present and lost, affects all of us. It’s particularly poignant as Chidgey pulls no punches in how difficult, frustrating, annoying and heart-breaking it can be to live with this as part of your life.
Of course it’s not just about memory, it’s about love, friendship, child development, relationships and all of the tiny or huge interactions we have with people every day.
It’s a compelling read, and even though at times I wanted to put it down because I really could not work out who was talking at the time, I persevered. Not because there’s a tidy conclusion, but because I wanted to hear all those stories and see where they went.
As a year in the life of Catherine Chidgey and her family and friends, I think it’s an absolutely fascinating book. Take the time you need to read it. If you want to whizz through it, resist the urge. Take it slowly and you’ll be rewarded.
Reviewed by Sue Esterman
The Beat of the Pendulum : a found novel
by Catherine Chidgey
Published by VUP