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‘Children of Epiphany’ by Frances Oliver

Ash Tree Press (2004)

 

My detailed reviews of the complete published fiction of Frances Oliver

I’m starting below another of my gradual real-time reviews.

CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review as the comments on the novel are posted chapter by chapter below, before or during or after your own reading of the book, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading the book. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.

All DFL’s real-time reviews are linked from here: http://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/

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I

“I like to make my scenes myself.”

Even temporarily eschewing the reading of any introduction or the scrutiny of the physical book itself as far as possible while reading the actual text of any novel, one can still almost immediately know in the first few paragraphs of the first chapter what sort of read it’s going to be. And this, for me, has wonderful premonitions of style and timbre while, then, dipping further into the chapter, one is soon in tune with the magical masquerade in the book’s Mediterranean ‘spirit of place’, a girl (mid teens?) as the I-protagonist viewpoint, her feistiness, her mother’s equal feistiness as well as flightiness, the girl’s latest ‘father’ (Robert); the family’s arty preoccupations as well as their sense of means-justifying-the-ends, of sexual innuendo and of unfixity of domain, as they are transposed to another part of their Greek island, i.e. now living opposite to where a ‘mad’ woman comes to her ‘last balcony’ regularly to mark the hours (like a clockwork weather forecast?). A foreboding of cosmic harmonics and sexual machinations. A foreboding, too, of I-know-not-what. Full of exquisite characters some masked, some transparent. The girl certainly knows how to write! Having just finished the first chapter, I’m not sure whether I believe the girl wholly … yet. But even if it’s not true, it is true for her.

“Or that a few more of those balcony scenes would convince them both that this was not the place, after all, for Robert to write his great book.” (22 Feb 10)

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II

” ‘Real legends – I mean a real local fairy story – wouldn’t have hair growing out of bleeding knuckles. It’s too’ – I searched for the word – ‘it’s just too – complicated.’ “

But, Tamsin, the girl narrator who says that, seems herself just too complicated. It is as if she is possessed by a force. The authorial force? … or a force beyond even the control of the author herself? An unforeseen audit trail through a complicated jazz solo.

The family’s life in their new domain is touched upon by insidious as well as potentially friendly characters. Tamsin herself falls in love with the good-looking son of the ‘mad’ woman and befriended by her daughter. There is an aura of events being almost generally beset with fetich.

A place with clothes thrown about in the backyard. Half-waking nightmare of a ‘torn’ donkey followed by a damaged pink pig – fallen off the balcony. Complicated images, but I can’t help thinking that these ‘complications’ will become simplicity itself when distilled by the cosmic harmonics I sense underlying this book so far. Or overlying it?

“…moaning and clutching the balcony rail like a drowning person hanging onto a lifeline.” (22 Feb 10 – four hours later)

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III

” ‘In the old days, when they made an important building like a Pirgos, they would crush a living man to death under the foundation stone, so that the building would be a good strong building; because, you see, it had eaten a life.’ “

Pirgos, balconies, bikini tops – all take on an aura of fetich as well as salaciousness. And connections are cleverly developed – seemingly without effort, perhaps even without authorial or protagonal volition – about the myths of the island, including one relating to the novel’s title, from Robert’s friend Hugo who seems at cross-antipathy with the possibly Epiphanic children of the ‘mad’ woman – one of which ‘children’ (i.e. Petros) Tamsin continues almost to fetichize as well as eroticise. (23 Feb 10)

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IV

“I wondered why when grown-ups had that it was Love and when you were really young, when maybe it could hurt most, it was a crush. A crush. Where did the silly expression come from?”

And also the expression ‘grounded’ for Tamsin’s punishment as if she is a pilot! Tamsin (who is, I now note from the book’s cover (!), aged 14), as narrator, is omniscient to the extent of reading her mother Lisa’s diary and Robert’s ongoing book (developing into Shakespearean-like verse?) and she overhears the suspicious Hugo making a pass at Lisa. But Tamsin is not only omniscient but complicatedly precocious of perception for a 14 year old, to the extent of recognising old classic con tricks – and when compared to the Epiphanic tendencies (as earlier described) in others by her own ‘fuller’ soul (as demonstrated by her precocity), fuller than the supposed mythical empty souls of those others, this comparison makes them seem potentially even emptier. I am non-plussed and feel scoured by a real force – & I note Hugo speaks of it as a ‘rhythm’, a jazz drumbeat – a force that I predicted earlier to be a form of cosmic harmonics. I continue to feel my way in this most intriguing reading experience. (24 Feb 10)

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V

” ‘I know. But to us in America birthdays are very important.’ I couldn’t stop now. ‘Mine is September 11. When is yours, Heleni?’ “

The nearest terrestrial form to my concept of cosmic harmonics is the practice of Astrology (empirical Synchronicity rather than cause-and-effect.) We shall discover later perhaps how relevant this may be.

There is some force in this fiction that is unstoppable. Apparently, Robert may be typing in his room not to produce the expected lucrative book that Tamsin and Lisa are expecting, but typing out idle verse and other folderols to make them believe he’s writing that book with the sound of his typewriter! This book itself (‘Children of Epiphany’), meanwhile, is perhaps the master-work of Robert that he wants to conceal until it’s finished – a double-bluff. Would explain the extreme precocity of his central narrator and protagonist….!

But this is just brainstorming on my part. This book is certainly fleshing out all the characters, including the inscrutability of Hugo that Alice Drift (a visitor to the Pirgos) fills in. Plus behind-the-scenes machinations of the man (Morelli) who allowed them to stay at the Pirgos. Others’ intentions inferred or otherwise. The status of the ‘mad’ balcony-woman’s ‘children’ is further delineated. The house by the ravine with the clothes thrown about in its backyard is also mentioned again (something that I admit indeed haunted one of my dreams last night). The word-painted picture of this novel grows, dabbed at and brush-stroked and scraped with the inferred author’s palette-knife… (24 Feb 10 – six hours later)

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VI (up to page 72)

” ‘You’ve never understood, have you, Lisa? How a writer’s mind functions? That everything is grist for the mill? That every experience, every observation has an ultimate use?’ “

Robert no longer bothers to pretend to write his book – and Lisa and Tamsin walk to the house by the ravine where clothes are strewn about outside…including that earlier ‘torn’ donkey but now for real. I have not read ‘The Houses of The Russians’ for many years but this effective scene somehow reminds me of it. It even made me think that Robert is Robert Aickman himself! An atmosphere with also a smidgin of ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’. Meanwhile, the feisty relationship between mother and daughter is very well drawn, given the reader’s acceptance of the premise of Tamsin’s precocity. (25 Feb 10)

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VI (from page 72 to end)

“She has the orthodox unorthodox ideas.”

Hugo brings his ‘girl friend’ to dinner with Lisa, Robert and Tamsin – Jo who is staying with Hugo in his house near the ravine. Dinner party ‘philosophisation’ and anoxeric ‘skinning’ of a memory of another previous party – tending to tangle the undercurrents with which the reader is beginning, I guess, to be imbued. It is difficult to comment on this novel without extrapolating upon each turn of the plot. A reviewing process that increasingly seems susceptible to filling as the originally fat Jo once seemed to need emptying. I did not intend it this way. It’s as if I’m now being subtly controlled by the book and told (in some unknown way) what to say about it. (25 Feb 10 – an hour later)

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VII

“The thing about ghostly warnings is, like oracles, they are always ambiguous. They never give you the feet and inches of it.”

Resisting further plot descriptions, merely let me say that this appears to be a core chapter, where Tamsin, without relinquishing her own sense of omniscience, expressly addresses the reader as ‘reader’ and withholds details of her relationship with Petros but simultaneously admits to a loophole in her omniscience regarding her worries concerning the suspicious Hugo and the ever diminishing physical presence of his girl friend Jo. We also learn, directly from Tamsin, that the book cover is correct: she is indeed only 14.

We are left embroiled in this fascinating ferment. Tamsin — the book’s formal (ostensibly astute and premature) narrator — is in the process of abandoning us. Or Robert the writer has abandoned us by allowing Tamsin to abandon us to our own fallible inferences as to the truth lying behind her (or his?) words. Or the head-lease author herself (whose name is on the book’s spine) has abandoned us…? This is certainly a major reading experience that reminds me of the mixed motives within various reliable and unreliable narrative levels of ‘Chance’, a novel by Joseph Conrad. And that is no mean compliment. (25 Feb 10 – another 5 hours later)

 

 

VIII

“If I had not been in that scene, and had no idea what it was about, it would have been funny.”

A long chapter, but I am now committed to brevity. With Robert expressly abandoning fiction, Tamsin now seems intent upon casting her scenes now as an absurdist romp amid the empty houses near the ravine and in Hugo’s house nearby, while Hugo himself seeps more and more into his mould of apparent representative of Evil. Tamsin searches, along with the now seemingly more vulnerable Petros and her ‘step-father’ Robert, for the ever-depleting Jo and the ever madder ‘balcony woman’ who are both missing — mistaking the former for a dummy or doll that Hugo had created (as decoy?). Robert earlier in the chapter extrapolated upon the world’s madness, but the novel (in which he writes) becomes madder than any of its characters! A believable madness, however, a madness that makes me shudder with nightmares-in-utero…and who or what was it that Tamsin spotted poking around near the ravine, if it wasn’t Jo or the mad ‘balcony woman’? (26 Feb 10)

 

 

IX

“I felt as if I were on stilts. Very high up, looking down on it all, but very wobbly. I knew what Hugo was doing.”

Indeed if the Narrator falters it is important she knows she falters, I guess. Meanwhile, this chapter gives the reader some evidence of how Tamsin is so precocious. So, I was right to question it earlier, I guess.

We are shown the ouzo-sodden Robert and the supposed inveigling of him by the dynamite-ousted-from-his-home-beside-the-ravine Hugo … plus the equivocal discussion of leaving the Pirgos about which Lisa tries to persuade Robert. Tamsin herself earlier visited Alice Drift and suffered some form of ‘flu while also meeting a man who knew about the myths of the Ravine, concerning matters almost akin to Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’. And about the ambivalent nature of the Children of Epiphany … and we wonder about the nature of some of the characters in this light and who is right or wrong about who is harming or benefiting whom.

I feel strangely as if I’m writing the story now (not Robert or Tamsin or Frances) and I don’t know where it’s heading! In this chapter and the previous one, the various participants have been jockeying for position as the increasingly telegraphed ‘vibrations’ (or cosmic harmonics) of Lisa allow the compass-point to shake about before settling in one direction of plot or another. I admire this novel, but I currently can’t help thinking that it enjoys shaking the kaleidoscope too much with brave but uncertain attempts at predicting into what shapes the bits will fall. That’s not a criticism, because I weirdly feel that I myself have become part of this novel simply by being its reader and self-proclaimed reviewer and am at least partially responsible for it.

Committed to brevity? This novel is not amenable to brevity of reaction I’ve found. (26 Feb 10 – two hours later)

 

 

X

“It is my nontention, however, that what we have here is not merely abhurdity but onsense.” (sic)

Tamsin expressly addresses the reader as ‘reader’ again, about the nature of Ghost Stories and Horror stories. It’s as if she’s talking to me direct – as if knowing that, one day, like today, I would write this review.

Further reference to the nature of Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’ and, in Lisa’s Journal, a text that Tamsin manages to read omnisciently, there is oblique reference to Henry James’ ‘Turn of the Screw’. Hugo acts as buffer between Lisa and Robert. A mayhem of emotion and recrimination and studied calm.

A mangled kitten in a sack. That scene brought tears to my eyes, not about the kitten itself, but about the implications of Hugo showing it to Tamsin. One wonders who is truly turning the screw in this book? Petros and his sister as suspected Children of Epiphany? Or Hugo or Lisa or Robert or, even, Tamsin herself.

Robert – now having given up typing the scrambled Shakespeare – types out apparent nonsense. But nothing is nonsense, I say. (26 Feb 10 – another 4 hours later)

 

 

XI

” ‘You always lie, Tamsin. You have always been a liar.’ “

The narrative-levels continue, for example Petros repeating verbatim in his own dialogue the ‘crazy’ sayings of a madwoman’s dialogue about the ravine and Tamsin in turn narrating verbatim Petros’ dialogue…..

The ambivalences continue – between madness and possession, between harmonics and chaos, between the magnetic pulls of destiny and chance – and who is right or wrong about who is harming or benefiting whom. I dare not relay my suspicions to you, for fear of spoilers, and I do assume that this will shake out more definitely in the final kaleidoscope within the forthcoming closing chapters. But I could be wrong. I am very low down in the pecking-order of narrative-levels as mere reader, after all.

“The ravine was becoming like a magnet, and the horror of my dream had done nothing to weaken its pull.” (27 Feb 10)

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XII

“Most ritual is nonsense. But if you believe in it and understand the connections, it becomes a way of focusing power.”

A relatively compressed potential dénouement for Tamsin at the ravine which effectively sheds significant (if oblique) light on some of my queries, reservations and observations above. And in this same light, as reviewer, I continue to withdraw my description of the plot from any ‘scorched earth’ policy of leaving spoilers in my wake. This book needs to be read.

“I was now like Tamsin dreaming…”

 

 

XIII

“…poor Robert, he imagines such things, yesterday he even wanted to climb up on the balcony…”

A perfect chapter in every way. I’ll leave you to decide if it answers my question:- who is right or wrong about who is harming or benefiting whom?

This is a wonderful treatment of self-doubt and equivocal evil.

A perfect chapter, but a perfect ending? If it were the ending, I’d say yes. But we’re not finished yet….

“What if you made onsense (sic) from Shakespeare instead of just scrambling?” (27 Feb 10 – another 2 hours later)

 

 

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Epilogue (Lisa’s journal)

This reminds the reader of the importance of birthdays and their dates.

This ending upon an ending will be one with which to tussle I guess, and I wonder whether I shall ever be released from tussling with it.

“Perhaps the best thing is to wait, and not decide anything.” (27 Feb 10 – another 30 minutes later)

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I hope you’ve enjoyed that personal journey of mine, one of many journeys that good books can provide. Books in the great Weird Literature tradition, in particular. This one was first published in 1983 by Secker & Warburg and re-published by Ash Tree Press in 2004. I should have known about it before now but had to depend upon a recent mention of Frances Oliver on the All Hallows discussion forum to entice me into buying the book. I wonder how many other so-called Weird Literature enthusiasts have missed this book before now. I wonder how many other great works like ‘Children of Epiphany’ have become lost in the wastes of 1983 or in any other year when they were first published. Judging by Google today, very few of you, I guess, would be able to say that they knew about this book … before now.

I shall now read, for the first time, Frances Oliver’s own 2004 introduction to ‘Children of Epiphany’ within the Ash Tree Press book and see what further food for thought it may give me. But I won’t be back to tell you.

df lewis (27 Feb 10 – another 30 minutes later)

END

 

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