Books: The cure for oppression by Olaf the Swede
A Recipe for Bees by Gail Anderson-Dargatz Virago pounds 9.99
Sunday 07 February 1999
For secret support, Beth went to her mother's scrapbook, before that her grandmother's. Part diary, part recipe book, this charming device, as well as being decorative, lent the book a firm structure in stoical female experience. There was always a faint danger, with all its dark, furtive sexuality, that the book would turn into a Canadian Cold Comfort Farm - the sound of cow-bells tinkling in the night inevitably meant a farm-hand was molesting Daisy - yet Anderson-Dargartz was in full control of her melodramatic material.
Beth was a wonderful character, a headstrong tomboy, constantly testing her character and sexuality against old and young, male and female, family and foe, in the repressive, judgmental 1940s. As if to cut the thread between her two novels, Anderson-Dargatz opens A Recipe for Bees in the present day, with the friendship of two old women, Rose and Augusta. They are in the thick of some family crisis; gradually we learn what it is, but until the characters have been developed, it's not especially interesting.
Fortunately, if you stick with the book, you do begin to care. The novel is not the story of Rose and Augusta's friendship, nor is it about Gabe's (Augusta's son-in-law) struggle to survive after a brain seizure, nor the troubled relationship between Augusta and her daughter Joy, though all these strands have their significance. The heart of the book concerns the long survival of Augusta and Karl's marriage, and to learn why it matters, we have to go back into the past, to Augusta's girlhood. At last we're back in the territory so magically created in Death By Lightning.
The supernatural gives a rich, extra dimension to both novels: Augusta's troubling gift of second sight echoes Beth's visions and phantoms. Anderson- Dargatz is brilliant on male cruelty and oppression, and if anything the tone is darker, the problem more intractable here. Beth Weeks's brutal, abusive father is finally a pitiable creature, utterly broken. In contrast, Augusta's father-in-law, Olaf the Swede, never repents, softens or explains his misogyny. The Swede runs his household not with blows but with inflexible mental harshness, and a pig-headedness that engenders a burning sense of frustration in the reader. He is stubborn and bitter to the last, and as inexplicable as Iago.
But there is always a counterbalance in Anderson-Dargatz. For Augusta there is the pastor who supports her at the cost of his own reputation, a thoughtful lover, and, in middle age, a son-in-law willing to take over the bee-keeping equipment which Augusta has used all her life, and which she inherited from her mother, another woman who had to find space for herself in a harsh, unloving environment.
Finally, we can see the desperate significance of Gabe's illness, and the worth of Karl, who in the present-day passages is simply a nice, shy old man with startling blue eyes. We begin to understand the nature and cause of Joy's problems, and relish the moment when mother and daughter draw together. It takes a little while to follow the instructions, but it's worth persevering with A Recipe For Bees.
BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital moveTV
Final Top Gear reviewTV
FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets
Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Tunisia hotel attack: Locals form 'human shield' to protect hotel from gunman Seifeddine Rezgui
- 2 German ethics council calls for incest between siblings to be legalised by Government
- 3 French woman dies in freak bungee jumping accident
- 4 Greece crisis: Crowdfunding campaign crashes Indiegogo, raises half a million in just three days
- 5 Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck to divorce and end their 10-year marriage
The Rolling Stones announce biggest ever touring rock exhibition with Saatchi Gallery
Glastonbury 2015: The best bits you missed from Lionel Richie and the Dalai Lama to The Libertines' secret set
Glastonbury 2015: The picture of a man crowd surfing in a wheelchair is brilliant, but it wasn't taken at Glastonbury
Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James' Twitter Q&A didn't exactly go as planned
Glastonbury 2015: Shocking scenes of rubbish left strewn across campsite as clean-up begins
The moment a Queen's Guard soldier lost it and drew his gun at annoying tourist
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Pentagon accuses Russia of 'playing with fire' over nuclear threats towards Nato
They are neither a 'state' nor 'Islamic': Why we shouldn't call them Isis, Isil or IS