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.
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