Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"Ophelia Street was" : What Evil Lurks?

"Memory grows plump in youth and wastes away to skin and bone."

John Simmon's novel Leaves waited forty years to be published. The novel is set in North London in 1970, the year Simmons wrote the first draft. Simmons went on to forge a career teaching writing. Returning to his languishing novel after forty years Simmons rewrote it from the perspective of the narrator looking back to the events and people of Ophelia Street, a cul-de-sac of "pre-Raphaelite fancy" that had become a prison for occupants "straining to burst free from its hold."

The narrator is a London newcomer, a journalist starting his first job. Over the year he lived on Ophelia Street the narrator observed and recorded the people of the street. Now after thirty years passing he tells us the story of Ophelia Street and the events that gave him the story that made his career.

The inhabitants of the street seem ordinary at first glance. A young family, a brother and sister, grown men living with their mothers. A factory at the end of the street is owned by one family and employs others. There is a pub that brings men together and separates families. Children play on the streets. The street empties when summer vacations lure people to the sea shore.

The book opens with the death of a stray dog which brings three people together to check out what had happened and to deal with the body. Over the year, as the leaves change, we learn more about the inner lives of the inhabitants. There is the death of a marriage and of several elderly people, the conception of a child, the murder of small animals and the murder of a child. At the end of the year almost everyone has left Ophelia Street which is to be torn down and replaced with modern dwellings.

I had mixed feelings about the book as I read it. Early on it felt voyeuristic and recalled Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock. The narrator tells us we are all being watched in the city. I also felt I understood the narrator and have been just as bad! My high school diary is full of observations about the people I knew, even down to my recording everything that happened during one study hour, who dropped a pencil, who passed notes, who set their head down and napped. The narrator justifies this as practicing journalistic observation. I will gladly accept that understanding!

The structure is complicated. The author has written a narrator whose story is told in both in real time (30 years later) and in real time (1970) with dialogue, action, and descriptions of people's inner thoughts and feelings (circa 1970).  It raises questions. Is the narrator a voice for the author? Is he a reliable narrator? How much has the narrator reconstructed the events of Ophelia Street based on imagination?

There are mysterious and dark goings on but the reader is left to connect the dots. I actually appreciate that belief in the intelligence of the reader, although some readers will grouse that the mysteries were not 'solved'.

Reviews talk about the beautiful writing and that is what drew me to request the book from NetGalley. Epigrams and quote-worthy sentences abound. "We all have a tendency to romanticise [sic: this is a British novel!] the past, particularly to romanticise our own past." "He suddenly realized how fragile was the glass of this friendship." And, "Ophelia Street was,"..."A place that had seen better and grander times. Like a once-fine ocean liner slumped on a deep sea bed, but breaking up, for better, for worse."

I do wonder about the title, based on the changing seasons, when I would have thought that "Ophelia Street" would have better suited.

I look around at my suburban street and wonder what secrets and horrors, loneliness and isolation, hopes and dreams reside in these houses? Is there a story to be told in every street? I sincerely hope we are quite boring.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Leaves by John Simmons
Urbane Publications
$14.95 soft cover, $2.49 Kindle

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