Kath Trevelyan
Jeremy Cooper
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Buy *Kath Trevelyan* by Jeremy Cooper online

Kath Trevelyan
Jeremy Cooper
Serpent's Tail
320 pages
November 2007
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Jeremy Cooper has fashioned quite a lovely book and, perhaps, actress Helen Mirren’s next Oscar-worthy role. Kath Trevelyan, Cooper’s main character, exudes joie de vivre. A vibrant, seventy-two-year-old widow, she remains actively engaged in not only her art (designing and printing unusual, lovingly crafted books) but also communes daily with the bountiful riches of nature found in her rural community, gathering inspiration from her cherished relationships with other artists and neighbors.

A close neighbor, John Garsington, whom Cooper paints with much more subtle strokes, is 14 years younger than Kath but shares her passion for modern art, beautiful handcrafted furniture, and living an unhurried, contemplative life in the English countryside. Although many of the references to architecture, music and art are firmly lodged in recent history, the way Kath and John both live hails back to a slower, more aesthetically pleasing era.

One of the reasons it is easy to picture a film treatment of this story is Cooper’s flowing, visually clear language. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, Kath’s meanderings from her studio, equipped with its antique Albion press into the verdant local countryside -- first for a reflective picnic then pausing to swim undiscovered in a hidden grotto -- reads as naturally as if we experienced the day ourselves. Another outing captures Cothay Manor:

“Seasonal visitors enter through the meadow and begin with the relative wildness of the riverbank and bog garden, before arrival at the head of a clipped yew walk, long and tall, where Kath stops to sit on a stone bench in the shade. The creative intensity and strength of character at Cothay is palpable. She lets Yoko and Don wander on alone, hand-in-hand through gardens built in a progression of secluded rooms and corridors, difference and cohesion the living genius of the place.”
Occasionally John’s comments come off as stilted but do serve to reinforce the reader’s developing mental image of him as somewhat awkward, particularly in his handling of intimate relationships.
“He stops. Pulls with his fingers at his lips, the furrow on the bridge of his nose deepening to the blackness of a stagnant ditch.”
When the neighborly relations between Kath and John seem to develop into something more than friendship, it is by infinitely slow degrees - even totally halted at one point, then refueled by compatible discussions, enjoyable artistic rendezvous, energetic travels, social forays, and, finally, a conscious collaboration on an important Parsonage Press project. The reader gets sudden confirmation of the physical attachment quite a ways into the novel; Cooper avoided giving this aspect of the relationship undue attention, instead using the physical to only reinforce the reader’s sense of Kath and John’s fully developed mental and spiritual closeness.

I found it quite realistic that this December–May romance would blossom without pages of angst over the age difference. Kath accepts life as it comes and admirably opens herself to this unexpected gift of physical affection and mutual dependence once again so many years later in her life. In a rare passage reflecting on their relationship, Kath admits, “I love being here, with you. I’m afraid it’s taken the last drop of my courage to let it happen. I can’t be alone again....” John had obviously worked through any reservations he had during the mysterious break early on in their friendship.

Esther, Kath’s troubled middle daughter, is the most frequent visitor to Kath and John’s idyll. Cooper provides a fine twist to the story by allowing us to learn more about the next generation through Esther: her difficult past, current physical ills, and her hopes for an unexpected happy ending. Through Esther, readers also discover other dimensions of Kath: her married life, her role as a mother, and the obstacles that she has overcome to remain content. It is slightly odd that Kath’s other two daughters and her grandchildren play such a small role in the book, although this is clearly proof of their distant relationships.

Ultimately Cooper’s well-written work rests on the extreme likability of its main character. Readers not only wish for the best for Kath, they want to live out their senior years similarly engaged in their passions: they want to basically become Kath. The perfect metaphor for Kath and John’s entire existence is quoted in Cooper’s work where he describes a book Kath pressed for a dear friend called Other Men’s Flowers. “The title was not his…a quote from Montaigne: ‘I have gathered a posie of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own.’ ” Kath and John have indeed found that a common love of craftsmanship as well as dedication to the art of producing unique and beautiful works, is more than enough.

“It isn’t easy to describe the spirit with which Kath embarks on the working days in her studio. Habit and familiarity are important – less pedestrian qualities than might be assumed, for they breed a sense of belonging, help the beat of her blood slow, guide the rhythms of the mind into unfettered channels of experience. Kath’s work, although ostensibly by others, is in fact of and from her private self. That’s why it matters.

“There is physicality about the making of any art. Nothing ever is only an idea: it is based on something that has happened, and happens again in another guise as the piece finds its form. The realisation of a concept, a mental construct, is also physical, even when there’s nothing to show on completion of the work.”
Readers will enjoy Cooper’s writing even more if they have a familiarity with English slang, the geography of Somerset, England, important names and works of the contemporary British art scene, and cursory knowledge of antique printing machinery and tomes. Cooper, a trained art historian, worked for Sotheby’s and as a private art consultant before opening his own gallery in Bloomsbury. He is the author of a number of books on art and antiques and has appeared on the popular television program Antiques Roadshow. He has also written for the Sunday Times, Observer and Sunday Telegraph. His other novels - Ruth, Us and The Folded Lie - also received favorable reviews.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Leslie Raith, 2011

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