“He carries his anger about him very quietly, like a grenade in a secret pocket.”
Set in the English moors, this tale spins out in an isolated holding among the howling winds, blustery rain, mewling sheep and squawking hens that was Howard and Deborah Morgan’s attempt to “return to the land” in the fanciful years of their youthful idealism. Following Howard’s lead as she has for much of their married life, Deborah has come to question the wisdom of her misplaced faith, standing in the ruins of what once was a realized dream, an income supported by the occasional bed-and-breakfast customer, now few and far between.
Surrounded by the slow decay of home and outbuildings, henhouse and pottery studio, Deborah’s daily demands have increased since the day of Howard’s stroke, which left him severely impaired and needing assistance with the simplest of tasks. With the attrition of time, weather and hope looming large, it is all Deborah can do to manage days filled with the usual chores and the additional ones of caring for a near-invalid. Writing from the perspective of each of her characters, Joss describes the inner turmoil of an overburdened wife and an energetic man barely able to annunciate his needs, use his hands easily or understand the changes that have altered the way information travels to his brain.
There is a weightiness to the novel that at first seems a burden, the tedium of caring for a once-vital partner, the paucity of communication between partners, the isolation of a couple with unresolved issues that have determined the course of their future. It is easy to find sympathy for the harried Deborah but more difficult to be patient with Howard, whose current infantile perspective is at war with the deeply-hidden memories of the past slowly finding their way to the surface. With everything in a state of decay, their son employed far away and visiting rarely, the couple is mired in the past but struggling to survive the present in a natural setting that is by turns inspiring and indifferent, even cruel. It is only through the email exchanged with Adam that Deborah is brought back into the world, emails she drives to the library to send, the very occasional phone call. Visitors are few, the last B&B visitors rudely remarking on the inferior quality of the lodgings.
Voices alternate between Deborah and Howard, a few important chapters describing the experience of a lonely young man at odds with parents married to a concept of frugality that does little to offer creature comforts or a way to socialize with friends. Inured to spending each birthday up on the moors at a picnic with his parents, Adam dreads each new birthday and, once he has escaped the tyranny of their holding, plans to return as seldom as possible. All the more confusing then Deborah’s preoccupation with the new year’s picnic celebration, the inevitable disappointment of Adam’s unavailability, the ritual performed by a now elderly couple struggling up the moor, Howard with a walking frame, Deborah bearing blankets and a picnic lunch.
Ironically, the separate voices of two lonely people merge as one as Joss explores the inner terrain of a long marriage rife with secret demons, moments of beauty peeking through harsh words: Howard remembering his wife as she once was, Deborah recalling her husband’s imposing virility, his surety of the world he inhabits, her trust in his vision. Though experiencing mutually exclusive trains of thought, the two are tethered together by the past in a slow spiral toward a fated yet harmonious resolution. Joss pokes mercilessly at the damaged heart of human nature, buried in the detritus of tragedy, resentment, rage and grief substitutes for emotions too great to bear, the most difficult of which is forgiveness.