Thursday, July 23

The Clock Winder - Anne Tyler

Three years after her husband's death, Mrs Emerson is bereft but holding it together. Her children rarely visit, she's had to fire her long-standing handyman after she caught him urinating on her roses, and every day she becomes aware of knowledge she never knew her husband had, like how to keep all the clocks chiming at the same time. It would be easier to let some things go, but Mrs Emerson prides herself on maintaining her standards - even if standards are sliding nationally in 1960, she will always be appropriately attired.
When bringing the summer furniture into the house, Mrs Emerson is unexpectedly joined by Elizabeth, a most unusual young woman who offers to work as Mrs Emerson's handyman. Though clumsy in her usual life, Elizabeth is somehow transformed into a capable, focused person able to fix not only things round the home but corners of Mrs Emerson's life, including her dysfunctional family.
I'm conflicted about how I feel about The Clock Winder. For a start, though there are clocks present int he novel, their presence is minimal, Elizabeth is shown winding them, and Mrs Emerson's late husband isn't a significant part of the novel, and the title makes me feel as though I've missed something significant.
Initially published over thirty years ago, and decidedly set a decade before that, The Clock Winder could have been an interesting study in contrasts, between women of different eras, with different expectations and needs, set against a background of cultural change, but Tyler takes no almost notice of these aspects.
The pivotal character, Elizabeth, though present is never really known, by her employer, the brothers interested in her, her own family or even by herself. Rather than having a defined character of her own she's present primarily as a reflection of the way others see her and the needs others have for her. This is an aspect common to the novel as a whole - though the characters are interesting they somehow didn't feel wholly three dimensional, despite being quite complex.
This isn't a conventional narrative - no decisive structure, for a start. Instead it's more like a stream of consciousness chronology of several characters, who spend some time overlapping one another's lives. In those respects The Clock Winder is certainly Literature. Significant moments happen off-screen, particularly in a section that leaps forward a couple of years, leaving me wanting to know why and how the situation changed, though not strongly enough for that in itself to be interesting. The locust invasion that coincides with this leap served no dramatic or symbolic use that I could see, and after such a languid trajectory the end felt rushed, almost as though Tyler were as bored with the project as I.
Yet, despite this, there is something lyric in Tyler's writing and I did read it to the end despite an abundance of other books available and a plethora of tasks to be done. My first introduction to Tyler's work, Breathing Lessons, was a success I've been unable to subsequently match - though I also enjoyed A Patchwork Planet, I've had three unenjoyable novels cross my path and think it might be time to stop trying. - Alex

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