"A Country Road, A Tree" Jo Baker

A Country Road, A Tree
Jo Baker's "Longbourn" was one of my most favourite reads of 2015 and I have recommended it and bought it for friends ever since so I was thrilled to review her latest book "A Country Road, A Tree".

This is a mesmerising read. The protagonist is an anonymous writer (who Baker reveals in the Author's Note to be Samuel Beckett) and his experiences of living in Paris in the Second World War as he evades the Gestapo, works for the French Resistance, falls in love with a frenchwoman, befriends James Joyce and travels his own literary journey as he struggles to shape and define his own creative voice.

It's clear from Baker's previous novel as well as this one, that she is interested in the characters who "scrape by in the margins of a hostile world." She explains in the Author's Note that she was intrigued by the epiphany Beckett experienced during the war where he realised the kind of writer he would become. This is a fictional version of his story but it realistically conveys his moral choices, his bravery to face the war with his friends rather than return to the neutrality of Ireland and how all these events allowed him to grow as a writer. It is a lyrical and poetic read. The style and pace may take a little getting used to, but do persist and allow yourself to become immersed in a unique and well imagined world.

The novel begins with Part One which is intriguingly called "The End." Our male protagonist is in Ireland looking out to sea, towards Europe, and observes that the "tidal wave is gathering and at any moment now will come the tipping point, the collapse and the rush, the race towards destruction." These half finished phrases float across the page like cadences from a piano symphony and I expect, if I was more well versed in Beckett's own work, they would indeed echo his style. Baker is such an intelligent writer and clearly a master of language and imagery, structure and impact. The book is full of beautiful and stunning descriptions as well as sharp insight. For example, when in Paris the narrator imagines the "queasy idea of England peering across the channel and biting her nails while America stands, arms folded and whistling, pretending not to notice what is going on at all." When working for the Resistance, he handles the information and describes how these small scraps of paper "conjure aeroplanes out of clear skies... bring hell raining down on it...these words could take a hundred lives." It's so gently presented, yet so powerful and effective. The writing really is outstanding.

There is an atmosphere of sadness and defeat in some of the narrator's experiences. He struggles with the consequences and dilemmas of the war as well as that of his writing and purpose. He is haunted by the words of his mother: "What use do you imagine you'd be?" At one point he wonders that "writing is ridiculous...jam one word up against another, shoulder to shoulder...hem them in with punctuation so they can't move an inch....expect something to be communicated, something understood...it's not just pointless it's ethically suspect." Again, the use of personification here is so innovative and impressive and captures so much about the character, writing and literature.

Fortunately the ending sees the protagonist survive his struggle to create a language that will express his experiences and the novel ends with "words form....this is where it begins." I found this an intense and hugely satisfying final sentence. Worthy of a standing ovation.

This is a literary treat. This is for readers who love language, art and the journey of tortured souls. It is a novel that takes some focus and perseverance but this pays off and will leave you in awe of Baker's skill and literary craftsmanship.

Thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to review this advanced copy in return for a fair review.

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