Reviewed: Drusilla Modjeska, The Orchard (Macmillan, 1994).
I was once accused by my students of never teaching a book I liked. This was because I had worked very hard to find some critical things to say about Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy, in an attempt not to sound too adoring. No doubt there are criticisms to be made of Modjeska’s new book, The Orchard, but I don’t plan on making any here.
This plump little book, with its exquisite cover, looks good enough to eat. The contents are likewise exquisite and, lest I slip into that language used of women’s books (fine, delicate, careful, pure), it is also harsh and robust. As with Modjeska’s Poppy, this is a narrative which demands, and rewards, readerly patience. Like Poppy also it consists of an unnervingly intimate set of stories, descriptions, musings and commentaries. It is not classifiable as novel or criticism or philosophy. I admire Modjeska’s ability to make profound statements and weighty observations, to produce epigrams even, without sounding trite. I relish a story that comes with footnotes and essays that come with yarns.
The book consists of a prelude and an ending enclosing three separate but connected stories, all to do with the making and remaking of selves. The first has also to do with faith and adultery, the second with blindness and solitude and the third with the education of girls and the shaping of women. These narratives, or essays, are followed by the story of the silver hands from which the book takes its title, and which is the allegory and emblem of the whole.
As one of the seriously myopic I can’t resist quoting part of Modjeska’s discussion of visual impairment and aloneness from the second section:
Those who are short-sighted, and as a consequence likely to be bad at things like sport, compensate by growing up as bookworms: a defence against all those balls flying around in the air, hurtling suddenly and dangerously into one’s field of vision. The world of books, of pen and ink, or canvas and paint, is full and rich, and in focus; and through it one is likely to learn early a taste for solitude, and a confrontation with the self, for it is a world which relieves one of the rush of life as well as of the indignities of team work and the compulsions of sport. The ophthalmic theory of culture! (131)
In this section Modjeska reclaims short-sightedness from the realms of the pejorative metaphor. It was only after I had read it through that I realized part of the attraction of the cover is in the way the central image, a pear, is slightly fuzzy. This is not a book I would attempt to summarize — it is too wide in scope and, like the pear, too delicate in focus.
Central to the book is the idea of gardens and gardening, as sensuous places, as pieces of art, refuges, sites for work and salvation and, particularly, women’s creations. The idea of the garden works in harmony with the notion of an always shifting self, which (ideally) grows and matures, sometimes with judicious pruning and mulching, and sometimes without. Of course sometimes it also curls up and dies, and the book, like the garden, is balanced between such possibilities, as for instance in the discussion of adultery:
That’s what’s so awful about not being told of an affair, Louise says. Not only do you feel your humanity violated, as if you’ve been cast as infant or invalid who cannot be trusted with the truth, and therefore the experience, of that part of your life. You’re left with the corrosive of regret, with the open wounds that come with the memory of things not said, with gestures reinterpreted, and with the realisation that you were not accorded an equal value with the one you loved. As to the mistress, she is left mourning the unlived gap between the future that was promised and the story that seduced her. The bargain she struck — be for me what I want you to be — was reciprocated in his request that she play mistress to him. (91)
Though I loved this book, even to the extent of stopping to reread a paragraph just to taste it again, it seems such an intimate and quirky read that I am forced to wonder who else will love it, and what Modjeska’s male readers will make of a narrative which, in certain ways, confronts and excludes them.