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Point and Counterpoint

Scarlett Baron

The Still PointAmy Sackville
The Still Point
Portobello Books, 2010
320 Pages
ISBN 978-1846272295

The Still Point, published in February last year, takes us from a London sitting room to the North Pole. The novel, a study in counterpoint, explores themes of fixity and movement, domesticity and adventure, love and distance. With its nuanced, stirring lyricism, archly tender humour, and masterful linguistic precision, the book marks the advent of an impressive new fictional voice.

Amy Sackville’s tale is on one level an account of an ordinary day in the lives of Simon and Julia, a middle-aged couple first encountered tossing and turning through a night of troubling dreams. Simon’s and Julia’s nocturnal preoccupations are strangely related, both revolving around the North Pole. While Simon’s Arctic is “dark and silent”, awash with corpses “afloat among the ice”, Julia’s is suffused with light and alive with gentle bodily sensations. We watch “her pupils scud and jitter” as her mind conjures “ice deep blue, smooth like skin”, and skies of “gold and rose”. Julia is at ease in this imagined North. “Outstretched across the still point of the turning world”, she basks in contourless space, revelling in the sensation of her own disappearing boundaries: “No edges to the world or myself”, she reflects. While Julia relishes her time in this oddly soothing glacial landscape, Simon becomes silently incensed at the hold the “useful fiction” of the Pole exerts upon his wife. “It is not fixed”, muses Simon, “it isn’t still at all…the still point wobbles…There is no great rod in space, holding her steady through her middle”. This exasperation about instability is partly, as the reader surmises, about Julia, and about the uncertainties her passion for the Arctic has placed between them.

In the morning Simon sets off to his architect’s office in London, where he takes solace in drawing clear lines and laying solid foundations. Julia stays at home in the large Victorian house she has inherited, trying to sort through a heaving attic of paraphernalia that evokes memories of her great-great-uncle Edward, who disappeared on an expedition to the North Pole a hundred years or so ago.

The Still Point is taut with the variegated tensions and tortures of waiting, separation, and loneliness. The explorer Edward is shown waiting for storms and seasons to pass. Meanwhile, his wife Emily spends a lifetime longing for her dead husband. On the sweltering summer day on which the novel is set, Julia waits for Simon to come home, hoping to restore warmth to their chilly relations. Simon, for his part, has long been waiting for Julia to emerge from her obsession with Edward’s ill-fated Arctic expedition. Sackville’s narrator watches kindly as the characters reach this impasse, wondering whether the family’s icy secrets and frosty silences will finally thaw.

The highly imaged narrative pulses with abundant metaphors, which draw on a vast palette of finely graduated colours, evoking individual thoughts and sensations with striking precision: “Painted Ladies and Peacocks strut upon the buddleia, crowding the purple with umber, gold, amethyst and white”. Sackville’s minutely calibrated language captures the most quotidian features of the day: we feel “the grapefruit freshness of the sky”; see a petal “shuddering” and “shivering itself free in Julia’s wake”; hear “the rodent-rustling wilderness” of the garden; observe the sitting room, that “alembic into which the quiet distils”. The writing is no less masterly in the stretches devoted to Edward’s expedition, vividly conveying the sublime savagery of the environment and the devastation it wreaks on human bodies. Sackville’s prose sculpts the wild into artful shapes without compromising the credibility of the extreme physical pain she describes. There is an almost vivisective quality to her depiction of the “numb agony” of the men’s “fractured eyes”, of the “salty retches” and “agonies of cackles” that rip through their tattered throats and shredded lungs. Agile with contrasts, Sackville interweaves a strong strand of lyricism with these brutally realistic passages—a lyrical vein justified by Edward’s own high-blown Victorian romanticism. His impressions of the North are refulgent with Michelangelesque pictorial grandeur: we gasp with him at “doubling moons and silver lights…winding golden cords across the rosy sky, the lilac, jade, ice-blue sky…”

Perhaps it is this strain of lyricism that has led to comparisons between Sackville’s writing and Virginia Woolf’s. The parallel is not entirely unfounded. The absent-minded, grieving Julia, all-absorbed in her memories and in emotions aroused by the family legend, resembles Woolf’s introspective heroines. The disjunctions of Sackville’s narrative, with its many simultaneous strands and dense telescoping of past and present, also recall Woolf, and the tale, as in Woolf’s best novels, is told from a multitude of perspectives, oscillating between third- and first-person narration. But the comparison has its limits: the gritty, action-packed realism of The Still Point’s Arctic passages has little to do with the gauzy tonalities of Woolf’s largely plotless compositions.

There are other literary invocations in play. “Listen, and you will catch the echoes”, enjoins the narrator, drawing attention to the many subtle allusions that Sackville has worked into her fabric. The book takes wing from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1944), using as an epigraph the following excerpt from “Burnt Norton”:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.

The novel’s emphasis on a particular day in the lives of a clutch of characters recalls other postmodernist and modernist classics (Ulysses [1922], Mrs Dalloway [1925], Ian MacEwan’s Saturday [2005]). Most obviously, The Still Point echoes Joyce’s concern in Ulysses with the dangers of an over-investment in myth. It is plain, for instance, that the narrator does not condone the view that Simon “is unworthy of a hero’s niece and her devotion” because his love is “not epic in scale”. But to Julia, who inhabits the “brilliant, sunlit, infinite myth” where Edward and his men tread “like gods in a land of immaculate light and splendour”, Simon, and Simon’s love, have become more nebulous values.

The narrator’s playfully idiosyncratic voice and implied judgements are among The Still Point’s freshest and most engaging features. Frequent addresses to the reader make for an unusually intimate atmosphere. “Have patience”, the voice enjoins. “You can draw a little nearer, if you’re very quiet”, it assures. This self-conscious mode allows for humorous disclosures, as when the narrator teases us about our ignorance: “There is also, you will no doubt have noticed, a polar bear towering over you”. But this roguish show of superior knowledge is balanced by a series of questions that punctuate the text to betray the narrator’s own curiosities and uncertainties (“What has happened to so transform Simon and Julia’s morning?”; “why would she think to seek secrets there?”).

This confident, inquisitive, alternatively modest and assertive narrative voice—a lively re-invention of the Victorian author-god—affiliates Sackville to John Fowles and Adam Thirlwell, among other postmodernist writers. But Sackville does not theorize about her chosen mode of story-telling—as does Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)—nor does she strike the muscular, sexualised tones adopted by Thirlwell in Politics (2003). And where Fowles and Thirlwell make assertive use of the first person pronoun, Sackville privileges an inclusive “we” which holds the reader close (“We have been gazumped”; “Let us follow as she makes her way up the stairs”), and endows the novel with a complicit, collaborative feel.

The Still Point is an enchanting, adventurous, touching book. A ripping explorer’s yarn spliced with a lucid slice of 21st-century life in all its particularity and timelessness, it is a heartening example of a boisterous young writer finding exciting ways of telling elaborately crafted, resonant stories.

Scarlett Baron [1] graduated in 2008 with a DPhil in English Literature from Christ Church College, Oxford. She is currently a prize fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford.