Monday, August 08, 2011

A Vision of Light!

Our book today is Judith Merkle Riley's 1989 historical novel A Vision of Light, and it falls into the ever-broadening category of 'second chance' books I like upon re-reading even though I disliked them when I first read them. Granted, 1989 was one of the worst years of my life for a new book to win me over, and quite a few deserving titles from that year got chewed up and spat out with less fairness than they deserved. But ideally, a dedicated re-reader will steadily correct such injustices, since fixed prejudices in reading are every bit as odious as fixed prejudices in walking-around life. So when I found a sturdy hardcover copy of this novel at the bottom of a heaped donation bin, I forked over the 25 cents, cleared two hours of my time, cracked the crust of old resentments off my reading mind, and jumped right in. Back 20 years ago, I thought the book was morose and sappy and creaky with anachronisms - so my guard was up for all three of those things, and naturally there were initial moments when I wondered whether I should re-read it at all.

I'm glad I did. Rather predictably, I missed quite a bit the first time through - and all three of my judgements were just plain wrong. What I thought were anachronisms were only the usual slight loosening of factual punctilio that historical novels do all the time (long before this book, in happier reading years, I'd forgiven a good deal looser stuff - hell, I'd laughed my head off during the whole of No Bed For Bacon) - no crime at all if the story carries it off. What I thought was sappy was merely openly sentimental - the openness of emotion, not the bathos of wallowing in it. And I don't know how I considered this book morose - a sparkling humor winks on practically every page.

In short, A Vision of Light is a wonderful, warm novel - exactly as good as half a dozen trustworthy bookstore customers told me it was, back when it first came out.

The story centers on Margaret of Ashbury, the vivacious young wife of a wealthy 14th century merchant with a kind nature ("It was fun to please her," he thinks), a young wife who one day hears a voice telling her to create a book. Not a book of sermons or love-visions, but an honest, everyday account of her own life and times. Those times have been remarkable by any standard - Margaret has been a midwife, channelled almost miraculous aptitude for healing, survived the Black Death, and survived the inquisition of the Church - but that hardly matters in 1355, when a woman's place is to keep her home running smoothly and her mouth shut. Margaret's husband Roger Kendall happily indulges her, which means the only thing she has to do is find a scribe willing to do the actual writing.

This proves instantly difficult. The first few scribes she approaches disdain the very idea of a woman writing a book. When she finally finds Brother Gregory - young, spare-boned, sharp-tempered - he's equally sceptical, but he's also poor and hungry, and in the initial stages of their working relationship, Margaret isn't above exploiting those facts to get her way. She doesn't do it to be conniving, but she wants her book written - and she's instinctively caring, if slightly maddening:
 "You haven't had breakfast, have you? You're much too tall to go without breakfast. You'll become weak and ill." (She told short people they were growing, when this mood came upon her.) "No, you just turn around and sit over here, while I see if Cook has a little something."

It is impossible to deny a woman in a feeding mood. It is as if they look right through you, to that small, weak part that has been there since you were a baby and that doesn't know how to defy authority. Brother Gregory was completely docile as she sat him down while bread, cheese, and a mug of ale were brought. She stood over him while he ate, and when it was clear that his mood was rapidly becoming mellower, she said, "There! Isn't that what you needed? Now, if everybody in the world ate breakfast, there would be no more wars."

Her new scribe, a caustic man who doesn't suffer fools gladly, doesn't even finish his last mouthful before he's going after this easy philosophy, with predictably frustrating results:
Brother Gregory's natural contentiousness had returned, and with his mouth still half full, he responded, "That is an entirely illogical statement. The Duke of Lancaster, who is a great warrior, eats breakfast every day. But I know of a holy abbot who goes without eating for days at a time, and he doesn't even kill flies."

"You can't prove anything with just two examples."

"You just tried to prove an outrageous non sequitur with only one example - me," said Brother Gregory primly.

"Oh, Latin, that's what you've run to hide behind."

The two set about writing Margaret's book, and the novel settles into a gentle, extremely assured alternating between Margaret's fascinating life-story and the complicated, very entertaining relationship that grows between Margaret and Brother Gregory. He is ready at all times with intellectual disdain and quick judgements (and his own personal history is also fascinating - his hilariously irascible father is the book's main scene-stealer), and he's constantly stymied by Margaret's bewitching combination of wisdom and innocence, as in the coda to her story about losing her baby:
Margaret looked up suddenly at Brother Gregory, and he lifted his pen from the page. Her face was very agitated. Her hands, clasped beneath the Byzantine gold cross she habitually wore, showed white at the knuckles.

"Do you think so, Brother Gregory? Do lost babies grow when they go to heaven? Does someone teach them and hold them? Or do they stay the same size, wetting their swaddling clothes forever and ever?"

Brother Gregory was appalled. This foolish woman was a wellspring of superstition. Spiritual beings, of course, do not wet, and the kind of mind that could even entertain such a supposition was capable of any idiocy.

"Do you know, I still dream about my lost girl, even now, sometimes?"

A Vision of Light deserved a better reading than I gave it in 1989. It's a sweet, welcoming, and deceptively well-researched story, one that's not at all ashamed of its basically theatrical simplicity (and right at the end the author throws in a gripping, gory climactic bit of action, like a gunshot in a Merchant-Ivory film). I'm glad I happened upon it again, and I hope I can get around to the rest of that blighted year in due time. Meanwhile, I contritely recommend this book, should you encounter it yourself.

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