Life-Long Love


The Maytrees
, Annie Dillard [185pp, 12.99, Hesperus Press]


The Maytrees tells the story of the life-long love of Toby Maytree and Lou Bigelow, beginning early in the twentieth century in Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod. Toby is a carpenter and poet who 'hauls lines of poetry like buried barbed wire with bare hands', whilst Lou is an Ingrid Bergman look-alike who speaks very little. and whose creativity finds its outlet through painting. After they marry, they live together in his family's shack in the sand dunes, where they live out their love 'as if they were two halves of one brain', and have their only child, Pete, 'his milk teeth separated neatly like unripe corn on the ear'. Throughout their marriage Lou feels 'their skin as double sided', whilst Toby comes to realise that 'her face was his eyes' home'. He sleeps 'with a long leg flung over her, as a dog claims a stick'. The novel is beautifully structured and paced, the characters and story are wonderfully rendered, and the language is individual and revelatory. An unconditional treat.

Toby and Lou's closest friend, Deary Hightoe, plays a central role. Deary holds the theory that every time you injure yourself 'you learn how that patch of you feels. It wakens. Until it heals, you're aware of these nerves... then when you have hurt every single place on your body, you die! Once you have felt every last nerve ending, at least on your skin, then you have lived in full awareness'. This awareness is not only experienced and lived out by the characters, but it is also one lived by the author herself: this novel is written with tenderness and an outstanding attention to the details of the real world as well as the details of language. Deary also holds the fabulous belief that 'If you slice a rock thin enough, and splice the slices serially in frames, you have a documentary film. The film displays the long history of the world from that rock's views. Together the world's rocks hold a visual record of all time... It all badly needed film editors'. Time, geology, universal forces, and the play of human lives between them, bind this novel together.

Toby and Lou's other friends, all delightfully named and various, include Reevadare Weaver, 'a henna-haired old Provincetown woman,' who has married and divorced eight times, '
un peu superbe, who wore wax-fruit-elongated hats' and whose humped back, 'which she named Surtsey', grows higher than her head. There is also Cornelius Blue, with his 'walrus mustache and Walt Whitman beard'; Jane Cairo, 'a wild-haired schoolgirl'; Slow Sykes 'who wore green shoes and held down third base'; Ruby Hightoe, 'glaring and calm' who steers her 'red alligator-skin high heels around a pile of cord net that seaweed and beer bottles fouled'; Sooner Roy, the carpenter; the cook Flo Proto, 'splay legged in her wobbling kitchen', who 'cooked on the woodstove a slumgullion to feed the crew'; Loopy Devega who scatters crematorium ashes from his airplane; and a whole supporting cast of nonconformists an extended network of other 'people who wrote, people who painted, people who taught, people who carved or welded sculptures, and poets, barefoot, lefty, and educated to a feather edge'.

Deary advises Lou to keep her women friends as 'men come and go', although it is ironically Deary who whisks Toby away from Lou in an illicit affair that lasts some twenty years, and which forms the central conflict of this novel. After fourteen years of marriage, Toby and Deary run off together to an island in Maine. Toby loves Lou, but also Deary. Lou loves them both. Somewhere within this tragic little triangle the characters discover redemption and the humanity to carry on; what Dillard calls 'getting a grip on letting go'. Through their inter-relationships she explores her understanding of love, intimacy, and till-death-us-do-part. 'Why can love, love apparently absolute, recur? And recur? Why does love feel it is know for certain it is eternal and absolute every time?' How love, a force for 'good' can 'drop one like a mantrap into lies?'

The clue to Lou's acceptance of Toby's running-off with Deary, is that she loves him beyond reason ('Why use strength of mind to fight love?') and that, whatever happened to her, she 'longed for the life she already possessed'. In truth, Lou has 'no force to fight what held her as wind pins paper to a fence. She was a wood horse, a rock cairn, a jerry can of pitch. She found herself holding one end of a love. She reeled out love's long line alone'. Her task is one of overcoming self-centredness and, in that realisation, she is able to forgive. 'With those blows, she opened her days like a piata'.

In the end, Deary becomes sick and, following a bad fall which renders Toby incapable of looking after the dying Deary, Toby calls on Lou to look after her. 'He would appeal to Lou'. And he knows that she will accept the call to nurse Deary and to finally take him back. 'Of course she would take them in. Anyone would'; Lou's reasons of course being love, friendship, and losing self-centredness: 'Her solitude always held open house. When was the last time anyone needed her? She was eager to do it, whatever it was'.

If male-female love ('What we have together') forms the central concern of this novel what men need from women and do not get, 'The quality of being strong to be loved'; and what women need from men that they do not get, 'Courage would be nice' then the novel is also about other forms of love: familial love; love for friends; the love of parents and children. Love of place. (And, for Dillard the author, love of language too). Pete, the son, also tries to 'master himself' in the way his mother attempts to overcome self-centredness. 'Just as few men love their wives so much as their daughters, few, if any, women love anyone so much as their children'. Lou's love for Pete is explored throughout the novel; Toby's love for his son (the son he betrayed by leaving) comes to fruition after twenty years when Pete goes to visit him in Maine. And, for all of the characters, the redemption of love is realised with time: for Toby and Lou, their stories end with the realisation that 'in compassion they bore between them their solitudes, each the size of the ravelled globe. Everything looked better since they were old'.

The other big love in this exquisite novel is love of place. The dunes, the shore, the sea; its flora and fauna; its minute changes and its elemental sweeps, all are intricately detailed here in vocabulary that surprises, and phrasings that twist and turn like the sea itself: 'Near the great second dune's foot he felt with every plantar nerve for the slim berm of clay, or the hard sand beside it, that would lead him round the swale. He found it and hazarded the swale's bog. Cranberry patches felt good underfoot but meant he was off course. Dried grass stalks bloodied his insteps'. Passages like these remind me a little of the toings and froings in some of Woolf's prose, or the exquisite sentence-making of Carol Shields, whilst remaining utterly fresh and Dillard's own. Dillard also has a sensational way with similes, my favourite of which goes: 'The lines at his eyes' edges splayed like the comet's tail in the Bayeux tapestry'.

If the simile seems far-fetched, it absolutely is not, for stars and other heavenly bodies feature strongly as a central images throughout this novel, from myths of the Nauset tribes and a more generalised pre-history, to the comet itself which, as a portent, is just one of a number of figures derived from skywatching. Toby, Lou and Pete spend their evenings lying on their backs in the dunes, star-gazing: 'for a second on the blanket between his parents and watching the stars, Petie knew he was alive'. They watch 'the Milky way tangle Mars in its slack nets'; they see 'Ursa Major swing on its moorings as if tide loosened it'; they learn the names of the constellations and realise their own small, but essential, human roles beneath those stars. They awaken to their own small worlds and the limitless world to which those belong.

The flip-side of love, Death, is also a necessary part of this story.  Dillard treats it unsentimentally. After Lou takes both Toby and Deary back, to nurse Deary in her final weeks of life, Deary herself is seen to be 'charring and buckling like a leaf', as the life leaves her body. In the end it takes 'eight days for unconscious Deary to die her death', an idea as commonplace as 'living our lives' but all the stranger for rarely being voiced in this way. Other deaths come when Toby recalls the men from his village drowning in a shipwreck just off the shore. When Toby himself dies, Lou notes simply how 'He had enjoyed what the Brits call good innings. He had seen downy feathers on eggs. He saw auroras from the dunes. Once he saw a fireball'. The details of a life, big and small, personal and universal; there is little more to humanly do than bear witness to those. And, after his death, 'Lou wondered where his information would go when he died. Would filaments of learning plant patterns on earth? Would his brain train the sinking plankton to know their way around the seafloor from here to Stellwagon Bank? Her brain would deliquesce too, and with it all she had learned topside. Which was not much, she considered, nor anywhere near worked out. Bacteria would unhook her painstakingly linked neurons and fling them over their shoulders and carry them home to chew up for their horrific babies'. Lou of course does die, and is found by Jane Cairo 'prone on the bed... blue on her low side ventrally like a boat with fresh bottom paint. She was white above the waterline... Jane tried to close Lou's eyes. In the end she covered them with scallop shells from the windowsill. Already blowflies walked into Lou's nostrils. Greenbottle flies slipped under the scallop shells to find here eyes; one bluebottle fly worked a lip's corner'.

If this matter-of-fact wondering in the face of death sits in one of the weighing pans, then the scales are balanced by Humour in the other. 'Short of burning cash, there was no more expensive way to light a room than burning candles,' Lou notes at one point. 'Lucretius,' we are told, 'declared that love was only a shudder mammals used to procreate'. Lasting love 'makes no scientific sense after the kids can hunt and gather' is another wry comment on the central theme. And then there is the character Sarah Smithers whose 'Irish-immigrant parents had so many children that he and Deary privately called the offspring, collectively, Smithereens'. Toby's death itself contains the funniest bit of dialogue in the whole: '- Doc says, You have three minutes to live. - Anything you can do for me, doc? - Well, I could boil you an egg'.

Dillard treats all of human experience in her discriminating and gorgeously rendered short novel. Unputdownable.

      Andy Brown 2008