“POMOMANIA" is an obsessive preoccupation with apples. Yes, apples. Like Eve of old. Or Snow White. Or the “Apple Man" in Daniel Mason's latest novel, North Woods. The Apple Man, also known as Charles Osgood, is so consumed by apples that his family consults a shrink to cure him of his mania. All in vain.
It begins with the murder of an apple-eating Englishman. An apple seed germinates in his entrails and a tree sprouts from his bones. Decades later, Charles discovers the apple tree, takes cuttings and plants an orchard. Because they are the sweetest apples in living memory, he names his variety Osgood's Wonder.
However, apples are not the only peculiarity around which the events in North Woods revolve, and it is the yellow house that Charles builds next to the orchard that takes centre stage in North Woods. It is present in all the stories that unfold here, across generations and centuries. Three centuries, to be precise. Thus, the yellow house becomes a participant in the events, a central character that witnesses the joys and sorrows (and sometimes the murder) of its multitude of inhabitants.
There are the young lovers who flee a Puritan settlement in New England and build the “predecessor" of the yellow house in the Massachusetts wilderness. An anonymous letter writer, also known as the “Nightmaid", who takes refuge there after she and her baby are taken captive by Native Americans. A slave hiding from the law. A landscape painter with a forbidden love for a travel writer. A factory magnate who wants to open a resort for hunters. A charming widow and her schizophrenic son. A true-crime journalist. A disillusioned botanist. And a whole bunch of ghosts.
It is especially the peculiar story of Apple Man and his twin daughters that captivates the imagination. When Osgood, Alice and Mary inherit the estate. They are innovative and independent women who share a strong bond, and aside from minor disagreements they initially get on well. They complement each other. One is an excellent dressmaker who makes them identical pink frilly dresses in which they pose for a portrait, each holding an apple. The other plays a flute for which both write music. Moreover, they are skilled apple and sheep farmers. But when it becomes clear that Alice is more beautiful than Mary and suitors start queueing to court her, conflicts arise that eventually lead to the gruesome deaths of the spinster sisters in the cellar of the yellow house. Here is a delightful piece of American Gothic that I found irresistibly captivating.
For the same reason, I was enchanted by the section on occult activities in the resort of factory magnate Karl Farnsworth. His somewhat hysterical wife, Emily, is plagued by “indecent" sounds of spirits from the resort's presidential suite. They seek the help of Madame Rossi, a spiritist and medium who communicates with the dead. However, she is a shrewd, overweight charlatan (named Edith Simmons) who deceives her clients with all sorts of tricks. To appease the spirits, a séance is held in the yellow house. Madame Rossi summons the noisy ghosts but what appears is a spirit with an apple obsession.
A fascinating section of this lovely book is the “case study" of Robert S. He is schizophrenic, a patient in a psychiatric hospital under the care of a doctor who insists on performing a lobotomy on him. Robert suffers from persecutory delusions; he believes the world is threatened by a gang known as “The Harrow". These marauders want to destroy civilisation through what Robert calls “The Rupture" and only he can prevent it with his “Stitchings" — his persistent walking. Just before the lobotomy, his mother decides against it and takes him to the yellow house. Here, Robert wanders for days and sometimes disappears for months. The deceased inhabitants of the house communicate with him, he says. He films them in the forest — a girl playing a flute, a landscape painter and his lover, an apple farmer, young lovers. Years later, his sister discovers the film reels in the yellow house, but when she watches them there are only empty forest scenes with a gentle breeze blowing through the underbrush.
As a psychiatrist, Mason is acutely aware of the fine line between madness and clairvoyance, between delusions and spiritual manifestations, between the natural and the supernatural. Consequently, the reader is never entirely sure whether a phenomenon is reality or deception. Mason handles the fact that not everything is scientifically provable with subtlety and sensitivity, acknowledging that humans are complex beings functioning on psychological, physical and spiritual levels. However, this does not imply that humans are elevated above other life forms; on the contrary. In Mason's book, humans are equated with beetles, trees, mushroom spores and microbes. Humans' struggle for survival is no more impactful or important than that of a chestnut or a mountain lion.
North Woods is a monumental work. Stories that unfold over three centuries are masterfully interwoven. History has seldom been so enchanting. Mason has the ability to simultaneously look near and far, wide and deep. Intimate family history plays out in the broader framework of American history, as well as against a natural-historical backdrop; significant ecocriticism is delivered here. The impact of humans on the environment, however innocent it may seem at first glance, is scrutinised. All living beings are subject to loss, destruction and constant change, no matter how sophisticated or clever they may be. “The only way to understand the world as something other than a tale of loss," notes one character, “is to see it as a tale of change."
The stories in North Woods are interspersed with letters, songs, calendars, newspaper clippings, botanical illustrations, photos and a speech. It is a grand novel that in many ways recalls Jim Crace's Being Dead and Etienne van Heerden's Toorberg, especially in terms of magical realism and the portrayal of the cyclical nature of life and death. It also reminded me of the lyrics of PJ Harvey's I Inside the Old Year Dying, where she uses the Old Saxon dialect from her birthplace, Dorset, to give shape to that environment.
Like Harvey's songs, Mason's novel is a return to the past to make sense of the present, a visit to your ancestors to understand yourself, and a return to nature to escape war and despotic madness: “Slip from my childhood skin/ I zing through the forest/ I hover in the holway/ And laugh into the leaves…"
Who, what, where and how much?
North Woods by Daniel Mason was published by Random House and costs R595 at Exclusive Books.
What are we listening to?
PJ Harvey sings “I Inside the Old Year Dying”:
♦ VWB ♦
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