Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Maggie, - or is she Meg? - retrieves the key from under the metal foot scraper and opens the door of the small mid-terrace house in a side street off the Cowley Road. She has rushed down to Oxford on an urgent and mysterious summons from her godmother, Dodo. She has left behind her job as a school teacher in Penrith – she is preparing a performance of The Winter’s Tale with a dependent sixth-form – and she has left behind her cool, reasonable husband, Tom, and her two children, and she does not know why she has come. But there is a sense of something that needs to be explained, something to be understood, a journey that must be undertaken.
Dodo is not at home, but the room embraces her with its gestures of hippie-dom from the late sixties, its Afghan rugs and Peruvian wall hangings and with its familiar books and cds. It is a place with which Maggie feels a strong affinity just as she feels a strange, undefined affinity with Dodo herself. Her aunt Dodo was only seventeen years old when Maggie was born.
Lunch – Lancashire cheese and rye-bread - is laid out on the Shaker sideboard. On the table is a cloth bound book almost mysteriously illuminated by a pool of light. On the cover of the book is a hare caught in mid-flight. There is a note: “Please read this, Meg. I need you to understand and I can’t find a way to tell you face to face. I will come back on Sunday.”
She is alone in the house, within Dodo’s private world. And there is the journal and there is something to be understood, something that has been kept hidden throughout Maggie Frost’s forty years of life.
The journal is mysterious, enigmatic. It consists of twenty chapters of closely written text with hastily drawn figures recording twenty visits to some sort of therapist. Dodo was successful, a self-willed, independent woman who had succeeded as a journalist and an academic and seemed to have made a good life for herself. Yet she had pursued a course of esoteric therapy.
Maggie thought, Dodo “has always been such a familiar part of my life that I can’t imagine there being anything left for her to tell me, but there was clearly something so difficult that she couldn’t raise it face to face.”
The Journal, read, with trepidation, chapter by chapter, as the therapy proceeded to uncover Dodo’s deepest self, slowly revealed its secrets. Each meeting with the therapist, the tall and willowy Elinor, involved selecting a number of random objects and placing them in a sand tray, but the selection was not accidental and the placing was not random and the unravelling of their significance proved a route to Dodo’s repressed thoughts. The twenty visits, the significant objects, the lion, the coiled snake, the ammonite, the hare, the mother and child, the embracing couple, each came to reveal their meaning. Just as Maggie, left alone in Dodo’s house, felt as though she might be privileged to explore Dodo’s world, to rummage in the attic, to root through her old photographs, even read the e-mails on her computer, so the Journal took her on a journey through the privacy of Dodo’s life.
Helen Weston has written a highly original novel which skilfully intertwines the story of a few days in Oxford with the story of forty years. Just as the therapy slowly reveals the truth of Dodo’s life, the novel slowly reveals the dramatic truth of Maggie’s own life. It is a truth that, subconsciously, she has always known.