In Caddis Wood by Mary Francois Rockcastle

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In Caddis Wood by Mary Francois Rockcastle

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: If you like your fiction sprinkled with thought, poetic beauty and moments that cause you to reflect on your life rather than a guffaws and giggles, this is for you. It may also mean that Don Henley's Goodbye to a River becomes your earworm for a while but that's not a bad thing either.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: October 2012
Publisher: Graywolf Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1555975920

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Middle-aged, married and (comparatively speaking) middle class Americans Hallie and Carl Fens seem, at first glance, to be happy. Hallie (a poet) and Carl (an architect) have all the trappings of success including two adult twin daughters and a holiday home in the beautiful Caddis Wood. However, Carl becomes a little shaky on his feet and, while he's able to shrug it off for a while, he begins to realise that something's seriously wrong. As his health deteriorates other cracks materialise as he realises his marriage isn't as steady as he thought and so he and Hallie must come to terms with her past and, indeed, future.

Mary Francois Rockcastle has the accomplished title of Director of Creating Writing at Hameline University in Minnesota and is the founder of its literary magazine, Water Stone Review. In some ways In Caddis Wood bears testimony to her background as her love and feel for words slinks seamlessly through Hallie's and Carl's alternating narratives.

The language is unmistakably poetic and unhurried; not a criticism but a virtue. We aren't given chunks of character information to digest as each person is introduced, but neither do we suffer from lack of characterisation. We get to know more about Hallie, Carl, their daughters Cory and Bea and Bea's husband Jack gradually as we become better acquainted, just as we would in real life. As we spend time in their company, their pasts unroll like carpets of events, dreams, worries and triumphs making intricately woven lives. At first this seems unsettling as a name may just be thrown at us. At one stage I found myself mumbling ‘Who is James?’. Don't worry, trust the author; we find out when the time's right.

The story is underpinned by infidelity. If Hallie did have a dalliance, Carl isn't blameless. His mistress was his profession, working long hours whilst Hallie raised the twins and witnessed solo their 'firsts' that should have been shared. Here the novel examines if it's worth growing a career for the future while sacrificing an unrepeatable present, a recurring theme in a lot of our lives.

The slow decay of Carl's health (not a spoiler as it's in the book blurb so perhaps TMI on their side?) is set against the wood's ecological demise as the environmental scientist twin, Cory, engages in a project to gauge the rate at which the local river is suffering. Like Carl's health, something that has been taken for granted starts to slip away.

This novel comes with a warning: it's not a bundle of laughs. As Mary Francois Rockcastle accompanies us through a year of this couple's life, complete with flashbacks, the only real smile arrives at Thanksgiving towards the end as Carl comes to terms with the next stage of his life. Touchingly recounted, with a beautiful lilt, sadness seems to be a constant companion, and perhaps justifiably so. In some ways until Carl fully comes to terms with his life and relationships, laughter would seem jarring. However, the author ensures we're mesmerised right up to the optimistic and peace-filled ending.

This isn't a book to be read if you're feeling depressed or upset before you start, but, trust me, this is a book to be read.

A special thank you to Graywolf Press for providing us with a review copy.

If you enjoyed this and then we recommend another work of meandering beauty: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa.

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