review written by Alsion Crane and read live on bookshow 14th August 2014
I first heard of this book through reading ‘Last Orders’ by Graham Swift - won the Booker prize in 1996 and a group of friends who go to Margate to scatter the ashes of their old friend into the sea from the pier, in accordance with his wishes. I loved this book - cos it’s about friendships, relationships and how losing loved ones touches us, and heard there was criticism that he had ripped off the story ‘As I Lay Dying’ so I thought I’d better read that!
It is widely seen as a 20th century classic and was written in 1930. The link with Last Orders is it revolves around the preparations for and the actual journey to bury the body of the mother of the family - she wants to be buried in her home town 40 miles away. The family are dirt poor white family from Mississippi - and story written in the vernacular of the area.
And another parallel is each chapter is told by different characters in the novel so you’re seeing the situation from lots of different perspectives - from Addie’s husband who’s determined to carry out her final wishes even though there are lots of obstacles to doing that, there’s other villagers who think the family are completely mad, to a pharmacist who’s visited by the 17 year old daughter who is trying to get something to end her pregnancy which her family don’t know about.
a bit confusing - there are 5 children - 4 sons and a daughter and it took me a while to piece together where they were in the family. There are also certain things which are intimated - you gradually realise there are rivalries and rifts between the children, the daughter is pregnant - it becomes apparent that one of the Bundren boys was the result of an affair … but I wasn’t always sure I fully understood what was going on. I do like having to work at a novel but sometimes I felt I wanted to check …. On wikipedia a few details.
The opening is great - the mother is dying but has not quite died but her carpenter son Cash is making a coffin for her and the first chapters always in the background is the sound of sawing, which the mother presumably can hear. One of the sons is complaining that Cash is right under her window ‘hammering and sawing.‘ But Addie’s husband says it’ll make her happy that ‘it was her own blood sawed out the boards and drove the nails. She was ever one to clean up after herself.‘ and another son says - Addie Bundren could not want a better box to lie in. It will give her confidence and comfort.’ - I like the mordant humour - unsentimental.
The different chapters and voices piece together to tell us the story of this difficult journey with the coffin, and to get the mum buried..The journey gets increasingly difficult - they‘ve got the coffin balanced rather precariously on the back of a wagon,- the bridge where they were going to cross the river is washed away, the body is beginning to stink so they are pursued by buzzards, when they do cross the river they nearly lose the
coffin and the mulesdrown, Cash breaks his leg which the others set with concrete and one of the sons ends up being arrested. It’s one calamity after another.
I guess I was reading this book slightly out of a sense of duty but it did make me think!
I like the way that it is completely unsentimental - it is moving when the mother dies - the daughter and youngest son are particularly upset - but actually real grief - or wallowing in grief is a luxury beyond what these people can afford - life goes on. The husband takes the opportunity of going to Jefferson to get his teeth fixed and find a new wife. It makes you think about life and death - that’s it’s scary, weird, funny. I also really recommend Last Orders.