August: A Novel Paperback – Jul 29 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Shortlisted for the Whitbread in 2001, Woodward's novel is the first in a trilogy focusing on the expansive, deeply troubled Jones family. (The books have been published out of sequence in the U.S.) An accident on a Welsh bicycling tour in 1955 leads Aldous Jones to discover the farm that will be the site of subsequent holidays. Every summer that follows, Aldous pitches tents for his rapidly burgeoning young family in the pastures of the good-natured, seemingly unchangeable Evans family, which serves as an annual mirror for the Joneses. Alas, Jones family life, despite its simple joys of mountain climbing, practical jokes and bicycling, is not nearly so idyllic as among the Evans clan. Eldest Jones son Janus, a brilliant pianist, develops dark fixations and antisocial tendencies. Aldous's wife, Colette, originally a vivacious, nurturing mother, rapidly descends into drug use. Quiet, unassuming Aldous, the figure at the eye of so much drama, becomes the novel's most compelling character only near its anticlimactic, elegiac end. Woodward's vision of family life is bleak indeed; although tempered by moments of levity, whimsy and descriptions of the lovely landscape, the narrative is virtually devoid of solace or redemption, finding only heartbreak in familial evolution. (Aug.)
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'The energy fuelling the language is colossal it thunders away with tremendous gusto...' -- Margaret Forster, Spectator
'this is no dreamy poets novel...a strong narrative, powered by cunningly withheld information, and the threat of crisis. -- Patrick Gale, The Independent
Simply one of the finest books about the pains and joys of family that I have ever read' -- Brian Case, Time Out --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
During the fifteen years of this novel, the Jones family vacations during the month of August in a tent on farmer Hugh Evans's farm in Llanygwynfa, Wales, each chapter representing a different year in the family's life. Life in the tent becomes a microcosm for Woodward's careful examination of family dynamics and change, as the inner lives of the characters are explored in detail. Aldous is an artist and teacher whose education has been subsidized by Lesley Waugh, the brother of Colette, whom Aldous eventually marries. Colette is the primary care giver for Nana, her (and Lesley's) senile mother. Since her siblings feel unable to care for their mother, Colette sometimes has difficulty escaping for a vacation, and on one occasion, she is forced to put her mother into a nursing home.
Janus Jones, Aldous and Colette's eldest son, is brilliant, a boy who eventually develops into a talented student at the Royal Academy of Music. Despite his talent, he remains unsure of his long-term career path. His traumas, his lack of confidence, and his uncertainty about his sexuality color the family dynamics throughout much of the novel, leading to innumerable confrontations. The other children--James, Juliette, and young Julian, sixteen years younger than Janus--pretty much fend for themselves during the crises, occasionally creating issues of their own. Colette escapes into her own world. Ultimately, Aldous must decide whether to continue to vacation in farmer Evans's field or whether that phase of their family life is over.
The novel differs from most other studies of dysfunctional families because the writing is so compelling--filled with thoughtful descriptions, unique imagery, and careful observations, every word perfect. And even though the focus is firmly domestic, without much focus on the world at large (except as the family represents universal problems of all families), Woodward wields his pen like a stiletto, cutting to the quick and exposing the innermost thoughts and feelings of the characters, often with dark humor. While the final novel of the trilogy, A Curious Earth: A Novel, contains much more wry humor and often comes close to being laugh-out-loud funny, August introduces the characters, makes them "real," and firmly establishes Woodward as one of the premier prose stylists writing today. n Mary Whipple
I'll Go to Bed at Noon: A Novel
Aldous Jones first flies into Hugh Evans' field in 1955 via a collision with an automobile, separated from his bicycle on impact, landing unhurt in the very place that will become a yearly respite for his family. Evans allows them to annually set up a tent in the field, there to enjoy the beauty and bounty of the lush landscape, a time to rejuvenate and enjoy a simplicity too seldom available in the city. The oldest Jones boy, Janus, is musically gifted; his parents have imagined a stellar career for their exceptional son. Two other boys, James and Julian, and a sister, Juliette, fail to match Janus' promise but are, nonetheless, a contented assemblage of siblings, keeping Colette hopping with the duties and demands of a growing household. But for those three weeks, they all bask in the luxury of an existence hampered by few constraints.
These summers define the Jones family as life intrudes, the children becoming individuals with their own plans, straining against parental oversight: "The thought occurred to Aldous that one's life was a series of little deaths, particularly the life of a child as observed by its parent." An artist and teacher who has filled their London home with paintings of Wales, Aldous has either an enormously generous heart or is too timid to rise to the constant challenges that arise, ever making accommodations for his children and his wife. Janus is the first to rebel, straining against his parents' expectations, Colette all but defeated by her elder son's antipathy. After her mother's death while they are on holiday, Colette develops her own unique set of problems, a gradual unraveling that deeply affects her husband and children, Aldous reluctant to embrace the challenges wrought in his family over the years.
In lyrical prose, in settings both magnanimous and poignant, Woodward captures the essence of the Jones' tribe, the fresh affection for life at its fullest and the attrition of time. This is an intimate view of a family once shining with promise and their love affair with the Welsh countryside, a metaphor for renewal. Like all such liaisons, even this one must end, but not before the reader has participated in a provocative experience, a magnificent landscape where nature absorbs human pain and disappointments into her great beating heart. Luan Gaines/ 2008.
The book concerns a London family's - that London family being the Jones family - annual August outings to a Welsh farm spanning the fifteen years from 1955-1970, as well as the family's time in London. Ahem, fifteen years! Quite a lot happens in fifteen years of any person's life, don't you know, and most of them take place in the context of families. People are born. People die. People go through trials and tribulations as well as periods of happiness and security with counterparts of grief and despair. And, eventually, we all die. There is nothing that struck me as particularly dark about Woodward's chronicling of all these events. What struck me was his absolutely silken prose. If anything, Woodward's exquisitely deft touch with language leaves the sharp edges of life less sharp than they otherwise would be. I suppose what others find so dark is that Woodward insists on chronicling these sharp edges at all.
But even the "professional" reviews here insist on stressing the unravelling of this nuclear family, as if all families don't eventually unravel, and, again, all these reviewers can't resist mentioning that wife/mother Colette develops a "drug habit" but are apparently too squeamish to mention that this habit is sniffing bicycle glue, of which she is cured at the end of the book. So, she probably still takes too much Valium. So what? Give the old dear a break please.
Again, what makes this book so worth the reading of it is the stylism with which Woodward writes about the family, even in its darker moments. The only reason I'm giving it four stars is that it has a certain incompleteness to it, to be remedied, I trust, by the reading of the the following two books.
Here is how "dark," "drug-addicted" Colette remains in my memory after this first third of the trilogy:
"Colette was laughing as she returned to the little encampment of towels and cushions that marked their space on an almost empty beach. The wind had caught her dress and her hair. Ripples were passing through her. She was shimmering."
To expect her to remain like this for fifteen years is, sorry, so American.
A bicycle accident lands young art teacher Aldous Jones in a field in Wales. He has been scouting possibilities for a family camping trip, and when he wakes to find mountains on one side, sea on the other, and himself being tended by a concerned farmer and his wife, he realizes that he has found it. The date is 1955. Aldous will return with his wife Colette and their children Janus, James, and Juliette each year until 1970, when the book ends. The earlier years are an evocation of those idyllic farm holidays of childhood full of discoveries such as a lamb, "a grounded cloud walking on legs of black velvet, a little half smile on the end of her long face, a barrister's wig of wool between her ears."
But the idyll fades, as idylls tend to do. In addition to the normal family changes -- a new birth, a parent's death -- both Colette and Janus (a pianist at the Royal Academy of Music) develop self-destructive tendencies of different sorts. But although the tone turns surprisingly dark, Woodward's approach to storytelling remains the same. The simple recounting of one small domestic incident after another, which had served him so well in the earlier sections, no longer seems adequate to handle the unaccountable threat of disaster. The changes in Janus and Colette seem to spring from nowhere and, although Woodward manages to bring the novel to a place of temporary repose, to lead nowhere. Gerard Woodward would follow this with two sequels, I'LL GO TO BED AT NOON (finalist for the Booker Prize), and A CURIOUS EARTH, but I have little interest in accompanying him there.