Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Uncle Stephen

There are books whose greatness is attention-grabbing, inspiring the reader (especially this one) to flights of superlative description, and there are books more quietly impressive, books that do several things well and thoughtfully without initially inviting rhapsodic response.  Forrest Reid's Uncle Stephen falls into the latter category.  Written in a well-honed but direct style that perfectly defines aesthetic classicism, it is at once a novel of a sensitive (and likely homosexual) young boy's experience of the world, a meditation on the simple beauty of nature, and a supernatural story about the complicated relationship between youth and age.  The author was a friend of Walter de la Mare, and as in his supernatural tales, effects are achieved by allusion and suggestion rather than explication.  The result is a book that reads easily and yet is tremendously involving on levels both emotional and intellectual.

The title character is the uncle of Tom Barber, whose father has just passed away, leaving him with a stepmother who is indifferent to him, two stepbrothers who feel nothing but contempt for him, and a stepsister who likes him, perhaps in a way he is incapable of reciprocating.  Uncle Stephen is in fact his great-uncle, and Tom has never met or heard from him, but nonetheless he comes to believe that this distant relative will provide a better home than his stepfamily ever could.  So he runs away.

Unathletic, interested in books and the beauty of nature, Tom is like many a sensitive child in literature (and life).  What sets him apart is that the people he encounters are not the unfeeling ogres of such stories.  Tom Barber is not a radiant spark hidden under a bushel, but a human being, as responsible as anyone else for his difficulty in relating to the mass of humanity.  His interactions with those who can't understand him ring true, and the range of Reid's sympathy, like Tom's, includes many characters lesser writers would dismiss or stereotype.  Uncle Stephen is not primarily a psychological novel, but it deftly captures the complexity of human relationships.

Reid has a particular gift for describing landscapes in an unadorned manner that nonetheless avoids cliche and syrupy sentimentality.  It helps that the world he describes is as haunting as it is beautiful, always on the edge of something strange and possibly unwelcome.
Chequered bands of golden fire splashed on the moss-dark sward.  A stilled loveliness breathed its innocent spell.  Then suddenly a hare bounded across the path, and the trilled liquid pipings of hidden thrush and blackbird broke on his ears like the awakening of life.  The music came to him in curves of sound.  All the beauty he loved best had this curving pattern, came to him thus, so that even the rounding of a leaf or the melting line of a young human body impressed itself upon him as a kind of music.  The avenue turned, widened, a house was there.
Uncle Stephen is rumored to be some sort of a magician, and his household carries with it the same potent air of mystery as many a haunted estate.  For much of the book the supernatural is offered only hintingly, as in the first few pages of a ghost story, and the fantastic events that are ultimately revealed are as much psychologically symbol as eerie.  Tom has much to learn about trust, faith, and kindness, but the novel is never one-sided or didactic, always acknowledging what is lost as well as what is gained by any change.  Despite a certain rueful wisdom, it remains hopeful, envisioning a better world, perhaps, than can ever exist:
He could not remember the rest of the story, but he knew everybody had been happy because nobody had asked questions.... The earth might be a kind of heaven!  It wasn't really impossible.  Happiness depended on kindness and understanding and-- and-- on not insisting that everybody should have the same feelings and thoughts.... (ellipses in original)
The socio-political connotation of that paragraph is not terribly difficult to work out, but like all the homoerotic elements of Uncle Stephen it remains latent, implicit; the novel could be interpreted without reference to homosexuality, though some aspects of it would become very odd.  Its scope is in any case wider, taking in all manner of sensitivity and social awkwardness, and reaching beyond even that.  This novel, with its disarmingly simple language concealing great depth, is a small masterpiece.
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Originally released in 1931, Uncle Stephen was republished by Tartarus Press in 2001.  That edition is out of print, but copies are available at reasonable prices, including at least one from Realms of Fantasy Books for a mere $18 plus shipping.  The novel is also available in inexpensive secondhand paperback editions, as are Reid other two Tom Barber novels.

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