Catherine Edmunds' poems are embedded in the natural world and veer between fantasy and romance, with a dash of humour. Her artwork embraces such diverse themes as delicate portraiture and exploding beetroots.
This, her first poetry collection, is accessible but never trivial: warm, earthy, intelligent and – just when you begin to snuggle into the intimacy of it – spiked with fire and venom.
wormwood, earth and honey can be ordered directly from Circaidy Gregory Press either as a paperback or illustrated e-book.
Superficially it is a book about relationships. Victoria goes through two love affairs, neither of which bring more than transitory happiness. Finally she tracks down the one who will accept and understand, share and encourage her art.
But there is more; much more. The love theme is a hook, albeit an enjoyable hook, on which to hang the parallel themes of self-honesty and the bedrock nature of Art.
The question of honesty first. For most of the novel Victoria is poised on a knife edge of pretence, trying to shape herself into the sort of woman she imagines her lovers want her to be, weaving her life on a pattern of white lies. From time to time the 'real' Victoria erupts, as violently as the curry she vomits up after an evening of too much pretence, but for the most part it's hidden. "The problem," she says, "is when I'm honest he sees the real me... People don't like the real me. I'm not very nice." Ultimately, as at the end of a quest, she does find the one who not only brings out the worst in her but rejoices at what he finds.
There is nothing static in this novel. The reader journeys with Victoria on trains and tubes to bookshops, art galleries, concert halls, exhibitions, restaurants, castles, cathedrals, beaches and gardens. We go backwards and forwards, on this serpentine quest, from London to Durham to Northumberland.
Something that struck me, the more I read the novel, is how carefully and how tightly constructed it is. A true story teller is at work here. Not a word is wasted: every detail contrives to create emotional cliff-hangers, move us further along on the journey. Weather is not just a backcloth to plot; it is both character and mood. On the beach by Bamburgh Castle the wind is 'viciousï' (exactly how Victoria feels), when she travels back to London, lonely and depressed, it is 'a drear grey day of sludge and sleet.' A later fog turns everything monochrome.
London itself reflects the switches in Victoria's emotions. When she is creative, absorbed in her art, the city is 'hot, smelly, noisy'; and she loves it. She feels she is 'home' and revels in 'the peeling plane trees and stink of diesel from the buses, and the grease from burger bars mingled with the aroma of Italian coffee.' Later, when forced to churn out picture cards of St Paul's for money, she notices the towpath is free of dog dirt. 'Very pretty,' she thinks, 'but souless.'
Crucial to the book is its startling imagery of wounds; open wounds that fester, need to be dealt with, wounds that leave scars.
This brings me back to the theme of Art which is pivotal. On one level it reflects the different characters and the fissures in relationships: porcelain is used as a metaphor for Simon who is beautiful as a Greek god but prefers representational to abstract art, who likes to recognise the image at first glance and 'get' the story, who would take Victoria with him into a world of 'precision and careful colour to be dusted on a daily basis.' Victoria herself is epitomised in the colours and textures of paint; the 'slick shiny surface ... the spicy aroma of multiple colours ... the depth of fire without light.' Somewhere in all this, she realises, lies 'the intimate landscape' that she seeks.
But Art in this novel is more than an adjunct to character development. It is the 'granite' of life and 'fractals gone mad.' It is life in a Friedrich landscape where figures are faceless, turn their backs on us, gaze alone into the ice and abyss.
The heart of this book lies in the Tate Modern. The story begins there, with Doris Salcedo's 'Shibboleth'; the crack in the floor that sets up the image of the gaping wound. At the end of the book the scar is filled in but its outline is still visible. No clichéd solutions, no easy healing here. We move, as Victoria does, into Miroslaw Balka's installation 'How it is' which may be seen as a void, an end to all things, but which to Victoria is 'a real cathedral' on a 'strange and revelatory day.'
This is a multi-faceted, rich and stunning book. Go and follow the lines of the cracks, delve into the layers; there are many, many more.
This is a beautiful tale of self-discovery, art and passion. I won't provide a long description of plot here. 'Serpentine' is much more than a well-written love story. Take it as a painting hanging in a gallery; I could tell you what feelings it inspired in me, but it would be much more fun if you explored and interpreted it yourself. It's a riveting journey.
The fact of the matter is, it doesn't matter whether I like Victoria, or even whether Victoria likes herself. It doesn't matter whether she is a bit of a bastard or whether the man she ends up with is a bit of a bastard too. It doesn't even matter whether they are happy together or whether their relationship is tempestuous and destructive. Those are all lower-order considerations and not what the novel is about. The novel, quite simply, is about art. It is, I think, an examination of the conditions under which art flourishes, and the conditions under which it withers and atrophies. Once I had grasped that basic fact everything else fell into place, and I found myself in awe of the skill with which the thesis had been constructed.
In some respects Edmunds makes heavy demands of her readers, but she gives a great deal in return. It is a novel that you often want to argue with, full of characters that you want to take aside and tell to lighten up, or grow up, or stop hurting one another, or stop expecting the impossible from human relationships. It forces you to take sides, and to examine your own beliefs about what the proper task of life should be. And this is accomplished through elegant prose, and without a wasted word or a dull moment. Is it reasonable to ask any more of a novel?