I remember the first time I watched Memoirs of a Gheisha close to 14 years ago. And the second time. And the third time. And the fascination I’ve developed for anything Japanese. Kimonos, tea ceremony, hair styles, even those silly flip flops.
So you’re probably wondering – if I liked it this much, how come I didn’t read the book? Isn’t the book supposed to be way better than the movie adaptation? That’s why. I liked the movies so much that I thought by reading the book, somehow, the experience I’ve had would be diminished, tarnished. But then I thought – what if it glows even better now that I have the full story?
Let me tell you I haven’t heard of Tom Tryon before this book and also had no idea that this book is over 40 years old! I had it in audiobook format for a very long drive and I literally thought it was written last year. There were only a few clues about the year the characters lived in – one mention of 1972 New York, a phonograph and also a device that reads books for the blind (much like the format I was listening in). It aged well!
As I was getting immersed in the novel, I could not help noticing it carries almost the same universal themes that have made The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood a lovely read. Modern family (mom, dad and teen daughter) move from the bustle of the Big Apple into a quiet village of Cornwall Coombe and have to adjust their mindset in order to fit in with the villagers.
I, personally, would not have made the move regardless of how beautiful or how cheap the house they were moving into was! The village did not have a doctor but something of a midwife and healer, did not have a school as there weren’t many children of school age and the only stores were far away in the city. The house also needed massive amounts of money to make it liveable (new kitchen, bathroom, floors).
Thankfully the house wasn’t haunted! Ned and Beth Constantine have moved their entire lives into what appeared to be an idyllic paradise in the country only to find soon that there is rot under the surface and by that time, it was too late to get out.
The people of this quaint little town are eccentric, but friendly. Their daughter Kate can have a horse, Beth can learn new crafts like stitching and quilting, and Ned has plenty of beautiful landscapes and interesting faces to sketch for his burgeoning career in the galleries back in the city. The economy of Cornwall Coombe is driven by agriculture and the crops especially the corn has been yielding bumper returns. Every year the folkspeople celebrate significant dates in agriculture – like planting, sowing, harvesting – by throwing fairs and parties and in their desire to do things “the old way”, they have shunned technological advances. Only a young man wants, against his father’s wishes, to move to the city and study farming and modern means to plow the land. He even bought his own tractor.
The villagers are not happy with this boy’s desires as they conflict with the role the elders have in mind for him as Harvest lord – the man to receive the honours of the harvest and the help of the people for the next 7 years.
Every 7 years, in a ritual as old as time, the village people pick a new lord and the old one is “dethroned” in a ceremony called “Harvest Home”.
As the date comes nearer, Ned uncovers an old secret and then a few others – the single-mindness of harvest oriented agriculture and pagan rituals punishing those who digress from the norm. As one of Ned’s friends observe – the village did have a lawman, a constable – but he was plump and never called upon as the law was dealt in the “old way”, the villagers punishing the deed like a clan.
In the mean-time, Ned and Beth are trying for another baby even though Ned might be infertile from a case of Mumps he had a few years back. But they do seem to get along well together and his love for her is one of the things that shines brightly through the book.
”I listened to her easy, rhythmic breathing, watched the rise and fall of her breast, my eye lingering on the rounded fullness of the pale flesh, the darker, almost carmine-colored tips under pleated translucent cotton. Though pillow-creased and sleepy, a trifle wan and strained, her face to me, sixteen years her husband was infinitely pleasing. I was not only her spouse, her lover, but her admirer as well, and I speculated as to how many married couples were as good friends as we were.”
The midwife / healer of the town is called Widow Fortune and she displays a strong interest in the new family that moved in. She is the one that convinced Tamar Pemrose to sell them the house and she’s the one that cured Kate from her asthma. She’s also giving potions to Beth to help with the child conceiving and including her in all women’s groups around the village. From her voice, you hear that women rule in the village as they pick the men and rule them. Beth is too mild to rule Ned and Ned quickly spots small changes in his wive’s personality as she becomes quieter and more pensive. Even his outgoing daughter seems to change – she’s taken to stitching and she does not even want to watch TV anymore.
And to make things even more interesting, the village slut (*cough* had to put it that way), Tamar Penrose is after him.
”I could smell her scent, not just the perfume but the whole womanly, feminine scent of her. I looked up, felt her hair brush across my eyes. I started to turn away; she leaned insistently and the red mouth came closer, the lips moist, parted. She kissed me. I slid an arm around her neck and held her mouth to mine. I released her in confusion, and she shuddered, burying her lips in my shirt collar, then stepping away. ‘I knew,’ she murmured, and her head nodded as though in private conversation. ‘I knew’”
She’s obsessed. She’s dangerous. She wants Ned in her bed and there’s nothing to stop her. I nearly shouted when dumb-ass Ned goes to her home to play with her possibly autistic daughter and has a few drinks and ends up kissing her. Duuuude! You don’t go near a viper unless you want to get bitten!
Tamar even takes it one step further and incites Ned near a stream until he freakingrapes her to show his control / power over her. I had to pull over the car and listen at the unfolding scenes. Pastoral Cornwall Coombe hid not only a murder but a whore and now a rapist! But the amount of secrets keeps on spilling out. Beth is not pregnant, Ned is sterile, and there’s a fertility cult connected to harvest gods going around the village which required a blood sacrifice on Harvest Home from the previous Harvest Lord and also a sex orgy in the fields. Poor Ned gets to see his wife become the center of the orgy where the previous Harvest Lord copulates with her under heavy drugs mixed with the mead after which he is killed and his blood sprayed across the field for a good crop in the next years.
I can’t say I haven’t read about fertility rituals before or how closely incipient agrary societies connected sex with the earth giving them a good crop. The book is a great description of such practices and customs and a good study material for any sociology student wishing to learn about old traditions which may be now extinct due to the spread of industrialisation and globalisation.
Why I liked the book
Shows the culture shock a person has to go through to go from one place to another. Either from the city to the country-side or from the country-side to the city – there is an adjustment period and also a steep learning curve when local customs and traditions unknown to the visitor have to be passed onto him either by verbal means or by practical. Both Ned and Beth are being taught about local customs and are warned not to interfere in things they know nothing about.
“You can’t negate the ingrained imagination of a whole culture.”
It presents many of the harvest rituals I’ve read before – the corn puppets, the consultation of the local Oracle to see how the weather will be, whether the crops will grow, – in this book the Oracle is the half-breed child of Tamar Penrose.
Inbreeding is described in the book as a practice of small villages – according to Don and his wife, everyone in the village used to be related to a Penrose at one point. Possibly that’s why Tamar’s child is so odd!
I liked how people turned superstitious when an event happened due to their lack of education. No school in the village means not a lot of knowledge to go around! Wind comes down through a chimney that’s just been cleared? Gasp! You must be getting some news! Child has freckles? Gasp! They looks just like constellations so she must be able to tell the future! Woman suffers from severe growth due to acromegalia – she is cursed! She will definitely curse the crops that they don’t grow.
What I didn’t like about the book
Ned didn’t have to go near Tamar at all. I know she was seductive and all but why approach her? Why feed her delusions? She did say she wanted to be married 5 times in her life! How would that been possible if her husband lived? Local ho alert!
The rape scene is pretty drawn out. I mean, it’s described that Tamar liked it and that it was what she wanted but still!
How did the news of the Rape reach Beth but not the Widow? I’m sure she would have used that factoid in the character assassination of Ned in front of the village crowd.
Why didn’t their blind neighbour tell Ned what happened to get him blinded? Most of Ned’s fate could have been avoided if he knew that factoid. Watch the Harvest Home? Get your eyes picked out by crazy women!
Why did he decide to stay with Beth after she took part in Harvest Home and she definitely wasn’t carrying his child? I get that he got blinded but the first thing he could have done is … I don’t know, become Daredevil and get revenge? His punishment was way out of proportion to what happened to him.
Beth definitely was brainwashed to stay there. But what about Kate, she knew enough of the city to maybe want to return there one day? Will she be prevented like the young boy with the tractor?
This is an example of why horror literature (that’s right, I called it literature!), became so popular in America in the 80’s. Authors like Thomas Tryon sparked the imagination of those horror writers that became the mainstream later on, like King or McCammon. Here, you can find the seeds of all that came later. Children of the Corn? It’s here. Evil in a small town? It’s here.
Well, there is this book about a teenage girl just turning 16, moving schools into a new town and finding out that when the clock ticks on her 16th birthday she will turn either into a destructive dark witch or a good-natured white witch. She falls in love, meets some villains and has a great time in a small minded town when her powers start showing.
In a town with no surprises, one secret could change everything.