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August

I suppose it’s only natural that I’m drawn to words about children and childhood at the moment and Gerard Woodward’s first novel August is brilliant on family and its intricate relationships. Reading this passage with the biscuit’s small body tucked tight against mine reduced me to tears

As Nana retreated further and further into her shrunken world, Colette found it ever harder to recall the mother she’d known. It was similar to the loss she felt as her children grew up. It was hard to remember them as babies. Watching a child grow up is to watch it die a hundred times, each new self overlaying the old, concealing it.

The premise of August is beautifully simple: charting a family’s history by capturing their annual August holiday. The Jones family return to camp at the same farm in Wales from the mid-1950s to 1970, and each year the kaleidoscope of children, friends and relationships is brought before us in a new pattern against the growing familiarity of the Welsh landscape. It’s a device that omits as much as it includes — people change off-stage (children grow, parents decline) — but a mechanism which could seem claustrophobic or restrictive is handled with a deft lightness that allows the characters to become hyper-real and the years to flow believably by.

The Joneses are such an extraordinary family that it’s not hard to believe that the book ‘draws on [Woodward’s] own family history’. August forms the first volume of a trilogy based around the family — the second book, 2004 Booker shortlisted I’ll go to bed at noon, was one of my favourite reads of last year and definitely the most funny (as in laugh out loud) sad (heartbreaking) book that I can remember reading. Part of the appeal of August is spending more time with the Joneses and tracing the fault lines that lead them to the amazing heights of alcoholism and despair that await them in the 1970s. The final volume of the trilogy A Curious Earth came out earlier this year, but, such is my love of the family, I’m loathe to read it and leave them behind for good.

What Woodward pulls of so well, particularly in I’ll go to bed at noon, is the kind of book that I can least imagine writing: the detailed multi-charactered family saga of the kind that Zadie Smith attempts in On Beauty and Jonathan Franzen achieves in The Corrections. The relationship between Aldous and Colette is so beautiful, so demented, so real that you can’t help loving them and enjoying their company despite their (rather obvious) faults. Woodward wrote several volumes of poetry before August was published and while his writing is not poetic in the way that, say, Michael Ondaatje’s is, I found his attention to the detail of landscape and time beautiful.

Colette’s reverie about her mother’s dementia concludes

In their first weeks, Colette always felt, babies are birds. More bird-like than human. Flightless, of course, as are baby birds, but chirruping, watchful, simple. They seemed trapped within an invisible caul of dumbness, incomprehension, namelessness. Sometimes Colette found babies terrifying. They were human beings stripped of personhood, utterly naked, raw and blank. And it was towards that state that her mother was now taking pigeon steps. Nana’s selfhood no longer adhered but had become something loose and flimsy, and layer after layer was peeling away. Time was running backwards for Nana.

Here is family in all its horror, short-comings revealed, wiring exposed. But what somehow emerges, crazy and deranged, is simply love.

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