Tolstoy famously reckoned that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” whilst just over a century later Douglas Coupland figured that this could all be simplified down to the notion that “All families are psychotic.” Writerly conceits both, of course, but surely underpinned by the truth that any understanding of immediate and extended human family is damnably tricky and endlessly elusive. Yet despite or because of this it seems also to be some kind of ageless imperative: Who am I? How did I get here? Same as it ever was…
Davina Quinlivan undertakes a deeply personal exploration of her own family history in the elegant, eloquent magical realism of ‘Shalimar’, although wisely chooses to do so in part as a means of engaging with themes of migration and sense of place and belonging. Structured in three sections, the book explores distinct places (Burma, Surrey, Devon) and periods of Quinlivan’s personal history. This underlying structure allows the author to tease out specifics (some of the historical contextualising of Burma, for instance, is particularly interesting) whilst also necessarily casting out the tendrils of individual transformation that bridge across all three. Time wrinkles and slips continuations of the past into the present. Ghosts slip through these crinkles and settle gently on our hearts, tempting us back to go forward.
My own interest in family might be described as ambivalent at best, for whilst I admit a degree of interest in the physical geography of my genetic past (hill farms and coal mines, a TB clinic turned into a caravan park), my interest in individual’s lives is almost entirely non-existent. Perhaps it sounds heartless and crass to suggest that the individual is a fleeting irrelevance in the face of more lasting physical presence, but I’ve become comfortable with that. Perhaps too this explains my complete inability to empathise with those (irrespective of gender) who appear to feel a physical need to have children. I have looked inwardly to the place where I imagine others experience this feeling and have seen a gaping chasm of emptiness. Which is needlessly theatrical of course, because the lack of something does not necessarily suggest a void waiting to be filled. So whilst I believe I can understand something of the drive for genetic continuation, this is solely in abstract terms. Emotionally, I feel nothing.
As such, I admit that I find it very difficult to generate much interest in other peoples’ families, Quinlivan’s included. Yet whilst this may be me projecting, I cannot help but sense in ‘Shalimar’ a tacit acknowledgement that if there are few things more boring than reading about other people’s dreams or drug stories, then hearing about their families is a topic following closely behind. It’s those broader themes of the book, therefore, that succeed in drawing me in. The elliptical trails of colour that weave around meditations on loss, place, nature and the very act of movement through landscape are captivating and deliciously drawn. It may be down to Quinlivan’s background in the academic world of film criticism, but regardless, ‘Shalimar’ displays an astute understanding of pace and innate awareness of when a scene might have outstayed its welcome. The ebb and flow between the personal and what we might broadly accept as being the universal is perfectly portrayed, whilst the inevitable references to films and books are dropped at opportune moments and always fit seamlessly with the underlying narrative, often defying gravity in that they simultaneously inform and are themselves informed by the context around them.
It’s the concluding section of the book (titled ‘Devon, Rivers’) that really floors me though. I read it in the haunted Ayrshire landscapes of my own youth; these twenty pages consumed whilst sitting in a hotel room on the hillside where once the ghosts of young men dreamt of distant shores and of life being plain sailing. A quarter of a century has passed since then, and if the place no longer drains my energy in the way I remember (or imagine?) it once doing, the dull aches are nevertheless recognisable. They penetrate my carefully constructed defences, hostile companions to the constant presence of sciatic pain. Some days I wish that my memory could be as numb as the lower right leg that denies the existence of hail battering against it on winter cycle rides. Perhaps perception really is everything and if things cannot be felt then they surely do not exist? Some days I dive into this belief and let its non-existence enfold me.
Quinlivan’s short passages about Devon, then, are like laser guided munitions ripping deliciously through my defences. Riddled with familiar place names, they leave me breathless with an almost physical yearning for the place I have called home for more than half of my life. Thorverton, Brampford Speke, Silverton, the road between Rewe and my own home village of sixteen years: names that necessarily resonate with deeply rooted personal memory, yes, but also with something altogether more intangible and spiritual. A surprisingly powerful surge of emotion rushes through me as I read these pages, like sap rising from the depths. The sun dipping below the horizon beyond Ailsa Craig might be visually beautiful, but it cannot hope to compete with this love for another place.
There is a lovely moment in this section where Quinlivan and her own children point to their home on the aged OS map that hangs in the Killerton estate visitor’s centre. It is a moment of connection to an unknown past within a precious present and an unseen future. One of those wrinkles in time. I have looked at the same map, and whilst our house does not yet feature (our street is still an orchard), I can at least point to Joan Dewdney’s cottage, out of whose thatched roof hordes of sparrows descend daily to nibble the greens in our garden.
I can’t help but wonder if our paths have crossed. Perhaps as I’ve cycled home along Green Lane, returning from rides between the high Devon hedgerows? Perhaps on a walk to the 15th Century church isolated in sheep-filled fields or over the Exe in the Secret Garden on a summer’s afternoon? Not that it matters much of course, for as ‘Shalimar’ itself suggests, the energies from these places that nourish us will continue to exist long after our flesh and blood have evaporated into the void. Our connections, genetic or otherwise, may root in one place and give meaning and context, but only the magic of place will endure, perhaps enriched by the imprint of our impermanence. There is something oddly comforting in that, even for a cold fish like me.