A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker
I picked up a copy of a new book by Jo Baker without looking at the publishers blurb about the story – and I was swept away into the boyhood of a child in Ireland in 1919. The story then leaps forward to the summer of 1939. The same character, now a young man is at home with his mother. Theirs is a prickly relationship – he is a writer who has been living in Paris.
She cannot understand why he cannot stay at home, even with another war looming Ireland will not be involved.
At some point I looked at the blurb on the back of the book and read “ Paris, 1939 ….. a young unknown writer – Samuel Beckett – recently arrived from Ireland..”
Samuel Beckett is not a writer many read for pleasure these days. Waiting for Godot is probably about the only work that most of us could name of his many volumes of plays, poetry and fiction.
However, you need know nothing at all about Samuel Beckett to enjoy this novel – in fact it may be best not to know anything and simply take pleasure in the story about the life of the protagonist as the novel progresses. The man at the centre of the story is not really named, except as The Irishman. In the 1930s there were many British writers making their home in France, many in Paris. James Joyce was one, and Samuel Beckett an admirer who became a friend.
During a brief visit to his mother in Ireland, they listen together to the wireless as Chamberlain announces the declaration of war with Germany. Stifling at home, where he cannot write, Beckett returns to Paris.
In Paris Beckett lives with a French woman, Suzanne. He writes and she teaches piano lessons to the neighbourhood children. Theirs is a peaceful life, meals with friends, an almost happy and carefree time despite making tentative plans to leave Paris if the Germans invade. “it’s ridiculous to be happy now, Suzanne thinks. It’s outrageous. But she can’t help it.” Paris is still lovely in the fall of 1939, but by June 1940 they are all scattering, leaving Paris for the south, or perhaps to Switzerland.
It is the beginning of the dislocation and privation that the long years of war will bring. Not enough food, not enough warmth. Ireland is neutral, and Beckett would have been quite safe if not for his need to do something useful, though it angers Suzanne. There are days and nights fearing the presence of the Gestapo, and yet magical moments for Beckett, including a Christmas Eve mass in 1945 with a nursing sister in a church “open to the sky”.
A Country Road, A Tree is a book about all that is lost with war, and those who were taken away, never to be seen again. Many of Beckett’s friends died during the long years of war, including James Joyce. When Beckett returns to the changed city of Paris in the years immediately after the war he must “learn to accommodate the loss”. For Beckett and Suzanne “There is so much wear and tear”. The shared war years are their shared history no matter what the future brings.
Jo Baker is most well known for her novel Longbourne, about the upstairs - downstairs life in the fictional Bennet household created by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice. The novel I most enjoyed was Undertow, which I reviewed just over two years ago. Both of these novels were good, very good – but this one is better. Jo Baker breathes life into her characters and is able to make us understand Samuel Beckett and what drove him to write – and to understand what becomes his minimalist style, as he works to remove all unnecessary words from his work, leaving the only the essence. After his struggle to have his work published early in his career, Beckett went on to become a prolific writer, published internationally. In1969 Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.