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A Wonderful Debut,
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This review is from: Tinkers (Paperback)
Given that Tinkers by Paul Harding runs only for 191 pages, it is a hugely ambitious novel and a tour de force that Harding broadly succeeds in what appears to be his aim. Tinkers is one of those novels that does not wear its heart on its sleeve. Harding refrains from telling us rather he shows us. This makes the novel an example of where according to Reader Theory a "convergence of text and reader" is required in order to bring the "literary work into existence". In other words, this is a novel that certainly requires the reader to bring his or her experience to bear on it in order to make sense of it.
The novel opens on the death bed scene of the main character, George Washington Crosby, whom we are told is in a state of hallucination "eight days before he died". George is surrounded by his family and a few people coming to his bedside to bid farewell. The story then flashes back in time to look at the work and life of George's father, Howard Aaron Crosby, (he is the Tinker in the family) the relationship between father and son, family life in general, and George's own work as a clock repairer. Howard also recalls his father's life and times as a Methodist minister. The story is meant to be seen from the perspective of the hallucinating mind of George. This ingeniously allows Harding to give the narrative a disruptive and rambling effect. However, this technique simply amounts to Howard switching the narration from third to first person and this is further complicated by Howard's day dreaming, readings by one of Howard's grandsons, Charlie, from a book found in the attic, and George's own direct reminiscing on his death bed. The setting of the novel is the state of Maine and the US north eastern seaboard.
The prose does not flow fluidly which further makes the novel a demanding read. Harding' prose is economical, understated and brilliantly rendered in poetic language. This passage of George reflecting on his life should resonate with any sensitive reader: "George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment." Another aspect worth mentioning about the prose is that it is suffused with a light touch of humour not so much to draw a laugh from the reader but almost as if to provide relief from the heavy issues addressed in the novel.
One powerful issue that emerges is that it appears Harding is suggesting that his characters are trapped in their social milieu with quiet, secret desires to escape. When the young George tries to escape from the demands placed on the family by his epileptic father, Howard, and is soon quickly found we are told of Howard's feelings thus: "There was a moment of sorrow, disappointment, and deep love for his son, whom he at that second wished had had a chance to escape."
The book is structured around four long chapters and in chapter three, Harding begins by switching narration and point of view to Howard telling the story of his own minister father. From this passage we get a Christian ethics and way of life. The story of Howard's father is beautifully told and the issues relayed are poignant. It is basically a story of Howard's father's mental and physical decline. The reader cannot help but be struck by a passage like this: "He leaked out of the world gradually, though. At first, he seemed merely vague or peripheral. But then he could no longer furnish the proper frame for his clothes."
Harding plays around with time both symbolically and literally. For example, George repairs clocks, there is the count down in hours to George's death, and Harding weaves at least two stories in different time periods which also overlaps. Harding likens the clocks operation to that of the universe and appears to raise the big question about the purpose of life. Harding takes a Christian perspective so he answers this question by asking us to have faith.
I suppose ultimately that the novel raises the question about just how much the human spirit can endure. It tries to get to the core of the human condition. From a Christian perspective it asks us to bear our burden gracefully. This is a wonderful novel and despite the demand it makes upon the reader it is worth reading. I look forward to Howard's second novel.