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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dazzling doubleness, 18 May 2014
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This review is from: The Book of the Needle (Paperback)
"There are some cloths, said Mr Jones (snipping), where this difference is manifest, as satin where one face shines and the other is plain, or a twilled cloth like worsted where the weave shows and feels differently in the two faces, but there are others where the front and the back are identical in warp and woof and pattern and colour, in all their properties, and yet, Arise, to you as a tailor they can never be the same. For the front of the cloth is that which will appear to the world; it will be fair and smooth, or else embellished and embroidered, but the back will hold the raw workings of your stitches or a lining, and the moment the cloth lies upon your lap you must and will know which is which, for unless they are first different in your own mind they will never be so in reality. Such doubleness is a property of everything in the world, and of every person. We are not meant to see the threads and thrums of another's soul, nor the plainness of their lining, but our own we feel familiarly rubbing against us whenever we move. In this a garment is like a man or a woman; how should it not be, made as it is in our image? Therefore when I teach you to sew, I am teaching you to ape your creator..."

For all Mr Jones's best efforts, young Arise Evans, his apprentice some time in the 1620s, never did become a master tailor. What he did learn from his master was this concept of "doubleness". It appears in his fascination with etymology, with what Mr Jones used to call the words behind and beneath other words (Mr Jones was the master of false etymology, until his pupil surpassed him, and mistakenly seeing the word "Arise" behind his own given name of Rhys has a huge effect on Arise's life). It appears also in Arise's way of seeing the potential for imagery in everything around him, very much in the manner of his time, so that he cannot sew a seam nor consummate his marriage without reflecting on the cosmic significance of his actions. Above all, it is what underlies his practice as an author.

During the hectic period of the Civil War and Commonwealth, Arise had been a successful author of books of prophecy. Rather ungratefully, given that it was the upside-down nature of society at that time which had enabled a tailor to become respected as an author, Arise is an ardent royalist who foretells doom to the nation unless the monarchy is restored. When this comes about, of course, he finds himself at a loose end for what to write next - the future has happened and there is nothing left to prophesy. Hence The Book of The Needle, which starts out to be a tailoring manual but soon digresses into Arise's personal memoirs.

What makes Arise's story engaging is partly the intrinsic fascination of the times and partly his own personality, reflected in his writing style. He can be very funny, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not - though very much a man of his own time, he also comes very close to us in his tendency to hapless incompetence in the face of minor but irritating tasks like threading a needle or re-folding a map. There is endless amusement to be had from the domestic by-play between Arise, his amateur herbalist wife Maud and their son Owen (a Puritan version of Lupin Pooter). But Arise's life also has a serious side; he met the mighty of his day, including two kings and a Lord Protector, and there is nothing funny about his second encounter with the Earl of Essex, a man who once craved glory but is now haunted by his experiences of battle:

"The bowels, he said, belong in the body, do they not? They were never intended by God to be seen. But I have seen them many times, at Newbury and other places. [...] Several of the men fall over; they always look as if they are doing it on purpose. And only then do you notice that some of the other men are wearing the bowels of these fallen ones across their faces. They look like pieces of rag, Evans, bloody and befouled pieces of rag."

In one of the most powerful chapters, "Remember", Arise recalls the execution of the Presbyterian Christopher Love, which he witnessed, and, in the margins, reflects on that of Charles I, which he did not see. His son Owen, who also has ambitions to be an author, objects to this method and is discovered cutting the page:

"You see, father, where I was cutting. I was trying to cut the narrative of the King away from that of Mr Love, and keep them separate.
Why, Owen, they are intertwined.
He frowns at the page in front of him, and his fingers move as if they were still wielding the scissors.
They are intertwined, Owen, because the one story makes me think of the other, for thoughts do not pass through the mind singly but grow round each other like ivy round the trunk of an oak, and thus I wrote it as I thought it, interconnectedly. [...]
When I am an author, Owen says, looking with longing at the scissors lying on the desk next to his hand, I shall write only one thing at a time."

Owen is wrong, of course. Arise can no more tell a story in a straight line than Tristram Shandy can, but then neither life nor narrative goes in uncomplicated straight lines, and the interconnectedness, the doubleness, which Owen fails to appreciate is what gives this narrative its depth and lasting interest. The one thing I wish is that my paperback had rather stiffer covers, because I foresee that they will very soon be bent with much reading....
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Initial post: 14 Jun 2014 10:41:37 BDT
Peter Milner says:
'Needles' sounds wondrously deep and convoluted and I wish to read it. Matthew was one of my tutors when I did my MA at Aberystwyth recently and we had several really helpful discussions. I learnt a lot from him, but he seems to have excelled himself in this novel.
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