REVIEW by Ed Garland

NWR Issue r36

Suzanne and Gertrude

by Jeb Loy Nichols

Some writers tether their donkeys to a sense of chronic hopelessness. Maybe this tradition began with Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. You might also know Mo Yan’s 2006 novel, Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (translated by Howard Goldblatt), whose human protagonist achieves donkeyhood upon reincarnation, and almost immediately exclaims ‘yes, better to be a donkey everyone loves than a hopeless human’. And if you’ve read the 1989 Professional Handbook of the Donkey (a classic), you’ll know Robert Camac, who thinks ‘the donkey has found fresh work in the twentieth century to help the casualties of this century’s so-called progress’. Donkeys are goggles that erase all evidence of human achievement. Jeb Loy Nichols’ new novel, Suzanne and Gertrude, continues this strange sub-tradition.

Suzanne lives a solitary life on a farm in Wales. Her husband, Hillman, has departed. Gertrude is the donkey who wanders into one of the farm’s fields, doesn’t seem to belong to anyone, and doesn’t want to leave. Over four months of a single year, we see how Gertrude provides companionship for Suzanne, who views life through standard-issue donkey-lenses: ‘Why would anyone presume that there’s such a thing as progress?’ she wonders. ‘Where is the progress in the worldwide flood of refugees? In the mountains of discarded plastic? In the expanding numbers of animals and plants we daily make extinct?’ Having found that progress isn’t everywhere, she concludes it can’t be anywhere. She starts to read a donkey-handling manual, whose author argues that ‘donkeys are unquestionably our superiors’ because, in human communities, ‘grace and tranquillity do not rule’. The misanthropic flag is raised high, but as the novel and its human-donkey companionship develop, Suzanne moves on from the 'people=shit' position to something more subtle and complex.

One of Suzanne and Gertrude’s strengths is its depictions of Suzanne’s small network of friends. Nichols’ sensitive ear for dialogue brings to life characters like Morris, with his bewildering stream of odd facts and anecdotes. Another strength is the prose in general, which often exhibits grace and tranquillity and exuberant imagery. A dead robin is a ‘knot of rusted fluff’. Wind goes ‘yelping across the yard’. Gravel is the ‘guts’ of the quarry, and, when Suzanne takes a delivery, there are:

Seven tonnes of grey guts, dumped in piles along the lane. That Suzanne will then spread with a shovel and a rake. Filling pot holes and gullies. A shovel load at a time. Until everything is level. At which point she’ll stamp, stamp, stamp it down. Tormenting both her back and her boots.

Nichols uses full stops not to end sentences but to make hypnotic patterns with a donkeyish pace. The lines linger and browse and are addictive in their rhythms. As in the passage above, the landscape is sometimes a store for the emotions that emerge as Suzanne tends to Gertrude and observes her surroundings. For one month of the year, Nichols gives the third-person narrative point of view a rest, and we wander into Suzanne’s first-person field. This shift brings an effective sense of movement into the novel’s static setting.

Suzanne sometimes writes letters to her absent husband, who sometimes writes back. These messages reveal the essential difference between the couple: Hillman finds a sense of purpose in working for migration aid agencies, while Suzanne feels ‘no kindredness, no connection, no allegiance’ to anyone, ‘homeless or otherwise, in need or otherwise’. The letters also allow Suzanne and Hillman to tell each other things they already know, with clunky formulations like ‘as you know, I don’t dream’. The clumsiness of these moments breaks the otherwise carefully established narrative spell. I don’t need these fictional people to share my ideas about life, but I do need them to avoid those phrases that stick out like hairs in soup. But most of Suzanne and Gertrude speaks its melancholy thoughts in an interesting way.

Recalling a time when her friends Dorothy and Morris helped her to move on from an earlier crisis, Suzanne describes how Morris treated her ‘like all the other animals; he told me strange facts and rubbed my head and made sure I had enough to eat.’ During this period, ‘the house, the fields, the barns and gardens, all was in a state of revision.’ This ‘state of revision’ is one of the book’s best themes. While Suzanne focuses on her own geographical and emotional isolations, and the inward effects of her outward distaste for humanity, Suzanne and Gertrude as a novel quietly explores the relationship between community and recovery. It offers nothing simple, and this is a good thing. Describing her experience with Dorothy and Morris, Suzanne remembers how ‘slowly’ she was ‘made less messy but still wary.’ Having shed her hopelessness once before, she might be able to do so again.

Ed Garland’s book on literature, sound, listening and hearing, Earwitness: A Search for Sonic Understanding in Stories, is available as an ebook and in print. It is the winner of the New Welsh Writing Awards 2018: Aberystwyth University Prize for an Essay Collection.


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