Inspired by #NovellaNovember, championed by the brilliant Poppy of Poppy Peacock Pens, I had a look through the 746 with one thing in mind. Length.
I was searching for a novella I could read and review before the end of the month and came across Tinkers by Paul Harding which clocks in at a slight 150 pages. None of you will be surprised to hear that I don’t remember buying this book, but it may have something to do with the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 – the first debut novel to do so since A Confederacy of Dunces in 1981 – after languishing in publishers slush piles for three years.
I’m so grateful I happened across it because Tinkers is a beautiful novella, a heart breaking meditation on love, loss, illness and the power of nature.
The novella opens on an old man dying in a bed in his living room. Suddenly, he sees the walls around him collapsing and he falls through the floors of his house into his basement. He is showered with the detritus of life – old photographs, tools, newspaper clippings, the parts of old clocks. These are followed by the clouds and stars which tumble around him and finally the sky itself falls and covers him. George Washington Crosby, a clock repairer is hallucinating. Drifting in and out of consciousness as his family sit with him while he slowly dies of cancer.
With time winding down, George’s memories mingle with those of his father, Howard a peddler (hence the title) and epileptic and in turn with those of his grandfather a preacher who is afflicted by madness.
George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying…independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.
A repairer of clocks, a methodical keeper of time, George is now free of the constraints of hours, minutes and seconds and rejoins his father and grandfather through time. Their memories become his as he tries to come to terms with his painful childhood in Maine, rediscover his awe of nature and face the death that is coming for him. He jumps from thought to thought, unconfined to his own knowledge, falling through the generations like he fell through the floor of his house, one hallucination echoing another.
There is little in the way of plot in Tinkers, as it is essentially a memory piece, but it is structured beautifully, forming a perfect narrative loop that fizzes and flashes with incandescent moments, like the epilepsy that lights up Howard’s brain. It contains some unforgettable images – a 120 year old hermit with a signed copy of The Scarlet Letter, a boy spending a night neck deep in a river, charred bodies found on a bed after a fire and a house being moved on logs across a plain. It is interspersed with sections from a book called The Reasonable Horologist which reads as part clock manual and part bible.
There is a wonderful section where George remembers a time when he attempted to capture his memories on tape, only to be confronted with what can never be captured.
…he began to talk about his father and his mother, his brother, Joe, and his sisters, about taking night courses to finish school and about becoming a father. He talked about blue snow and barrels of apples and splitting frozen wood so brittle that it rang when you split if. He talked about what it is like to be a grandparent for the first time and to think about what it is you will leave behind when you die. By the time the tape ran out an hour and a half later…he was openly weeping and lamenting the loss of this world of light and hope.
It is only as George’s mind teeters between life and death that he can see clearly the meaning of the moments he has lived, as memories ring out like the hourly chime of a clock, opening up a world of wonder and magic that George could not before comprehend.
And yet for a book about death, it is ultimately a celebration of life. It reminds us that the past is never dead, it remains always within us, always flashing bright to illuminate our present. The novel is packed with short, intense moments of clarity and self-awareness; moments that elucidate both the terror and joy of living, reminding us of where we are all always heading, ‘toward the point where the fading would begin’.
And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world even though you have done nothing to deserve it.
The prose in Tinkers is almost poetic, with recurring themes of time, clocks, lightning and illumination. Even a terrifying condition like epilepsy is rendered in a way as to make it seem transcendental.
I can imagine it being a bit much for some readers, but I was in awe of Harding’s use of language and alliteration and beautiful passages such as
He lifted his nose from a crate of limes, refreshed and eager to get home to a wife who spoke words out loud as she thought them and held nothing to whirl and eddy and collect in brackish silences, silences that broke like thin ice beneath you to announce your drowning.
When his grandchildren had been little, they had asked if they could hide inside the clock. Now he wanted to gather them and open himself up and hide them among his ribs and faintly ticking heart.
Paul Harding has managed to contain the epic scope of family saga within one man’s mind and a very short book, almost in the way the unknowable magic of time is contained within the workings of a clock. Tinkers is both devastating and life-affirming and is a hypnotic exploration of the thoughts of a dying man, reiterating that in the end, all we leave behind is love.
There is a beautiful sentence near the end of this gorgeous little book, where Howard says
My mother opened the outside door and the light came in and carved every object in the kitchen into an ancient relic
Paul Harding pulls off the same trick with Tinkers, opening a door and shining a light on what it means to be human, and in the process, creating something that will endure. Tinkers is a remarkable book.
Read on: iBooks
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