Some books find you at the wrong time. You’re harried by winter weather and stresses at work. You pick up a book in which the characters are depressed, living in worlds of grey slump. You put the book down after reading – because it might be a good book, you thrash through to the end – but feel so weary. There is a sticky film of gloom now on you that can be days to shift. At another time in your life you might be in the right frame to deal with this. But too late, the book has already got to you.
Not so with Arcadia. I picked this book up at just the perfect moment, and basked in it. D and I were in an uncertain place – moving flat soon, but unsure of where we would be going (D’s job will keep us in Edinburgh, we know now). I was and am still battering into novel edits, which leaves me too tired to deal with book of existential crises and brutal honesty. I wanted something that was well-written and would be a comfort. In the bookshop I came across Arcadia and knew from the first page it was what I was searching for.
The women in the river, singing.
This is Bit’s first memory, although he hadn’t been born when it happened. Still, the road winding through the mountains is clear to him, the rest stop with the yellow flowers that closed under the children’s touch. It was dusk when the Caravan saw the river greening around the bend and stopped there for the night. It was a blue spring evening, and cold.
A gentle sigh. Vivid richness. A story of an idyllic childhood in less than easy surroundings – Bit Stone is the first child born to the commune of what will become Arcadia, a benign collective based in a sprawling semi-wilderness of woodlands in America. The novel follows him in his fifth year, his early teens, and then skips forward twenty years to his life after the dream of Arcadia is over, and onward still from that, into our future. It’s a quiet pacing. My favourite parts of the novel were the earliest parts, steeped in nostalgia that strangely works with the present tense Groff uses – I think because childhood is nearly always immediate?
It’s a novel full of woodsmoke and humanity. The delicate wide-eyed kindess of Little Bit. The giant figures of Bit’s mother Hannah and father Abe, the smells of bread making, the clatter of work as the people of the commune fix up, plant, chop, serve food. It’s a novel to fall into on a dim dank day when other matters press into your headspace. It clears a space.
In the latter sections, in New York City and in the future where the world appears, briefly, near crumbling in the face of medical and environmental disasters, I was not so charmed as in the first, but the novel still held together well, and there were some gentle surprises in the plot. The adult Bit is so obviously the good man, the sympathetic character that it might become jarring in less skilled hands. I like characters who might occasionally do the worst thing, lash out, make a mess. But Bit is always calm, artistic, gravely attesting to the best in all around him. I wanted more spite, but at the same time as I read, I couldn’t begrudge the choices the author had made. Not while the prose felt like a cool hand against my forehead, a walk in the wild woods where the birds are sweetly calling and nothing, for the moment of reading, can ever be wrong.