An elderly man in his garden. Nothing much happens. A cat visits. Do we care enough? Are we drawn into his story?
Title: Arc of the Artist: Sweeney
Genre: Literary Fiction
Language: British English
Synopsis: Love in youth and lust in life’s twilight years: an examination of desire, satiation, the passage of time, as seen through the contrasting fortunes of two couples as their fates entwine through the character of Sweeney, a bachelor on his deathbed.
Ivan Heffernan surveys with mute pleasure his array of garden plants, his gaze traversing, amongst others, orchids, roses, poppies, geraniums, lilies of the valley, phlox, hydrangeas. Bountiful! But there is mourning, sadness, something elegiac, in the Indian bean tree which hangs its big elephant ears over the stone wall, dolorously; bypassers on the pavement outside glance upward, see large leaves, ponderous, heavy lobed, reaching; he will have to cut it back. There is youth, too, in his paradise: the Bloodgood Japanese Acer, with its rich colouring, transports him back to the Orient, a past life; and the olive tree, a fruitless sentry, stands by the winding path to the walldoor, far from home.
It is ajar, the walldoor. Sometimes people stop to look, pausing a moment, they see him, rambling, digging, they smile, admire, as he stands proudly amidst the rich fragrances of his cultivation. Fruition is at hand, and Ivan, a voluptuary, leans in greedily to sniff with unabashed hedonism a flower’s heady scent in flourishing blossom; it is springtime.
Through the bay window, the flitter of Ellen’s shadow, in the kitchen, as she goes to and fro.
His heart misgives him a moment: forget.
Sighing, he kneels by the seedbed on stiff joints, crackling their articulate protest. I am getting old, he thinks; I have been getting old for a long time. He remembers how his mother used to struggle to kneel at mass, a cold knee on the stone floor by the pew, in genuflection to her deity. Did it do her any good? She saw a good age. Masses for our souls. Her fingers gripping the handle of the boiling kettle as she stood by the Aga cooker; her reproachful eye over a fatherless brood. Death of love. Business concluded, Jack. Telegram he sent. Letters they sent one another at Christmas. Ripe age, she lived to. Die from world-weariness: release. God rest her.
With garden trowel in a gloved hand, dotted for grip, Ivan harrows the earth before him. A recent sunshower has freshened the dirt, yielding bacteria from the topsoil and animating earthy smells from the garden beds, natural, ancient, what do they call it? Geosmin. Mm. Pleasant to smell. Still, there are flowers and fruits that smell like rotting flesh, called what? He muses, digging, sporting a navy fisherman’s hat, carting a black bucket for detritus, wearing shorts above pale legs, making the most of rare Irish warming sunlight. His kneeling pad goes with him, as he prostrates himself at each new altar. Just how I used to kneel at the Redemptorists. A lot of thanks I got for it. Old Father whatshisname with the short leg and the boot with the heel lift. Father Brady was it? No. Along those lines. Didn’t someone make allegations against him in the end?
Ivan smiles. A pleasant hunger sharpens his sensorium. Eat something soon. Fasting they say is good for you; Ellen perhaps is cooking something.
He tarries. Just deadhead a few of these roses.
Ivan takes a dying flower and, brandishing trusty secateurs, clips its stem with neat remorse. Murder your darlings. Look at this godawful campanula. Almost like a weed. Though it is vibrant. The little bellflowers commanded a corner of the garden, rising on thin stalks to display their exhaling petals that arced concavely to reveal their–
The churchbell tolls the irrevocable hour, washes melancholia over its domain. Must be noon. Always a sadness in churchbells. Makes you reflect. Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been sixty years since my last confession. I said a bad word, I hit my sister, I didn’t do my homework, I succumbed to temptations of the flesh. Fellow behind the grill guilty of worse, half the time.
Ivan casts decapitated petals, withering stems, into the bucket.
It rings on, the bell, a world of monody; you owe me three farthings, say the bells of St Martin’s.
The Angeles, introspection in church bells, no great remorse pangs him; there are in his heart unrequited propositions; consequentialism and deontology. He takes off his gloves and looks with satisfaction at his work, beheld by an unbeheld beholder. They will burgeon, blossom, die, the plants. Like us all. Vera. God rest her.
Ivan suspires in recollected melancholy: a spent life; flower wilt in your cap. She was, is, no more. Barren unions, want for legacy. As she is now so soon will I. Love in death, passing through nature into eternity. Flung in the bed. The smell of vodka in her room, on her clothes, anything she touched. Her vacant stare; hallucinations; jerking like a rag doll when she had a fit; her broad–based stagger of a walk. Ketone breath. Time I saw her thighbone sticking out when she fell in the garden, just there by the poppies, snapped in two like a matchstick. The poisonous poppies. Pathetic to see. Locking up my chequebook in the safe under the stairs: the things you have to do. Embroidery was the only skill she kept up with. Fantastic things she could do even towards the end. Sad. Fintan gave up the drink the day she gave up the ghost. Only good thing to come of it. Hardship, she caused me. A pang when I see one of her patterns on a cushion. Sewn into my, they say you become a part of, she sewed; her cold forehead waxen on my lips before they put a lid on her.
He shivers in weakening sunlight.
With a plaintive miaow she approaches him. He turns, sees her as she freezes in caution at two metres, then calls again appealingly: miaowww.
She stalks towards him with dignity and feline prudence.
Hello, Sibbs, Ivan says. Have you come to see me?
He stands, unbent, to observe her as looks up at him with large green eyes. She arches her back and stalks between his legs, tickling bare skin, rubbing against him, tail coiling. Seems to want to be petted. He stoops to scratch her; she slinks away, permitting a half caress.
Perhaps particularly, literary fiction is the least likely to benefit from this critique format. Almost by definition, in literary fiction the requirement for immediate immersion in plot and character that we look for in genre fiction is absent. Instead, we are invited to enjoy words painting a picture, and that picture can be almost static, as here. We do get insights into Ivan’s character, pragmatic, stoic, sensitive, but they are almost ancillary to the main thrust of this opening passage, which is to paint a picture of an elderly man pottering about among specimen plants in what we gather is some kind of walled garden. One is reminded of Vito Corleone among his tomatoes in Sicily. But because of this “slow burn”, it’s not easy to get a feel for how well-written this book will be in its entirety. For sure there are nice moments in this opening passage, the dolorous Indian bean tree, Vera “jerking like a rag doll when she had a fit”, but I think it would take longer to develop a real affinity for this book than merely the first thousand words. I don’t think the scene could remain this static for much longer without losing the reader’s interest. After all, in The Godfather, Vito Corleone slumps to the ground with a heart attack or stroke after five minutes of playing with his grandson. There is definitely a narrative in that scene (in fact, one of the key turning points of the whole trilogy), and that sense of a narrative is missing here. Ivan ruminates, widely, on a number of different themes – religion, Vera, plants, ageing. It’s nicely written, so we can indulge Ivan’s thought-flow as he slides seamlessly from one subject to another, but I would think that within the next few pages we are going to need a little more to draw us into Ivan’s world than what we have here.
In terms of this site, and opining on whether this submission would encourage an agent to ask to read more, I’m going to chicken out and say that although it’s good, I suspect that it would depend entirely on the agent, and in certain circumstances, the mood of the agent when they read it. That sounds unfair, and that’s because it’s an unfair business. Literary fiction is notoriously difficult to sell, and the market notoriously small, so breaking into the traditional publishing world in literary fiction is probably the hardest task of all for an unknown writer. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try, and, from this excerpt, it’s quite clear that you’re a writer with some talent. Is it gold star material that I would recommend to an agent? Not sure. I’d need to see more of it, so, as I stated at the beginning, in that sense this critique process isn’t a true test. A silver star.
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