15 October 2013

Forever, in an instant, from sunshine to shadow

I made my way up the east staircase, one slow step at a time. At the top I stopped to rest, perching for a while on the last step like a bird on a bough.

Only here at the top of the house did I feel myself removed, in a way from the crushing burden of being a de Luce. Up here, above it all, I was somehow myself.
The Buckshaw house featured on the cover of the
Orion paperback edition of I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
by Alan Bradley
Buckshaw is a Georgian house which size is commensurate with its history. It is home to the de Luces—widower Colonel de Luce and his three daughters: Ophelia, Daphne, and Flavia, along with the colonel's trusted steward, Dogger.

The bird perching on the bough was Flavia, a young girl with a passion for chemistry and the dead. She is the lead character in Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce Mystery series, which I only recently discovered but quickly fell in love with.

I finished the fourth title, I am half-sick of shadows, this afternoon. The country is observing a holiday and this was a chance for me, like Flavia, to feel myself removed, in a way from the crushing burden of being an adult by sitting at my spot in my favorite restaurant, reading and dining in peace.

I've always had reservations for whiz kid characters, because their genius can sometimes be improbable and they can get too cheeky for my taste.

Flavia de Luce has those moments. I was surprised, for example, that despite her scientific acumen and talent at detective work, she still believes in Father Christmas. But I was ready to romanticise: No matter how smart someone is, the lure of a warm and generous figure can be irresistible.

Her language, too, is uneven. Though we may expect her to be articulate, even sharp, given her wits, I failed to recognize her poeticizing voice in the opening paragraphs of the book:
Tendrils of raw fog floated up from the ice like agonized spirits departing their bodies. The cold air was a hazy writhing mist.

Up and down the long gallery I flew, the silver blades of my skates making the sad scraping sound of a butcher's knife being sharpened energetically on stone...
These things notwithstanding, I am caught up in her world. One reason is that while in the midst of solving murder cases, Flavia is deep within her personal mysteries as well—what her mother Harriet, who died before she could have memories of her, was truly like; why her sisters hate her; and how to show her affections to her father.

It is the tenderness and the unriddling of emotional confusions that I follow in this series.

In the first novel, The sweetness at the bottom of the pie, there is a memorable chapter where Flavia describes her eldest sister Ophelia's command of the piano, and 'because she plays so beautifully, [Flavia] have always felt that it [is her] bounden duty to be particularly rotten to her'.

This hits home as daily, we face scenarios wherein we cannot find the motivations behind certain actions, and we know too well that asking someone why they are the way they are does not necessarily lead to a satisfactory or at the very least honest response.

Why is talking to each other difficult? In I am half-sick of shadows, Flavia got to confront Ophelia:
'Why do you hate me? Is it because I am more like Harriet than you are?'

'Hate you, Flavia? Do you really believe I hate you? Oh, how I wish I did! It would make things so much easier.'
They talked and in the talk something was learned yet nothing was resolved.

In the postlude, Flavia mused:
Was my life always to be like this? I wondered. Was it going to go, forever, in an instant, from sunshine to shadow? From pandemonium to loneliness? From fierce anger to a fiercer kind of love?

Something was missing. I was sure of it. Something was missing, but I couldn't for the life of me think what it was.
If it's any consolation, Flavia, those of us thrice your age have posed the same questions long ago and managed to reach this point, doing just fine—scathed as we may be, and perhaps ought to be—without any answer.

But then, what kind of life it would be where everywhere is sunshine? How can love be visible without the spectrum of emotions in which it shall be located?

Top Shelf