So this week has inadvertently turned into book swap week. On Wednesday, Jenny reviewed Tooth and Claw, which I asked her to read this year, and today I’m reviewing one of her choices for me, The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West.
Jenny wrote a detailed and glowing review of The Fountain Overflows when she read it last year, so if you want to know what the book’s about, do go read her review. I’ll just content myself with a short summation and note a few of the things I found interesting about the book.
The Fountain Overflows is a family story, told from the point of view of Rose Aubrey, one of the twin middle daughters in a family of four children. Rose chronicles the various incidents that stand out from her childhood—evicting a poltergeist from a relative’s home, getting to know a murderer’s family, bewailing her untalented older sister’s burgeoning music career, comforting her mother and she deals with the fallout from her father’s latest irresponsible act. The narrative is episodic, but it doesn’t feel fragmented because Rose’s voice remains the same, with its coolness and maturity that manages still to maintain a child’s perspective.
One notion that comes up repeatedly is the way family shapes identity—and the way a person’s family of origin feels normal, even when it isn’t. Rose and the other Aubrey children know they’re unconventional, and they know their father is irresponsible, but their family is so much a part of who they are that having a different sort of life feels impossible. And their life isn’t so bad. They have their music and their books and the means to help neighbors in need. When they come in close contact with other families, families where there’s overt abuse or where the children are ignored, the children is those families likewise recognize some of the things that are wrong but also see their families as parts of themselves that they cannot break away from.
This idea of family as inseparable from self takes on a different light toward the end of the novel. One family member simply walks away, leaving a hole, but one that the family immediately builds a wall around and makes part of the landscape. Everyone was prepared for this to happen, sad as it is, there were signs that it was coming. It later becomes evident that another of the Aubreys has long wanted that seemingly impossible separation. Interestingly, though, she sought her way out using music, the very means most valued by the family. Her family showed her what not to be—and also what she could be.
I’m not sure what I expected when I picked up this book. I had read Jenny’s review when she first read it, but I hadn’t remembered much about it. I think I had the idea that her writing was more complex and experimental, and perhaps her other books are, but her writing here is straightforward. There’s a great deal going on under the surface—and once in a while you have to read between the lines to see things Rose doesn’t—but the style is not demanding. It’s the characters and the situation and life itself that create the complications of this book. But it’s also a perfectly enjoyable read when considered simply as a very well-written story of an unusual family making its way through the world. Which ideas to delve into and how deeply to dig are entirely up to the reader.