The Short Day Dying, Part 1: Favorite Passages
Sometimes I like a book just because I like it. I like a previous book by the author; I like the cover art; ok—maybe I like the person who recommended the book. (I guess we’re all permissive in some ways.) But I think I am usually a critical reader, evaluating a book on its merits or lack thereof.
Why the preamble? Because I am conscious that I am going to use some uncharacteristic superlatives in this post—and in case you haven’t read anything in my archives, I’m afraid you’ll think I gush about every book. I don’t. But I will about this one. As a dear friend of mine would say, this one is SUPERB. The themes are deeply intelligent, the period style authentic, the characterization convincing, the writing elegant. It is—I am going to use the word—breathtaking.
The Short Day Dying is Peter Hobbs’ debut novel. The story, in brief, is the spiritual crisis of Methodist lay preacher and apprentice blacksmith Charles Wenmouth in Cornwall, England, in 1870. Life is bleak is the mining community. Charles is young, lonely, poor, and sincere about offering hope even as he struggles with his own doubt, especially after the courageous and seemingly senseless death of an ill young woman he has befriended.
Hobbs writes in the style of a nineteenth-century personal narrative—little punctuation, but a broad vocabulary saturated with the King James Bible. If you have read unedited Puritan works or Civil War diaries, the style will be familiar. Dialogue without quotation marks take a little time to get used to, but then the cadence is steady. And the run-on sentences provide an unusual window to the characters’ emotional states.
Few modern works of fiction achieve this level of literary quality. I’ve decided it deserves (at least) two posts. So to conclude this first one, I reproduce below some of my favorite descriptive passages (you’ll note that nature and the physical landscape are prominent). In Part 2, I’ll post some of the questions I’ll be raising tomorrow night when I lead the discussion at Book Club B. Go read this book—and stay tuned as we delve deeper.
I have beaten out my angers on the anvil I have doused them in the water bucket with the scalding metal as I cooled it hoping they would boil away with the steam. The scorching heat removed from me. And I have made my peace with the Lord each evening but then it is aroused again the next day and there is no end to the provocation I have been feeling. (86).
Inside [the chapel] with the candle-dry warmth and dusty air it feels something like a stable a place for animals to shelter. Well perhaps it is not far from the truth we are all animals sleeping in the dark houses of the Lord not fit for true light. The candles fretted made darting shadows as though there were creatures moving along illumined walls at the edge of my vision hiding in the corners embracing the darkness but still eager to eavesdrop on the Word. (106)
The waves far beneath caught my eye they crashed white on black rocks a beautiful sight churning away but it seemed to threaten it were not like the morning. There were a contest between sea and these limestone cliffs and today it looked sure the sea would win it will still beat on the land when these rocks are worn away and we are gone before. (108)
My journey home were refreshing it felt much needed. The beeches on the road to St Germans have turned at last to brilliant copper their leaves having nurtured for so long the colour of a thick purple dye. They shimmered in the wind a bright metallic aspect to them even in the gathering dark. The moon were new beautiful and white a thin curve like milk spilt around the edge of a cup. (131)
The Lord commands fellowship for he comes where we are called to gather. And I feel as though I have been damned because I cannot abide that fellowship yet I believe my faith will not survive without it. The Church is lodged in me like a fishbone in my throat I cannot be rid of it but it threatens to choke me…. And all this while the tide of my faith retreats drawing back over the rough sands and leaving me by the shallows cut off from the land and the ocean both and unwilling to stride forth for either. (168)
It were hard to begin moving to dress and find some warmth. The air were wet and cold in the room a clamminess hung there with my breath becoming part of it. On the outside the window were finely patterned in ice it were quite beautiful the frost splayed in an intricate design as though there were some message in it if I but knew how to read the signs. The glass felt hot to the touch and sharp it nipped like an animal at my fingers. (181)