Do not expect a straightforward narrative from this novel. It is there, there’s a beginning and an end, characters and events (it begins with a traumatic event from which eventually resolves itself) but even this event is at first disguised, its effects circling around it, only explained farther in, and even then the narrative you are waiting for does not pick up and proceed, and you realize it is not that kind of book. It is a tapestry of reactions pinned to a line of pragmatically described yoga exercises that form the nearest you are going to get to a narrative frame.
I sit on the yoga mat kept permanently by my bed. With legs ahead of me, feet flexed, and back straight I begin;
Breathe in deeply through the nose. Hold to the count of three. Exhale through the nose to the count of five. Breathe in deeply, exhale, breathe in. Focus yourself entirely on the spontaneous action of the nostrils, on the rising of the chest. Breathe.
On the other hand, the layout is expansive and easy: each section starts with an exercise and there are many illustrations – enigmatic black and white photos by the author make the book visually spacious and inviting. This is a near solipsistic story of one woman’s fragmented consciousness as she experiences her world after trauma. She moves through it in an often deliberate trance of inner dissociation, a fugue state, and what makes the book so good is that Heather Gartside is able to write about this inner life with clarity and unaffected observational powers. An ordinary prosperous good-looking creative European woman, with an ordinary family, suffers a fairly ordinary but shattering event and the book is a description from within as she, in turn, struggles with and succumbs to an aftermath of pain and disorientation, all seen from the inside, and described with a certain detachment and even humour, against the intrusive small realities of daily life. I have a picture of the novel as fluid – there is indeed a recurrent image of the disturbed surface of a lotus pond – others where raptors hurl themselves against the car as she drives, or where demons, sometimes invited, overwhelm the reality of a walk in the park. To me, the beautifully and accurately described details of the world – hospital equipment as she watches at her husband’s bedside, or later, in India, sudden small details of the sounds and smells and colours of the Ashram – these ground her despite her distracted inner life -. the feel of her bare feet on the dusty road,
Skeptically, without real knowledge about their actions but full of good cheer, the students made offerings at shrines along the way like in a theme park, and drank strong sweet tea in ancient hostels. But by midday they had begun to visibly wither from the relentless strength of the sun and the rough terrain under their naked feet.
Her naked squatting body as she bathes in the morning pouring water from a bucket over herself,
The large plastic bucket was filled with tepid water from a tap, she squatted down on the floor and poured beakers of water over her body. It was unusual in its intimacy with herself, but not at all disagreeable in comparison to the powerful shower heads in Denmark that startled her awake every day. Still squatting, her new ritual was followed by soaping, rigorous scrubbing and lavish rinsing with clean water as she gradually stood upright. She didn’t bother with her hair so much; it had become wild and wavy, the soft curls framing her slightly freckled face and with the last soap suds trickling into the drain we see her glossy and beautiful in the mothering moonlight.
Even to the wet concrete floor under her feet.
The alarm intruded and abruptly woke her, the meditation had offered her a condensed rest which compounded itself as she surveyed the shabby half-lit room and the desire to be clean and out of it. Back in Denmark her first waking feeling was often dread for the coming day, here it was a simpler reluctance to wash in cold water from a stained bucket while squatting on some decayed concrete floor. But she relented and washed vigorously, drenching the stinking room in extravagant splashes of perfumed European products in a hope to mask the inevitable odour of humanity which the sultry climate always leached.
Daily she practices yoga for hours to attain spiritual calm and emptiness, yet at the same time, the writer never allows her to lose a very clear sense of herself as a stranger from another culture with all its contrasts and contradictions. Ms. Gartside can describe a colourful, busy street and suddenly, the Western hippies seen there as vague and transfixed – their search and her own observed from within her own with humour and sympathy.
On this languid evening, she revolved around the temple delicately primed with rawness and pain. She slid past other devotees and bemused hippies reverently gazing at frangipani garlands, and gilded inscriptions under gaudily painted deities. The humble space where the interred bones of the saint lay hummed with possibilities; psychic, spiritual, miraculous – take your pick. With head lowered, she gazed at her hands which were clasped in the feminine yoni mudra, the chosen whispered mantra playing upon her lips, and her bare feet connected to the earth as she began her journey.
To recall her distant children is a task (she imagines touching a sleeping cheek with the back of her hand), the impoverished Ashram cook’s simple love is an amazement, her similar tragedy and far more helpless circumstances determines her to charity – and when she departs the cook is given all her toiletries and some money towards a home.
For me, these surface details ground the novel in the real world, yet the self-absorption of the protagonist, even at its most isolated, self-seeking, or silly, never loses our sympathy – this is what marks the special quality of this book. Through Heather Gartside’s skill the reader recognizes her, and through her, realizes a communion of many human lives – how we all suffer, cope and continue.
By Heather Spears. Canadian poet, writer, and artist.
Heather Gartside will be reading from Middle Distance at an event in Copenhagen on Friday the 11th of January 2019. There will be an exhibition of illustrations, as well as the book on sale until the 19th of January. More details here.