A Stone’s Throw
233 pages • Serpent’s Tail • April 5, 2012 [HB]
“‘We’re like Crusoe on his lonely beach,’ Benjamin said. He lay back, shielding his eyes from the sun, his body soft, curved now. ‘If only he and Friday…Would’ve been perfect then’ ‘Or Achilles and the boy he loved,’ Will said.”
This subtle, poignant, multi-layered family saga presents a haunting exploration of familial and sexual love, duty and self-determination in which the quality of the writing, both elusive and allusive, makes for a profoundly moving and satisfying read.
Opening in England in the inter-War years and moving to Africa at the outbreak of World War II, then forward in time through the following decades back in post-war England, Fiona Shaw’s fourth novel explores the complexities of human relationships, especially those within families, against a backdrop of historic social upheaval and changing sexual mores.
Following the lives of a mother, Meg, and her son, Will, A Stone’s Throw is a work of two distinct halves, deftly stitched together by Shaw into a satisfying whole.
The first half of the novel tells the story of Meg Bryan, with flashbacks to her early childhood and her older brother, Will’s, puzzling disappearance with their father. Vague memories of Will and her father haunt Meg’s dreams into adulthood as she tries to piece together a mystery, which is only resolved many years later.
At the outbreak of World War II Meg takes ship to Africa to meet her affianced, George Garrowby, a stolid, reliable colonial administrator whom she doesn’t love but feels will make a good husband. On board she meets the Richardsons, an older couple who take her under their wing for the duration of the voyage. She also meets, fleetingly and passionately, a young soldier, Jim Cooper, who is in a platoon being transported overseas to fight and whom the civilian passengers are expressly forbidden to mix with.
Meg’s transgressive liaison with Jim demonstrates the impetuosity and strength of character hiding behind her demure, innocent exterior – characteristics which will stand her in good stead when the ship is attacked and sunk by a German U-boat. Eventually reunited on dry land with loyal but dull George she takes up the circumscribed life and duties of a colonial wife and rears her three young children in an African village with the help of house servants but none from her husband.
The second part of the novel deals with Will, Meg’s eldest son to George (or is he?), whom she has named in memory of her lost brother. The family has returned, for the sake of the children’s education, to England where we find a teenage Will passionately in love with his fellow sixth-former and chum, Benjamin. This is where, for me, the novel really takes off, with a delicate, beautifully-observed exploration of the pleasure and pain of adolescent gay love and loss – the shocking climax of which had this reviewer in tears.
Will’s young lover is introduced to us thus: “Benjamin slept like a dancer. That’s what he reminded Will of. Lying on his side with one arm above his head and the other out across the floor, his fingers spread like an invitation; and his legs leaping as if caught by some ancient sculptor on an ancient frieze.” Such classical allusions to boy-love are enhanced by the boys’ athletic, outdoor pursuits of sailing, swimming and adventure. Is there also a hint of the Germanic Blutsbrüderschaft or blood-brotherhood?: “Their arms were scratched with their efforts; like initiation marks, Will thought, in a sacred place.”
But such blissful idylls are not destined to last in literature (and perhaps rarely, if ever, in life) and in his attempt to assuage the grief of Ben’s tragic loss, Will marries his friend Barbara. After the birth of their daughter, Cassie, however, his suppressed gay nature reasserts itself in an anonymous sex act following a brief encounter on a London bridge: “But while Cassie thrived, his marriage died. The boy on the bridge had unlocked something in him and soon he was living a second life that had its geography mapped out in secret places and borrowed times.”
As in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the sea is an ever-present backdrop and metaphor of emotional turmoil. In this story of human striving for understanding, love and reconciliation its title, A Stone’s Throw, I believe refers to Will’s efforts to achieve a closer relationship with his young daughter following his painful divorce from her mother. But it might also refer to how much closer we could all be to one another if only we tried harder for empathy. Will teaches Cassie how to skim beach pebbles across the water: “Gently, smoothly, the sea came in, the gentle waves darkening her jeans. Will watched and waited. He wished he knew his daughter better. When she turned he saw the anger in her face, and hurt. ‘Show me how,’ she said.”
Will’s deepening relationship with his young daughter after all the emotional and physical upheaval that has gone before is the dying fall which brings the novel to its low-key yet uplifting conclusion.