10. Windflower by Nick Bantock

Published in 2006 by Chronicle Books.

I was seduced, once. Part of that seduction was the gift of the incomparable Griffin and Sabine books, a multilayered, visually arresting collection of the correspondence shared by two extraordinary, magically-linked soulmates. Is it any wonder, then, that my heart skipped a beat when I spied the lushly-presented (Chronicle Books, hardcover) Windflower, nestled between two monotonous bestsellers at my local library? Since catapulting myself headfirst in love with Griffin and Sabine, I’d added everything Nick Bantock has ever written to my must-explore list. This was a book about which I’d been breathlessly excited, so I found a quiet nook of the library, and, Laura Marling crooning whisper-low through my headphones, I lost myself in another of Nick Bantock’s compelling—albeit decidedly less so—creative offerings.

Windflower is Ana’s story. She is a young woman, skilled in the cante jondo, who seeks to restore the life-preserving, nomadic spirit to her people, the Capolan, who have become distressingly landlocked, through choice, over the years. With none of her tribespeople, except her sage grandfather, able to discern that her impending marriage would be disastrous to her future dreams of rejuvenating the Capolan through dance, Ana flees her village. She runs to the seaport town of Serona, in search of Felix Bulerias, the man she’s been told can guide her in her quest to channel the inner fires of her dance. Instead, she encounters four very different men, each intoxicating and mysterious in his own manner. By turns enchanted, perplexed and emboldened by Serona’s exotic wares and compelling figures, and haunted by the dual burden-privilege of her responsibility to her people, can Ana discover herself in her greatest passion of all: her connection to the Eternal Dance?

I could not help but think of the plot progression of a Disney princess title, both as I read Windflower and as I revisit it now. This is not necessarily, perilously a bad thing, but the overall effect is far out of the orbit of my expectations. It isn’t that the novel isn’t good. Indeed, the work feels lovingly hewn in both design and thematic. Bantock has created all of the paintings and drawings that appear, as one continuous footnote-mosaic, in the novel from beginning to end. In the details of these elaborately compiled page-tiles, it is easy enough to discern traces of the artist’s eerily mesmerizing style. Alas, though strange and lovely to behold, nothing of this border-art compelled me beyond a calm appreciation, when what I’d hoped to do was clamour for more. In this case, more of the same would just have produced further demonstrations of cool regard.

To speak further on thematic and content, Bantock has crafted a story that must surely appeal to most, hence the Disney-esque charm, perhaps. There is pleasure in reading of the four men who entrance Ana:

♣ Boreos, a handsome, commanding businessman who incites a fever pitch of lust in Ana, while simultaneously leaving her in doubt of her autonomy in his presence

♣ the chivalrous, middle-aged man of means, Mr. Hamattan, who platonically woos Ana into teaching him the flute, and gets her closest to Felix Bulerias (but at what cost?)

♣ Zephyr, Ana’s animated fellow tenant and fledgling pilot, who lends wings to her spirit, but is unable to reign in his jealous suspicions of her other admirers

♣ Sirocco, the lean, mysterious foreigner who channels passion and purpose into Ana’s cante jondo, but wants her to dance to his beat above all others

Amidst the chasms and crests of her adventures with these four, Ana often turns to the lovely and worldly Halle, who becomes her co-worker, landlady, confidante and adviser. Though she struggles with finding her own voice, which often gets tangled up in the mire of others’ best intentions for her, nothing about our protagonist’s journey struck me as particularly tortuous. At most turns, Ana is surrounded by encouraging friends, a raucous yet pleasant workplace, and a quartet of attractive men vying for her attention.

Bantock does set obstacles in Ana’s path to self-actualization, yes. He does pepper the landscape of her many happy Serona days with doubt and trepidation, but I couldn’t help but think that Ana’s path was much more smoothly-paved than that of the average teenage runaway bride who flees to a city completely unknown to her, in which she knows no one, in which her people are routinely marginalized, in which she is a petite, unaccompanied young woman with a pocketful of dowry coin, ripe for the picking.

It is my expectation of ‘more’ that hinders a glowing review of this fine novel. The story is fine and well-rendered, in language that is fine, and on occasion, ascends to a sublimeness of expression. The resolution of Ana’s fate (and that of her people’s) was fine, in a satisfyingly foreseeable way. This is a fine book, truly, to add to any collection of Nick Bantock’s oeuvre, but I daresay it is not his best.

“No longer governed by her mind, her feet steered her body. The tune was not mournful, though it was melancholy. Never speeding, it gyrated within its solitude. She traced it around and around the rooftop until eventually the rain began to fall more violently and she could no longer hear any music, just water drops striking the tiles. Their staccato beat broke her hypnotic swirl, and she began to dance to the drum of the rain. Faster and faster she whirled until she lifted her face to the clouds and laughed out of sheer pleasure.”

7. The Tattooed Map by Barbara Hodgson

Published in 1995 by Chronicle Books.

“My arm no longer belongs to me. It’s become another thing — to be admired and studied but not a functional object. It no longer carries my watch; it feels too precious to be made to hold things and I can’t bear to touch myself in case it spreads even further. As I become detached from it, I can admire and appreciate its physical beauty as though it were a map drawn out over months of exploration and study, but the moment I remember it’s mine, a part of me, I reel with nausea.”

Lydia and Christopher are the oldest and best of travelling companions. Former lovers and perennially out-of-sorts friends, they are perfectly attuned to the other’s idiosyncracies, without suffering them gladly. The two embark upon a meticulously planned journey to Morocco, intending to stay in North Africa for six months. Chris, a shrewd antiques dealer, scours the cities they visit for prized furnishings requested by his well-to-do clients, consulting his arsenal of haughtily precise buying lists.

Lydia, on the other hand (hands being a point of importance in The Tattooed Map, but more on that anon), is, by her own blithe confession, “just happy to wander. If I had my way, I would wander forever and ever.” After an uncomfortable layover in a disreputable motel, Lydia awakens with what she initially believes to be a cluster of flea bites on her left hand. During her days of heady exploration and documentation of Morocco’s multifaceted faces, Lydia observes, bemused, as the red puckers on her skin morph into an increasingly detailed map. The more Lydia attempts to unearth the secrecy surrounding her skin-inheritance, the more fevered she grows with semi-lucid dreaming. Her wanderings towards the truth of the tattoo take her beyond the grasp of the reader, and halfway through the journal, the confused, distressed Christopher turns to the same form of archiving he initially scorned—he keeps Lydia’s journal, both proprietorially and actively. His entries follow her own, each one an echo of her voice, each one hoping against hope that he will see her again.

Lovers of ephemera, of detailed dealings in flotsam and jetsam: The Tattooed Map will be a gold-starred destination on your literary sojourns. The novel is an archivist’s dream, bordered and fringed with annotations of addresses, grammatical conjugations in foreign tongues, pencilled-in calendars, rows of photograph details, sketches and schedules, of tattered post-its and sepia postcards. Nor does what would ‘normally’ be themed marginalia live merely in the margins of Barbara Hodgson’s freshman offering—maps, leaflets, full-page illustrations unfurl and explode across the shared journal. That which is pictorally visual carries as much importance as what is scripted. Hodgson has achieved an enviable balance of drawing us in through text and art. (I urge the furrow-browed cynic not to think of the concept that fuels The Tattooed Map as a carefully contrived, convenient marriage between scrapbooking and Photoshop, but rather like the brainchild-project of an author and an artist on vacation. Then, marvel at the fact that Hodgson is both author and artist on this lavish endeavour.)

I read the book in one fevered setting—to fully embrace this confessional rant/purloined pocketbook of a pair of lost and longing travellers, a first, urgent reading feels like the most authentic approach. The mysteries of Lydia’s  branding with a growingly elaborate cartographic plan, and her subsequent disappearance, held me in their thrall. I was unprepared, however,  for the emotionally satisfying journey of Christopher’s stilted, half-crazed forays into unearthing odd truths, in his quest to reclaim his missing friend.Somewhere along this sepia-studded, map-fragmented journey, my mind declared itself a willing and active participant in the baffling mystery at the core of The Tattooed Map. I hungered for an answer that would stymie and spellbind me, a plot machination of hefty and impressive weight.

I was dismayed not to find an answer, therefore. The last few pages of the novel seemed to sweep up in a rush to meet my impatient hands. I turned a page, hoping to have my fears for Lydia either quelled, or released in a grateful sigh—to meet blankness. The end of the book resembles nothing so much (initially) as a well-timed slap in the face, not one that is unkind, but rather, matter of fact. It is a proclamation that, perhaps archly, declares, “Well, what did you expect? This isn’t The Da Vinci Code, after all. You should have known better than to search for some fantastic, absolute overarching set of theorems and loopholes that fall neatly into place.”

In any fictional tale that shies away from clear cut propositions in plot resolution, if there is no happy, formulaic ending, then it follows naturally that there is no ending suffused with sadness, either. In fact, I will leave it up to you, dear reader, to discover how much of an ending there is. Will you be ultimately frustrated or fascinated by the peregrination of this novel, which resembles a thousand spiral staircases curling upwards towards some infinite, unknowable end? You may not love this ending, but it would be a challenge not to love the journey. To pass on The Tattooed Map would be to deny your wanderer’s spirit a whirling-dervish adventure, despite the possibly disquieting dust cloud it leaves in its wake.

“Only your skin and your tears will allow you this journey.”