Book Review: Birthstone by D.M. Thomas

Posted: November 11, 2013 by Lee in book review, fiction, novel review

Golding and Thomas won critical acclaim for their fiction in the twentieth century, but their lack of direct engagement with Cornwall in their work means that few even realise that they are Cornish.”1

So I wrote in March last year.  In the 1980’s, for probably the only time, Cornish writers were the recipients of critical acclaim and sales recognition as never before or since.  It was during this time that Rosamunde Pilcher made the break from Mills & Boon writer to international bestseller, with the widely praised The Shell Seekers, a book later adapted for television in several different countries.  The Cornish setting of that book was overt but the Cornishness of D.M. Thomas and William Golding, despite each writer’s very real pride in their roots, could easily escape the attention of any reader.  Both writers were as commercially successful (give or take a million or so books!) as Pilcher and yet they met with even more critical acclaim than she did.  Golding, still most famous for his debut – Lord of the Flies, won both the Booker (for Rites of Passage) and the Nobel prizes in that decade while Thomas was also shortlisted for the former with his novel The White Hotel.

Thomas stopped writing novels at the end of that decade and returned to his first love, poetry.  Recently perusing his website I was interested to see that he had embarked on a project in 2010 to read all of his own novels: something which he had famously never done for any of them since publication.  Imagine my surprise then, on reading this sentence in his overview of the project: “Pleasant surprises: The authentic working-class Cornishness in ‘Birthstone’ –far from the imported ‘Cornishness’ of a Du Maurier”2Birthstone was only Thomas’s second published novel and certainly not his most famous, perhaps that is why I had missed it?  Thomas goes on to say of his his reading:

“My first attempt at a novel, after 20 years of poetry only. Fearing I wouldn’t be able to fill up 200-odd pages, I threw in all my obsessions, like a mad cook. They included: Cornwall, ancient stones, sex, psychoanalysis, Cornish dialect, stockings, suspenders, my mother, my father, my sister. (Well, the last three aren’t obsessions, only memorable figures in my life.) The resultant dish I still like.
Perhaps strangely, it’s my only novel where I’ve ‘explored’ Cornwall and Cornish characters and speech.
I revised it for the Penguin paperback edition. My editor had said there were too many ‘bodily fluids’! There are still quite a few.”3

S1421072o, what to make of it?  In light of Thomas’s revisions, I should first make plain that the copy I read is the revised edition, although oddly published by Gollancz and not Penguin.

There are, indeed, still quite a few bodily fluids – blood, piss, sperm – you name it, it’s here. It has to be said that there’s also a hell of a lot of rather kinky sex, although not written to titillate. Both these aspects feed into the Freudian aspect of the novel, which is strong. The protagonist is schizophrenic, often losing several days at a time to one of her many other personalities. These consume her consciousness, leaving her with no memory of her actions (or, rather, of her alter-egos’ actions) and an inordinate amount of Irish-Catholic guilt. Yes, the novel may be Cornish but the protagonist is not. I’ve noted in past reviews that the outsider is a familiar and useful character through which to explore notions of identity and here we have several. Given Thomas’s comments, above, perhaps it’s fairer to read this novel in those terms than the last time I did so. Here, there are several outsiders and each contributes to the novel in a different way.

The protagonist I have mentioned – she is our window into this world and the vessel through which we explore ideas of psychological problems and Cornishness. A second, minor, character is an Oxford academic who is presented as starchy and aloof – a clear contrast to the other characters that helps to underline ‘the otherness of Cornwall’, to borrow a phrase from Bernard Deacon and Philip Payton. Superficially, this character and the next two I’ll mention could be taken to be lazy stereotypes but they’re saved from this fate by superb writing: even the smallest dramatis personae come to life on the page, made substantial by Thomas’s prose. The final two outsiders are arguably the two largest and most important members of the cast beyond the protagonist: an American tourist couple with whom she stays. From Grass Valley, the Bolithos are here to visit ‘the old country’:

‘We’ve been pronouncing our name wrong all these years! According to the registrar – who’s a real dish – it’s Bol-eýe-tho! Would you believe it? Don’t you think it sounds nicer, honey? From now on we’re Mr and Mrs Bol-eýe-tho. Okay?’

The Bolithos, of course, represent a distinct aspect of Cornishness – the diaspora. Although earnest they are not so much seeking their roots as embracing them – they sing the same hymns after all. From their point of view, they are Cornish and see no impediment to their fitting in locally and having a good time. The diasporic theme is further explored through the character of Frank Wearne, who has travelled the world, working down the mines of almost every white settler state and Mexico – a country recently keen (long after this book was written) to promote its Cornish heritage (museums, diplomatic visits and heritage ties) – whose impacts are explored briefly but touchingly. The visitors are staying in Pendeen and, at this time, there was of course an active mine still offering employment in the village. Geevor, though, remains a shadowy presence in the novel – glimpsed but not explored – and most miners present in the text are either dead or retired as if, in the 1970’s, Thomas is acutely aware of the shift that is taking place in the Duchy from heavy industry to tourism as a principle source of income.

Nowhere is this  better represented than in the Polglaze family: Arthur Polglaze also travelled the diaspora in his youth but is now a successful local builder looking towards retirement in a bungalow of his own making. His wife, Elsie, is that prototypical Cornish mother: a blur of activity as she chatters and bakes; cooking, washing and cleaning for half the village and tourists alike, twenty or even ten years later she’d most probably be running a café or a B&B. When we first meet them it’s for Sunday dinner, followed by a service at the Methodist chapel where their son, Tom, is a steward. Tom is a product of this changing Cornwall (indeed, at one point the protagonist describes him as a ‘changeling’ – a word she uses to describe her own condition) – at once the perfect Cornish son, a lighthouse officer and rugby forward as well as a Methodist steward, he is also a popular figure in the pub, where he drinks and smokes with the best of them, and with the ladies – he’s not afraid to take advantage of the tourists. Like all the locals here, he exhibits an earthy humour – good-naturedly playing on people’s misconceptions.

His old man, he played in the band. Music is perhaps the most overt manifestation of Cornish culture in the book: songs and hymns are sung not just by the choir and by the Bolithos but at every gathering and the brass band is never far away. Perhaps that is a side of Cornish culture, perhaps on the wane, visible only to insiders: I remember seeing an interview with Jack Shepherd once in which he discussed his direction of a Wycliffe TV episode (‘Standing Stone’), he noted that brass bands were a theme in W.J. Burley’s novels but he felt that a folk band was more authentic and appropriate. Music is a powerful symbol. It’s probably fair to say that if music is associated with Cornwall at all these days it’s not the communal activity that it once was. Music is though, something to which the poet can relate. Birthstone is clearly written by a poet: Thomas’s prose is bewitching; conjuring images and playing with words and references effortlessly. It’s also an occasionally difficult but richly rewarding read, dealing adroitly with many of the themes identified in the ‘New Cornish Studies’ (as well as Freud) before ever that term came to be used in a way that is both insightful and light-handed whilst remaining relevant.

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  1. 1. Broderick, L.G., 2012. Whither Cornish Literature?. http://thecornishrepublican.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/wither-cornish-literature.html.  Accessed 4/11/12.
  2. Thomas, D.M., 2012.  Novels. http://www.dmthomasonline.net/articles.html.  Accessed 4/11/12.
  3. Thomas, D.M., 2012. Novels – Brithstone. http://www.dmthomasonline.net/articles_122938.html. Accessed 4/11/12.
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