Thursday, February 08, 2018

Reader's Diary #1727- Ethel Wilson: Swamp Angel

Ethel Wilson's Swamp Angel was an unexpectedly great treat. I knew it had legendary CanLit status, but, well, it had legendary CanLit status. I expected it to be boring and dated, to be honest.

As for it being boring, I cannot say that some readers wouldn't still argue that opinion. It does come across at some points like it's setting up for a scene that will tie everything and everyone together, but it never really does. Towards the end, and noting how few pages left, I started to suspect this might be the case and I recalled an experiment by Milton Berle in which he set a joke up but swapped out the punchline for another unrelated, nonsensical and non-funny punchline. Due to the warm-up and Berle's rhythm the audience laughed anyway!

Perhaps I'm a bit like that audience as I enjoyed the novel anyway, but I do recognize that the plot leaves a lot of loose ends and questions.

I think what I enjoyed most was Wilson's great character studies. Most characters, including the protagonist Maggie Lloyd, begin as almost cardboard characters but then, as the book progresses, Wilson strips them down to essentials and builds them up again with complexities. She also uses pacing to complement the story, particularly with chapter lengths; some as short as single paragraphs, to show more rapid passing of time. And, some of her sentences are just stunners. I particularly liked a comment by Mrs. Severance, "Everything happens again and it's never the same."

Swamp Angel is rich in symbolism but openly has characters discuss objects as symbols. There's something simultaneously pragmatic and artistic about this approach that quite won me over.


Melwyk said...

I'm glad you found this one a good read despite it's CanLit rep ;) I know exactly what you mean. But I find all of Ethel Wilson's books really wonderful -- I think it might be time to reread this one since I first read it years ago. I love her tiny novel Hetty Dorval for its characters as well.

Kate said...

I read this one for a high school English class and loved it enough to buy a copy a few years later. But I have a sister who also read it for the same class/teacher and still rants about how much she hated it, 20 years later. (Seriously - last month when I visited her she was talking about Swamp Angel.)
I should re-read it again at some point when I regain access to my books.

Buried In Print said...

This is a big favourite of mine. Even though I do agree, that many readers would just find it boring. Like Melwyk, I am an Ethel Wilson fan to begin with (my next favourite would be "The Innocent Traveller") but this was the book that hooked me in. I'm so happy to read your thoughts on it, and to learn that you enjoyed it too - despite all the reasons you might not have done so!

John Mutford said...

Melwyk: Yes, I might just give Hetty Dorval a shot, too.

Kate: Interesting eh? I've often found that one's enjoyment of a book covered in school depends a lot on the teacher, but in you and your sister's case, enjoyment can't be chalked up that variable!

Buried in Print: I think my wife would say it was boring, to be honest. Though most of the action is at the very beginning, so she might already be hooked by that point.