With thanks to Holland Park Press for the review copy.
Winegarden is a novella set in Birmingham, which I found surprisingly compelling, comic and poignant by turns, it is literary and thought provoking and I am delighted I had a chance to read it. Naturally I love books set in Birmingham, a retired Professor, Anthony Ferner, is a member of the Birmingham, Tindal Street fiction group who have previously brought us Gaynor Arnold and Fiona Joseph among many others. This will be a short review – a short review for a short book – it’s a book I feel will be difficult to review. The premise of it could make it sound very dull indeed – but I urge anyone who likes thought-provoking, unusual novellas to give this one a try.
“Jacob Winegarden climbs the stairs and stops outside the bedroom. It is eleven o’clock, but Miriam is not drinking coffee at the kitchen table, nor is she bending over the pungent roses in the south-facing flower beds. She is still in bed, asleep, or awake. Now he will be brave. He knows his bravery will alter the way atoms and the particles of atoms interact and this will change the behaviour of medium-sized bodies, like wives for example. He lays his fingers on the door knob. He hesitates, contemplating the back of his hand, the finely wrinkled skin like tide-rippled sand and the pale brown spots and the veins glinting in the bluish light filtering into the corridor from the high round window. It is a moment containing all possibilities, of being and not-being. He turns the knob and goes in.”
Jacob Winegarden is a Jewish philosophy professor of ‘Non Empirical Experimentation’ at Birmingham University. A large, vague man, easily distracted, he is constantly beset with questions surrounding his wife Miriam of whom he is still, after many years completely infatuated by. We encounter the much younger Winegarden, courting his beloved Miriam – at a garden party in Moseley.
“ ’Have you been doing interesting things?’ she asked him, with the usual trace of ironic amusement in her voice. To him she was very beautiful.
‘Well perhaps not interesting to you, but to me interesting, yes I’ve been exploring incredibly small things and incredibly large things…’
‘What, like microbes and whales, I suppose?’
More like electrons and galaxies. And you can’t understand one without the other.’
She looked at him with her magnetic grey eyes, and he felt hollow inside, as if all the tubing and pipework of his body were empty, with a dipping sensation like on fairground rides.
‘And what about the world we actually live in?’ she said. ‘Do you do anything in this world at all?’
‘Hmm. The cinema, I suppose. Did you see Fantastic Voyage?’ “
Unexpectedly perhaps, Winegarden is a big fan of Toy Story and Fantastic Voyage, but then he does rather live in a world of his own. Born into a traditionally religious family – Winegarden has lived his adult life as an agnostic, he doesn’t believe that God exists, and he doesn’t believe that he doesn’t. In his novella Anthony Ferner considers the unknowability of things, in a way that is profound, clever and intellectually challenging.
Through a series of events in the life of Jacob Winegarden – presented to us non-chronologically – we gradually discover what made Jacob the man he is. Winegarden considers the questions of the cat in Schrodinger’s box – (hence the cat on the cover – no harm comes to any cats) giving us a flavour of his work. We see him as he meets and falls in love with Miriam, his wedding, where he is embarrassed by an outburst by his German father. While staying in a remote cottage with a friend who has a young child, discussing questions of philosophy, Jacob finds himself running for help when the child develops a fever. We meet Jacob at different times in his life – the story spanning several decades, encountering him in a nursing home, his memory fading, planning a Great Escape style retreat with the help of Bad Bob.
Haunted sometimes by the things he cannot know, Jacob Winegarden also fears truth. A novel about faith, grief, philosophy and what is means to be Jewish, Winegarden is a wise and funny little book which left me with a lump in my throat.