Jo Baker is a literary chameleon. I have witnessed her slip into the words of two very different authors now and have been utterly convinced each time. In Longbourn, Baker gave us another perspective on Pride and Prejudice. In A Country Road, A Tree, Baker dips into the life and words of Samuel Beckett as he struggles to physically and mentally survive World War II. I hate to say it this way, considering the enormous amount of death and suffering the war brought, but this war might have the making of Beckett as a writer and thinker.
Baker never names her narrator in A Country Road, A Tree, but it doesn’t take much to work out who the central figure is. Not naming him, I think, made it possible for me to enjoy this book without running to Wikipedia to fact check everything. Still, there are echoes of Beckett’s work in this novel, but what struck me most was the way that Baker captured his fatalistic, Impressionistic way of seeing the world. (Beckett scholars can take issue with me on this as much as they like. I only have enough familiarity with Beckett’s work to laugh at Waiting for Godot jokes.)
We meet the nameless Beckett just before the war breaks out in 1939. He is depressed and sunk into a funk of writer’s block in his apartment in Paris. His lover and partner, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, cares for him as much as anyone can. We know early on that Beckett has been recently released from hospital after recovering from a stabbing and there are hints that he has had psychiatric treatment for some unnamed malady. I could’ve looked up what really happened, but I was content to let Baker show me through her resurrected Beckett what happened.
After the Nazis invade France, Beckett and Suzanne flee south for a few months but return to Paris when the situation stabilizes somewhat. Unfortunately, they wander into near-famine and the oppressive paranoia of a city ruled by the Gestapo. Friends start to disappear. Beckett, haunted by his mother’s words that he is useless, begins to work for the Resistance as an intelligence analyst. The stakes for the pair rise almost unbearably as they get more and more involved. Just when it seems that Beckett will become a great hero of the Resistance (and he did receive a croix de guerre and a médaille de Résistance for his service), the hammer falls and he and Suzanne must flee south before they are sent to Drancy and the concentration camps.
A Country Road, A Tree is not so much a biography of the events of Beckett’s life as it is a reimagining of the evolution of an original mind. As Beckett starves, flees, and fights, his mind is always returning to questions of meaning. He is a keen observer, always listening more than he speaks. The novel shows us his mind at work as he focuses on some decaying object and, in the plainest language, uses it as a symbol of how life—no matter how despairing, disgusting, or pointless—carries on. I think my favorite part of the novel is when Beckett stumbles across a fellow Irish writer deep in rural France who tells him that, if nothing else, we should carry on living to spite those who wish us ill.
This is a remarkable book. I don’t know that it will be as popular as Longbourn. That book had a huge built in audience and I don’t know if Beckett’s fans are as hungry for more as Austen’s. Even if you’re not a Beckett fan, A Country Road, A Tree is still enjoyable as strange journey through World War II from a new perspective.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 17 May 2016.