Wednesday, 3 May 2017

To every thing there is a season

Mr Wigg by Inga Simpson
(Hachette) Pp. 292

Mr Wigg is a widow who potters about his orchard, preserving fruit, listening to cricket, mourning his wife, telling stories to and cooking with his grandchildren, and watching as his new neighbours plant vines on the old farm land. The tagline is, “A novel that celebrates the small things in life”, and there is a gentle feel to the prose as it follows the seasons with planting, pruning, harvesting and preserving. This is deceptive, however, as there are spectres looming at the edges of progress and destruction; Vietnam and family rifts; ageing and loss.

Mr Wigg sees his fruit trees as personalities and imagines that they talk to each other with personalities and petty jealousies. The orchard encapsulates all his memories and aspirations. Inga Simpson writes of the different fruit like a poetic greengrocer, but always in Mr Wigg’s words, conjuring them and their stories from the air and the soil. Who knew that the provenance of these common fruits would be interesting? It is, because Mr Wigg remains in awe of the fruits he grows, engaging the reader with his ruminating non-didactic style.

Fruit isn’t always sweet, and neither, for all its bucolic images of collecting eggs, pruning fruit trees and chopping wood, is farming. Mr Wigg’s son frequently visits him to remind him of the things he can no longer do with his Parkinson’s and forgetfulness. Mr Wigg used to help the blacksmith and now has his tools; making things in his shed with the honest labour of the land. He invents a fruit-drying machine, but when he attempts to build one from his sketches, he has an accident with the bench saw. He fights against modernisation because he enjoys the old ways; why should he use time-saving devices when he doesn’t know what to do with his extra time?

His attitudes are also archaic, and it is his inherent sexism which caused a family schism. It never occurred to him to interest his daughter in the running of the farm; always assuming his son would take over. When he gives the farm to his son and nothing to his daughter, she is understandably upset, and lawyers become involved.

His late wife dominates his thoughts, as one would expect. Their relationship was full of love but not without irritation. He captures the momentous (such as family conflict and illness) along with the mundane: “His wife had buttoned his shirt cuffs for him even before the Parkinson’s came on. His dress shirts, in particular, had such tiny buttonholes.” He initially struggles with the pointlessness of existence without her, but he comes to realise that, “Life had a way of going on whether you were interested or not, and then you found yourself taking pleasure in a few small things, and a few more.”

Future generations provide continuity, and his happiest moments are with his grandchildren, cooking and telling stories. “Not everything that is new is better”; but not everything that is new is bad, either.