A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker
I was surprised that I hadn’t seen anything about this novel before I stumbled across it on kindle. Jo Baker was one of my creative writing lecturers during my undergraduate degree, and her books are usually very well advertised across this whole area because she is a local author. Longbourn is still on prominent display in many bookshops, and there is a lot of excitement about the upcoming film adaptation. Yet I had seen nothing about A Country Road, A Tree in any of the bookshops and, though I have been keeping an eye out, I still haven’t seen much about it around. My best guess is that this is due to the subject material: Pride and Prejudice is much more well-known than the works of Samuel Beckett. However, having enjoyed Longbourn, I was looking forward to reading this new novel from Baker, despite my ignorance of the life of Beckett.
One of the main aspects which attracted me to the novel was that it was all about ‘Occupied’ and Vichy France during the Second World War, a period of French history that has always fascinated me. I had not realised that Beckett was living in France during this time, much less that he had helped the Resistance, so I enjoyed finding out more about everyday life during this period. It is clear that Baker has researched the subject well, and I was reminded why I find this period so interesting.
In many ways, it almost doesn’t matter whether you know much about Beckett or not: although Beckett’s partner Suzanne is named, Beckett himself is never named. With the narrative taking place from Beckett’s point of view, ‘The Irishman’ could be any Irish writer living in Paris during this time. This feels like a deliberate choice by Baker, broadening the scope of the novel from a simple retelling of Beckett’s life to an exploration of a relationship under extreme suffering in the roughest of circumstances. The dichotomy between Suzanne’s ‘just keep out of trouble’ and Beckett’s ‘just do something’ builds throughout the novel, reaching a tense climax as the narrative closes. For all that this is a retelling of Beckett’s life, it is also a novel about a couple trying not just to survive but to keep their relationship alive amidst the reality of war.
Despite never being named, Beckett is still very present throughout the novel: Baker’s writing style in this novel is much more minimalist than is shown in Longbourn, echoing Beckett’s own minimalism. It took a while to get used to this writing style, with every moment described in a bleak and understated manner. In addition to this, Baker leaves large gaps in the narrative at certain points, jumping from one point of action to another before the first is fully resolved. Yet, despite the time it takes for the reader to adjust to this format, Baker manages to balance it with enough emotion and sympathy for the characters that it never feels frustrating.
Overall, this was an engaging look at Occupied France and the pressure that living under such circumstances would put on a relationship. However, I did feel that I probably would have got more out of the novel if I was more familiar with Beckett and his works. I would definitely be interested to know how it reads to someone with a good grasp on Beckett. Taking this as a piece of historical fiction, though, this is a book I enjoyed and would recommend.