Joanna Scott: Fading, My Parmacheene Belle
Joanna Scott’s first novel attracted mixed reviews. It is a wildly inventive novel – not at all what you expect from a first novel, but much more like the novel of a mature writer – written almost like a fable, telling of a backwoodsman/angler who often speaks in an archaic almost biblical language and who sets out on a picaresque search, meeting semi-mythical people on the way. It is a sort of a cross between Angela Carter and Jeb Butterworth’s Jerusalem.
The unnamed narrator has been married to the same woman for fifty-three years. He is critical of her because she let her father live with them till the father died and he feels that her father impaired her to the extent that she was unable to reproduce. They did have one child – a mentally handicapped child who lives in a home and whom the narrator refers to as The Idiot. She had conceived another child but was so ill that she had to have an operation, which revealed a five-week old foetus. At the beginning of the book, she is clearly dying of cancer. Indeed, before she goes into hospital for the last time, she cleans up the house and lays out his best suit (presumably for her funeral; he will not wear it). Even so, he blames her for abandoning him. But he also blames Gibble.
The novel works on several levels and one of the levels is an extended fishing metaphor. The Parmacheene Belle of the title is a type of fishing fly (the most taking fly, made of feather and belly fin in the old-fashioned way) but it is also the name the narrator gives his wife, as she lured him as a fly lures a fish. It was Gibble, his companion, who introduced him to his wife, she being Gibble’s companion. (The definition of gibble is, according to one review, though I can find no further confirmation, a play on the word for the snagging tooth of a mating salmon. It is also a wood borer, for what it is worth.) Fishing metaphors abound throughout the book. But the book also tells the story of a man who is suddenly lost without his wife of fifty-three years. It was she who paid the bills by selling her fine china when he was broke and she who looked after him. After the funeral, he goes home where he finds both his son and Gibble. Gibble, by now, is no longer his companion but his nemesis. The narrator is annoyed by Gibble’s concern for his son and throws a chair, striking the son. He is afraid that he has killed him and immediately flees. The rest of the book will tell of his picaresque adventure, part fable, part story, with Gibble being both an overarching nemesis and an enemy to hate.
His journey will start by meeting a teenage female waif (Darling, she names herself, but I have a better label to attach to this intruding vision, I will call her mermaiden, after the murderous she-fish in ocean waters off Panama.). She joins him on his picaresque journey, looking for his wife’s native land. But first they go through the city, where they will meet Magrass, the Negress, and her brood, where he learns that his mermaiden is fleeing her father who wants to kill her. But Scott primarily tells this as a sort of fable of a man trying to discovering himself and what life is about.
It is certainly not an easy novel to grasp but there is no doubt that this book heralded the arrival of a new talent. It is now, sadly, out of print and neglected far more than it should be. While it is not for the faint-hearted, it is certainly a book that deserves to be better known and is the first of what will several very fine novels by this author.
First published 1987 by Ticknor & Fields