The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946)
She was in so much trouble that she thought it was better to stay at home – and at home there was only Bernice Sadie Brown and John Henry West. The three of them sat at the kitchen table, saying the same things over and over, so that by August the words began to rhyme with each other and sound strange.
I came across a copy of The Member of the Wedding a few weeks ago and my heart skipped a beat. I hadn’t read it for decades and yet still I could have told you about Frankie, her diminutive cousin John Henry West and the “coloured” housekeeper, Bernice – Oh and the House of Freaks and the GI on leave and the strangely disinterested Mr Addams and the just out of reach older brother who is about to be married. These characters, and the hot licentious setting of a Georgia summer, in which they move about, slowly, had moved into my brain and stayed a long time ago.
Frankie was dizzy, and she picked up the knife from the kitchen table…
Bernice stopped very suddenly. The kitchen was suddenly shrunken and quiet.
‘You lay down that knife.’
All the house was very quiet. The empty house seemed to be waiting. And then there was the knife whistle in the air and the sound the blade made when it struck. The knife hit the middle of the stairway door and shivered there. She watched the knife until it did not shiver anymore.
This novel is dirty and real and unapologetic. It’s like reading Sula by Toni Morrison. You’re disturbed and even at times horrified as you read on, fascinated and unable to look away.
This is a tale about wanting more but realising you are forever on the outside looking in.
‘A date?’ she felt as though her head was big and loose. The beer made her legs feel peculiar, too, almost as though she had four legs to manage instead of two. On another day than this it would have seemed almost impossible that anyone, much less a soldier, would have invited her to a date… If he knew she was not yet thirteen, he would never have invited her.
It is a novel where you park your own hesitations at the door and go inside. She is tall for her age and stubborn in this summer that is “like a green sick dream” and Frankie is impatient for her life to begin.
I remember now that when I first read this not-to-be-forgotten classic I, too, had that yearning which drives the very soul. I still have it. Throughout the haze of Frankie’s thick heated summer she tries on the languorous phrase “I am simply mad about…” and adds whatever it is that peaks her passion. McCullers beautifully controls the penultimate line of the novel where we are left, this time, without a focus for her passion, indicated by the ellipsis.
And there is the truth.
Not just for the adolescent, but if we are to be honest, for each and every one of us. Don’t we all have this yearning? This wanting so badly to be more than who we are and to take control of our destiny.
But I think this is why a part of me, both then and now on reading, cringe at the crime she commits. Well, it’s not a villainous crime, only a desperate one, an honest one. The crime of wanting to be something shiny, something desired, something central.
At the last she had clung to the steering wheel until her father and somebody else had hauled and dragged her from the car, and even then she could only cry in the dust of the empty road: ‘Take me! Take me!’ but there was only the wedding company to hear, for the bride and her brother had driven away.
Frankie dared to follow her heart, to declare her desire to join the honeymooners and to begin her real life. And as a result, she is left behind in the dirt and grime, in the emptiness.
I love it and I hate it because a part of me knows what it feels like to be outside looking in, because a part of me knows that this inexorable longing is a madness, and because a part of me knows that the declaration of one’s greatest desire does not always lead to fulfilment.
When I finished reading The Member of the Wedding, this time round, I went straight out and bought: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I’m telling you, I’m just mad about Carson McCullers!
Elizabeth’s first book, The Alchemy of Poetry, is available now! It would make the perfect gift for someone who is interested in the world of art and poetry and history and politics and love and death and war and the sublime – because the 160 poems selected in The Alchemy of Poetry succinctly and pitch perfectly offer all this and so much more!
Get your copy and send Elizabeth your review!
The Alchemy of Poetry by Elizabeth Guy
Published by Dreaming Big Publications
Paperback; 470 pages; ISBN-13 : 978-1947381414
Genre: Ancient, Classical and Contemporary Poetry; Education and Teaching; Non fiction