Beware of Southerners Bearing Gifts

41Bik09kqwL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_TIME WILL DARKEN IT
William Maxwell
Vintage Classics, 2012, RRP $14.99
First published 1948

Sometimes it is not only what a book is about but the way it is written that makes it special. Time Will Darken It is one of those. After reading the first chapter I got on the internet and ordered two more of William Maxwell’s books. I fingertip tappingly await their arrival. If a dead guy can write as well as this I want his books.

First published in 1948, Time Will Darken It is set in a small American town in 1912. It tells the sad tale of Austin King and his wife, Martha, receiving visitors from Mississippi. The Potters, mother, father, son and daughter sow the seeds of the destruction of Austin King, a decent man whose only crime was trying to keep everybody happy and doing it quietly.

The story opens with a quite scene of marital tension before a house party to welcome the Potters. In this, Maxwell gives himself the almost impossible task of introducing a myriad of characters almost at once. Any teacher of writing will tell you that is a no-no…unless you can write like William Maxwell. His words take the reader by the hand and leads him or her from room to room, catching snippets of conversations, auditioning the characters for their roles and hinting at things to come.

And what is to come? A tale of small-town small mindedness. If there was ever a weapon the average person should fear it is gossip. It can kill, maim and destroy lives for no other reason than that the gossipers are bored, ill-informed and assume that, given the option, their fellow man will stoop to the depravities they secretly wish for. It is a story of how gossip turns nothing into something and spins wickedness from the yarn of innocence and good intentions.

As the plot develops Maxwell magically confounds the expectations of the reader. Assumptions as to what is to come and who will do it are met by something better than we imagined. People turn out to be more complex, their personalities and motivations more subtle than most fictional characters are usually capable of. Storylines turn out to resemble more the chaos of real life than the accepted and well-trodden route of fictional plots.

The reader gradually discovers that rather than reading a fiction about small-town people behaving badly and voyeuristically enjoying it, they are reading an account of something that really happened to real people. Of course they are not, it is all an illusion—William Maxwell made it up. But his skill as a writer and observer of human nature made it real. He leapt over the chasm between a ‘good read’ and an immersion into the lives of others in the hope that it would make us better people, or at the very least make us think twice next time we were tempted to pass on a delicious piece of gossip.

The characters in Time Will Darken It are wonderfully described and I am sure they will stay with me long after the plot is forgotten. There is Austin King, of course, the quietly, almost silently, good man in the centre of it all. Imagine him as Atticus Finch’s younger and less gifted brother.

There is Nora Potter, the young woman whose infuriating naivety and self centeredness inadvertently stirs the pot of gossip. She firmly holds the assumptions of many a young person throughout history; that she is the centre of the universe; that no one has ever felt anything as intensely as her; and that everyone must strive to like and understand her. She sounds like a badly drawn heroine from a YA novel but she is not. Even with her obvious faults she is a complex character who grapples with the cards she has been dealt. She is as much a victim of her own tender years as Austin King is a victim of her assumption that he has a responsibility to give her what she wants simply because she wants it soooooo much.

Then there are the Beach sisters, the invisible victims of this sad tale. Imagine if the Miss Dashwoods from Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility had not married the men of their dreams but had continued on into middle-age and gentile poverty—this is the story of Lucy and Alice Beach. With only each other and their respectability to give them a reason to go on, their hearts and minds are being slowly starved. They glimpse old age and deeper poverty beckoning and in a heart-breakingly ordinary moment they see that they cannot prevent the destruction of the only thing they have left, their friendship.

As with all novels that become classics Time Will Darken It looks deeply and perceptively at the human condition. It shows the horrific results of everyday human frailty. It shows how misunderstandings and our inability to see beyond our own wants destroy relationships and lives. It is written with a skill and confidence that makes it as readable now as when it was first published more that fifty years ago. I highly recommend it to young and old and all those in the middle.

About Tim Hehir

Tim Hehir writes novels, short stories and plays. His YA novel Julius and the Watchmaker is published by Text Publishing.
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