'Upstate', by James Wood - Review

By Hamilton, Ben | The Spectator, April 14, 2016 | Go to article overview

'Upstate', by James Wood - Review


Hamilton, Ben, The Spectator


Alan Querry, the central figure in James Wood's second novel, is someone who, in his own words, doesn't 'think about life too much'. His peculiar surname may recall the brooding, godforsaken Querry of Graham Greene's A Burnt-Out Case, but this Querry -- who lives in 'the poshest part of Northumberland' -- isn't much troubled by God's presence or absence: 'he had a notion that "the question of God" might all have been more or less sorted out in his lifetime, like Cyprus or polio.'

Called upon to visit his daughter Vanessa in upstate New York, Alan stops along the way to meet his younger daughter, Helen, and they make the journey together to snowy Saratoga Springs. Alan sees this as an opportunity for bonding. Since his divorce from their mother and her untimely death, the family has struggled to connect in a meaningful way.

The real motive for the visit, however, is to check up on Vanessa's mental health. According to an email sent to Alan from Vanessa's boyfriend she is 'in danger of doing harm to herself' after tumbling down some stairs and injuring her arm, perhaps intentionally. Vanessa, who teaches philosophy at a liberal arts college, has a history of gloom. In childhood she wrote poems 'full of despair and lament', and as a student at Oxford she went through a phase of giving away her possessions. Helen, by contrast, seems to have a knack for happiness. This is what drives Alan to distraction: 'Why did Helen find happiness easy, when her sister found it hard?'

Readers of Wood's criticism will be aware that he knows his way around an English sentence, but in fiction his prose, while fluent, is not always convincing. …

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