NATURAL ELEMENTS by Richard Mason
“Joan glanced behind her to make sure that the pair of burnished brass piano pedals that had materialized in the taxi were with her now. They were. She was glad of that, for this was their first visit in a week and she was eager for their company.”
Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew (SEP 14, 2009)
Natural elements of the periodic table, music, aging, war, and human relations uniquely coalesce in Richard Mason’s newest novel.
Natural Elements is the present-day story of Joan McAllister, a woman in her seventies, whose forty-something daughter, Eloise (also McAllister), gently but firmly deposits her in an elegant nursing home called The Albany. Before they return to London to accomplish this move, the two take a trip to South Africa, home of Joan’s ancestors. Eloise, a high-powered investment fund manager, returns to England prematurely on a business emergency, leaving her mother to sort through some family history on her own.
Joan is not only elderly but is slowly exhibiting more and more symptoms of an Alzheimer-like disease. She, a gifted pianist, has visions at the very beginning of Natural Elements of piano pedals, a benevolent, comforting sign to her. Later, the pedals become elusive and other less benign visions overtake her. In fact, the latter portion of the novel traces Joan’s unsettling blending of memories and earlier family history as her illness progresses. Joan, a woman who calls nearly everyone “dear,” has, throughout her life been accustomed to rather passively accepting what others dished out. In synch with that, she isn’t told directly by either The Albany’s staff or her children (besides Eloise, she has a son, George, who lives in Australia) of her affliction, so she resists treatment and lives her dreams as if they were reality.
Eloise, besides worrying about her mother’s deterioration, has dug herself a pit at work. She interpreted an off-hand comment by her French metallurgist former lover, Claude Pasquier, about an element called osmium as a cue to buy millions of dollars of it. Now she must deal with this market’s plunge, and it could put her into bankruptcy, not to mention jail. It could also curtail her mother’s first-class care.
A great deal of effort has gone into Natural Elements. Details embrace every plot advancement, and every major character advances in some significant way during the course of the story. To begin with though, Eloise is a not-untypical single woman who has foregone a family for her privacy, comfort, and profession. Will her priorities change? George isn’t in distant Australia by accident. What made him run, and will he return to face the music? Claude needs a catalyst like Eloise to inspire his genius, but they don’t communicate well. Will he make an effort to change that? Will she?.
And Joan. She is eccentric but very likeable, especially in the early parts of the book. Left to fend for herself in South Africa, and finding in that a chance to relax and express herself, Joan spends time in a museum near what was once her family’s farm. There, she gets to see and touch heirlooms, including a journal kept by her grandmother, Gertruida van Vuuren. Reading it shows Joan the horrors members of her family endured in the concentration camps they were forced into by the British during the Anglo-Boer War at the beginning of the twentieth century. It also reminds her that her mother warned her not to marry an Englishman — a warning she did not heed and lived to regret.
Joan, the hub of the book, becomes the main embodiment of an ability to cope while simultaneously using what is at her disposal to attempt to rectify past injustices and mistakes. She develops a poignant comradeship with a South African taxi driver and guide. She forges an innocent friendship with a young man while staying at The Albany. She uncovers an unexpected connection to family of a British physician who was assigned to a concentration camp hospital during the Boer War. She investigates crimes possibly committed by the doctor. She faces old wounds inflicted by her mother-in-law’s decades-long interference and her volatile husband’s inability to constructively channel his own wounds. She is a woman who represents her era: “She did not belong to a generation that set much store by the articulation of private sorrow — and there were no words, in any case, for the shifting complexities of what she now felt.” But, in the end, she is also admirably indefatigable in the sense that she refuses to allow her circumstances to completely remove her ability to act.
In a sense, in this story, Joan and the rare white-blue metal element, osmium, can be seen to function as curious literary analogues. Real life 2002 tests of osmium’s “compressibility” indicated it was “stiffer” than diamond under high pressure. Natural Elements builds plot on that data with this hopeful but possibly fanciful match-up: “Osmium and diamond were now protagonists in an eternal drama, a battle between opposing forces of titanic strength, and in some mysterious way they had become subject to the indisputable laws of narrative. It would be osmium, the poor relation — ignored, neglected, dismissed — that triumphed over its glittering rival in the end, and secured an old lady’s future.” Osmium cannot, in its original state, rival diamond as an industrial cutting agent despite its compressibility. But perhaps as an amalgam it could surpass diamond in tensile durability and be used where diamond cannot be. Osmium, the 76th element may only reach its industrial use potential if it is forced into an unnatural but transforming symbiosis with another element. In other words, it needs a kind of element “graft” to become so valuable that Eloise’s huge investment in it would pay off. Similarly, Joan minus her affliction, didn’t gain the impetus to become more assertive, more powerful. Perversely, when her dementia grafts on, it propels her into an oddly anomalous but potent state.
Joan’s immersion in her Afrikaans history is an effective vehicle for Mason to inform the reader that the inhumanity of concentrations camps existed before Germany, Japan, the U.S., etc. interred people. As Mason notes in his Afterword, “Although Gertruida van Vuuren’s journal is a work of fiction, her experience is representative. Everything that happened to her happened to someone….” He adds, “I dedicate this book to my great-grandmother, Naomi Cecilia de Klerk, who was incarcerated in a British concentration camp as a young woman. Several of her family died in captivity, including her mother and her favorite sister, Sarie.”
For many readers, the moving passages of Gertruida’s testimonial, signed, “This 3rd day of October, 1903,” may deal out the most shocking revelations of the novel. However, as Joan’s hallucinations and delusions intensify, many other family secrets, including domestic violence rooted in someone’s torture during World War II, are revealed to have exacted harsh tolls. What begins as a relatively congenial mother-daughter story shifts into far more flagitious territory. As Joan slips further into her spliced imaginative/real world, the jumbled nightmare feeling builds for the reader as well. The novel’s conclusion is simultaneously a small triumph and a loss — as life itself often is.
Natural Elements is a curious amalgamation of topics, as mentioned, but it inventively and flourishingly mingles science, history, psychology, music, medicine, geriatrics, various sensibilities and perspectives,and family drama. For all its diversity, identifying a unifying theme doesn’t pose a great challenge: the resilience of human beings who suffer is demonstrated on many scales, and the natural elements in the novel, both material and existential, certify and nurture that resilience. The elements of our histories, our circumstances, and our DNA shape us all, but will they weaken us or make us stronger? This novel contemplates that question in a singular fashion.
- The Drowning People (1998)
- Us (2004)
- Natural Elements (March 2009) (Note: A.k.a. The Lighted Rooms (2008)
- History of a Pleasure Seeker (November 2012)
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 7 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Knopf (March 17, 2009)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Richard Mason|
|EXTRAS:||Orion Publishing interview with Richard Mason|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||More books that blend science with literature:|