26 April 2011

Sue Monk Kidd: The Mermaid Chair (2005)

Sue Monk Kidd was in her fifties by the time her first novel The Secret Life of Bees (2002) was published, but her second - The Mermaid Chair - reads like a far more mature work.

Kidd was born in Sylvester, Georgia, although she now lives near Charleston, South Carolina, and The Mermaid Chair occupies a place in  the Low Country sub-genre of Southern literature. Although set almost entirely on the fictional barrier island of Egret, on which stands a fictional monastery, Kidd had Bull Island in mind, and the Mermaid Chair in its chapel is based on the Mermaid Chair in the parish church of St Senara, Zennor, Cornwall, England.*

Zennor of course was where D. H. Lawrence and his German wife Frieda fruitlessly sought refuge from the zenophobia of the time in 1915 (and where Katherine Mansfield and Middleton Murry briefly joined them), and it no doubt didn't escape Kidd's attention that D. H. Lawrence's most famous novel Lady Chatterley's Lover is partly about adultery. In The Mermaid Chair, Jessie Sullivan's adultery with Brother (Doubting) Thomas (or Whit in, er, real life) is central to the story, and the intense emotional and sexual development the couple experience (and their love nest surely owing something to Mellors's hut in Lady Chatterley?) is a major part of the their individual development as separate, more fully rounded people.

This intelligent novel of challenges to spiritual,  sexual and familial life, although very popular, does not deserve to be restricted to the chicklit ghetto to which some people (quite possibly unintentionally) might seek to confine it.

*The legend is that a mermaid living in nearby Pendour Cove fell in love with Matthew Trewhella, who sang the closing hymn in the church every night. She took to visiting the church in a dress, he took one look at her and fell in love too, carried her to the cove and disappeared into the sea with her. The Mermaid Chair has two wooden bench ends, one of which is carved with a mermaid holding a comb and mirror.

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