From Sarah Hall, the internationally acclaimed author of the Man Booker Prize finalist The Electric Michelangelo, comes a stunning and transcendent novel of love, obsession, and the passing of an age.
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About the Author
Hometown:Charlotte, North Carolina, USA and Carlisle, Cumbria, UK
Date of Birth:January 6, 1974
Place of Birth:Carlisle, Cumbria, UK
Education:B.A., The University of Wales, Aberystwyth; M.A. in Creative Writing, St. Andrews University, Scotland
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By Sarah Hall
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
The woman on the bed was screaming bold blue murder and Jesus Bastard Christ. Curses formed like saliva in her mouth and she spat them out on to the tangled sheets of the bed, a bed which had once belonged to her grandmother and in which her own mother had been born. The cotton under her hot body was saturated with her sweat and with her swearing. The woman's body was making colours that her husband had never seen before, colours he did not know a human being could make. Soft orange on her, like human blood should never be, and white and a precise burgundy. Samuel Lightburn watched his wife struggling as internal shapes moved through her body, saw her muscles damaging themselves as she struggled. Jesus Bastard Christ. The woman screamed and slowly she came apart. He could not stand it.
Samuel spoke gently, uselessly, for the woman still remembered her own name. She was still in her right mind.
He swayed in the shadows, in the corner of the bedroom, his thumbs stroking the rough stone walls behind him as if looking to be soothed. The room was chilly, the walls glowing with cold. She screamed on, cursing the Lord, not caring about faith or decency or her God, in whom she had trusted her whole life, not any of the things that usually made her a tight knot of a woman, firmly wrapped, bound tight at the core.On the bed she fought with her own body, with God, with nature, unmaking herself. This was what her husband could not bear. The close threads of her were coming unwound as wave after wave of pain buckled up through her flesh and collected in her face. And her face was awful in its pain, a ripe beetroot dropped on the stone floor.
Women gathered in the room. Women in shawls and warm winter skirts. They told her to be calm and breathe. They placed the handle of a wooden spoon between her teeth as she raged and twisted. They instructed Ella Lightburn to control her pain. She could not. No more than she could control the snow falling fast and wet outside, smothering the valley. Joyce Carruthers had said to the company four hours ago that the Shap doctor would be needed, and word had been sent. But Dr Saul Frith was absent and, surely by now, unreachable. January in this Westmorland valley. Even the new Lakeside road was blocked by thick drifts.
Another roll like hot metal came up through Ella's stomach. The old wooden bed creaked as she pushed her legs down, arched her back, her vast stomach breaching in the cold air. She fought on, cursing, spitting, almost eight hours more that day and into the night. There were deep wet troughs in the bed, made as her limbs turned this way and that, forwards and backwards. Her eyes red with panic, she looked around the room for her husband. Had she not heard his voice a moment ago or an hour? She looked for him and was terrified.
Samuel Lightburn had been present for the birthing of many animals. He had witnessed the impossible feats of nature many times, had seen all strength from a beast draining into one part of its body, accumulating there, and using itself up. He was accustomed to intervention also, reaching inside the hot, rough canal of an animal himself with a bare greased arm, his fingers certain to find a loose ankle, a hand-hold. But never a woman before, it simply was not done. And only now his stubbornness, the direness of the situation, permitted him to stay in the room. He had never seen or heard human labour before and he stared out from the dark corner, his thumbs caressing the wall over and over. He was not prepared for this. He was not prepared for his wife's pain, or her colours, or for her terror. Nor the inversion of her faith.
There was not one household of the village which had not represented itself at Whelter Farm Cottage that day as Ella Lightburn struggled with the passage of her first child into the world. The women came and went in the bedroom, gathering around the cursing woman, bringing water, cloths, fresh hope. They stood in twos and threes, leaving Joyce room enough to move around Ella as she needed to, taking turns in trying to usher Samuel out of the room, where he did not belong.
--Git. Git away, man. Go on with yer.
Trying to usher him downstairs into the large kitchen where the men of the village were sitting, standing, smoking. These men were mainly farmers, young and old. They listened to the woman upstairs, carefully, counting the screams and looking for meaning as a soothsayer might open up and read the intestines of a bird. They compared Ella's sounds with the torrid calls of the cattle and sheep in their herds when their time came, a stuck bellow, a panicked bleat. In this way they tried to decipher her stages of labour. But they could not, because human birth is something unnatural, something beyond animal --female pain become self-conscious. They tried to know the situation, practically, and without speaking of it, their teeth clenched over curved pipes and their fingers gripping the backs of chairs.
As Samuel passed them on his way to the front door, desperately looking out into the snow again for the doctor as he was, they placed, in turn, a simple hand on the back of his head, or on his shoulder. Thick hands, like pieces of beefsteak. There were no words. These were quiet men, economical with language, who spoke only in definites and who limited their actions to useful gestures or to work. Their individual faces wore a combination of expressions, each having many moods upon it at once, as if scowls and laughter, lines of . . .
Excerpted from Haweswater
by Sarah Hall
Copyright © 2006 by Sarah Hall.
Excerpted by permission.
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