Book Review: The Beat of the Pendulum

“We’re not bold enough about telling the truth. We mask it and muffle it.”

The Beat of the Pendulum, by Catherine Chidgey, is a depiction of one year in the author’s life created using fragments of conversation. Each day has an entry. Some of these are a few words long while others go on for pages. The conversations are with key figures, mainly family members. They cover the mundane minutiae of life including: looking after a baby; visiting elderly relatives whose minds are slipping; medical consultations; discussions with husband. As a writer the author has thoughts on her peers and on critics. The conversations transcribed have been recorded and are presented in a manner that appears unadorned. It is a brave approach as the portrayal may be real but is not flattering – which may be the point of the exercise.

“I had the idea that I could run very expensive, very exclusive creative writing workshops for wealthy tourists. But I’d have to look at a lot of shit writing.”

Chidgey teaches creative writing at the University of Waikato, New Zealand. Her views on her students are at times searing.

With a new novel due to be published she is concerned about its reception. There is resentment that her work is not appreciated as she believes it deserves. At the same time she is highly critical of books she reads, damning one with the faint praise: “onerous”, “not horrendous”.

“I’m sick of reading about stunning first novels by stunning debut novelists. They can all piss off. What about bitter disillusioned mid-career novelists?”

She is suspicious of anyone appearing to offer friendship then mentioning their own literary aspirations.

When her new book is released she instructs her husband to post about how proud he is of his talented wife on his Facebook timeline. She also adds a mention of the novel to her mother’s Christmas letter. Such self promotion is not a surprise but the manner in which it is done adds to her feelings of resentment at how her work is received.

Interactions with her elderly mother, who lives in a care home and is growing ever more forgetful, are more nuanced. Whilst recognising the repetitiveness and frustrations of these conversations – as will anyone with elderly relatives – they were lengthy. The whole book felt lengthy.

Family and friends get together and catch up on news of people known to an inner circle. Photographs are poured over in attempts to work out who is who and reminisce. Strangers to the group would be unable to follow the conversation and, as a reader, there is a need to care enough to concentrate. There are nuggets but also much repetition.

“I’m not missing Mum as such – I’m missing a memory.”

There are numerous entries on Chidgey’s health issues which she seems to think about a great deal. She also concerns herself with cleanliness, describing her daughter’s library books as “filthy”.

The author muses on her looks, especially her eyebrows when her photograph is to be taken. There are mentions of past acquaintances and a hope that they only see her more flattering images. Little interest or care is shown about what they may have achieved.

“I googled a lost loves’s name and found his obituary”

Chidgey is often on the lookout for ideas for a next book. Some of these would be funny if there were not an underlying cruelty.

“Book of unused acceptance speeches. I would contact celebrities and invite them to contribute.”

She shares her thoughts on literary events and interviews.

“You always say brilliant things.
No I don’t.
You do.
It makes me feel sick. I’ve said everything in the book, so just fuck off and read it.”

“I’m having to tell a story about the telling of the story, because telling the story isn’t enough these days.”

Many of the conversations are notably lacking in PC editing. Such honesty can be caustic.

Described as creative non fiction, this is a book that may appeal more to other authors. As a reader it made me question how authors truly regard us.

At close to five hundred pages of recorded conversations this was a challenge to finish. In writing this review I do not expect my opinion to be welcomed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.