A Country Road, A Tree – Jo Baker – Audible Book Review by Pat V.
The title of Jo Baker’s novel recalls the opening stage directions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot -“A Country Road. A Tree. Evening.” – with good reason. Her latest book has Beckett as its central protagonist and tells of a period of his life that has been overshadowed by the fame of his plays and novels and by the iconic status he acquired in later life, his struggles in France during the Second World War.
The novel begins in Ireland in 1919 with the 13 year old Beckett climbing a tree, a talent important later in the book, but quickly moves to 1939 soon after he moved to Paris. With France drawn into WW2 and because his papers of residence are not in order he is tempted to return home but famously decides the he prefers “France at war than Ireland at peace”. The novel tells of the hardship he endured in France during the war, his role in the French Resistance and his relationship with Suzanne Duchevaux-Dumesnil who was his lifelong companion and later became his wife.
In her last novel “Longbourne” Baker retold the story of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice through the eyes of one of the servants in the Bennett’s home and “filled in the blanks” – showing us how the seemingly inconsequential actions of the family had a very definite effect on those below stairs. The romantic strolls of the Bennett sisters through the countryside are contrasted by the hours of scrubbing and sponging it takes the servants to clean the resultant mud and grass stains from their petticoats.
In “A Country Road. A Tree” it is again the minutiae and daily chores of life that have centre stage. It is not Samuel Beckett the world famous author we meet, but a Beckett who struggles day-to-day to find enough to eat, to avoid capture and occasionally finds time to write a few lines that one day might be published. His vulnerability is evident in the distress he expresses at the capture of his comrades and the round-up of his Jewish friends and in his dependence on Suzanne whose practical and more focused approach steers him through difficult personal and political dangers.
Baker’s vivid recreation of this period of Beckett’s life often echo the language and episodes with which we are familiar from his novels and plays. Like his creation, Molloy, Beckett here sucks stones, both to ease his feelings of hunger and thirst and to pass the time. During his period in hiding he spends time with a Russian tramp reminiscent of many of the characters in his plays but probably the most recognisable scene is when Beckett and Suzanne are told to wait for their contact in the Resistance on a country road, beside a dead tree, in the moonlight. The conversation that follows is taken directly from Waiting for Godot but makes perfect sense in their current situation.
Though written in the third person, it is mainly through the eyes of Beckett himself that we see the story unfold and in this version David Rintoul, recently voted one of Audible’s top readers, captures perfectly the complex and troubled character of Beckett.
The audiobook lasts 10h36 and is available from audible.co.uk