Monday, 30th October 2017

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  • Published 8.12.06

Gathering the Water, which made it to the Booker longlist this year, could have been called a modern fable. Except that Robert Edric, almost like Coleridge with the Ancient Mariner, refuses to write a moral into his story. Nor is the novel ‘modern’ in the strict sense of the term, since its temporal landscape belongs to Yorkshire of the 1840s.

Yet, the sense of the fable never quite leaves the reader. Charles Weightman, an engineer, arrives in Yorkshire to oversee the submergence of the Forge Valley for the construction of a dam. The bleakness of the Hound-of-the-Baskervilles terrain is reflected in the lives of its handful of inhabitants. But Edric follows a fatalistic narrative, where any intersection between Weightman’s job at hand and the predicament of the population is incidental, or at best, part of an irreversible design.

Weightman does not endear himself to the villagers, but neither does he turn them into sworn enemies. This is because he has none of the expected zeal over the building of the dam, but a lot of ambiguities about the project and his own role in it. He finds a friend in Mary Latimer, an ageing widow, whose unhinged sister, Martha, is what keeps her in the valley. In between tending to her sister — which involves great care and precision, since the slightest disturbance in her unreal-yet-real world is enough to disorient Martha — Mary Latimer meets Weightman upon the moors. In one of the conversations, Mary Latimer tells Weightman, “Look around you, the world is turning faster and faster. But… there are still those who will spit three times before crossing the river. Even your dam won’t cure them of that.”

Mary Latimer is not only utterly devoid of any contempt for Weightman, she is, in fact, alive to a feeling of comradeship between them. “We are watchers, you and I, Mr Weightman, observers, nothing more; we understand all the rules of engagement, but we are not participants,” she tries to assure him. Not that Weightman is weighed down by guilt. In fact, guilt is a sentiment which does not enter the moral universe of the novel. Even when Mary Latimer takes the difficult decision of putting her sister in an asylum, having nowhere else to take her to, she does so with a sense of fatalism but no guilt. Weightman is suspicious of his employers’ motives and skeptical about the benefits of the dam, even resentful of his appointment, but never guilty about his role as the vendor of a grave injustice to the villagers. The indefinable nature of his relationship with Mary Latimer, his troubled past, comprising the death of his fiancée, Helen, and a mildly dangerous friendship with Helen’s sister, Caroline — none of this leaves any trace of guilt either.

But the most opportune moment for guilt arrives when Mary Latimer’s floating corpse is sighted in the dam. What better moment to recall that the makers of the dam failed to make arrangements for the lone woman and her sister, that there were hints of the tragedy in Mary Latimer’s conversations before she went missing? But Weightman goes calmly about the task of pulling the body from the water. It is only much later that Mary Latimer comes in his dreams, “slowly opens her mouth to call out to me that she is saved and that I am her saviour, but…instead of the words there comes only more of the same dark water pouring like bile from her lips”.

Will Weightman take up a similar charge in another county? It is difficult to say. Edric’s achievement as a novelist is as much in bringing alive the desolation of the valley, hostility of the weather and alienation of the people as in refusing to follow familiar patterns of morality and judgment.