Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore
By Paul Burman
Paperback: 304 pages, 30 Aug 2008, ISBN-13: 978-0955109478
One of the great joys of reviewing is happening upon a small press book from a first author that is so good, you can’t stop thinking about it. It’s a wonderful serendipity that publishers, agents and reviewers wearily hope for and rarely find. The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore is one of those books. It’s tightly, expertly written, and yet so tenderly rendered, that the reader descends directly into Thomas Passmore’s dreams, struggling to surface back to reality along with the protagonist.
At first glance the story seems simple enough. A man wakes from a strange dream as he lands in Heathrow from Sydney, slightly disoriented. There’s nothing too odd in Thomas Passmore’s initial disorientation. Anyone who has taken a long flight will recognise that muzzy jetlagged sense of confusion, and if it isn’t the first time, the déjà vu. Thomas understands convention, and speaks and navigates his way through the airport clearly. His mission on this visit is to spend time with his dying mother, and to find an old girlfriend and discover why she suddenly left him a number of years ago. It doesn’t sound like much of a plot, and the connection between Kate and his mother seems a tenuous one, but the resulting journey progresses in a spiral through Thomas’ past where he has to confront a number of interwoven demons. It’s a psychological trip that, for the reader, is both confronting and intimately, almost horribly, familiar. It’s more than just a trip down memory lane for Thomas, it’s a fight for life, underpinned by a mystery that is both concrete and metaphoric.
The novel is ambitious in that it attempts the journey from a very deep starting point: Thomas’ unconscious psyche. The writing is richly poetic, at times so charged that you could publish it as stanzas and it would work:
As seasons pass, I coil tighter. Spend months pulling the world in on myself. Become my own black hole, sucking the bright energy out of my most colourful dreams, spitting out nothing. (190)
The story is built around a triumvirate of demons: Thomas’ ex-girlfriend Kate, his icy mother, and his father, who committed suicide when Thomas was quite young. Each of these people shift-shape through the book: moving between the antagonist and counsellor roles, and moving in and out of perspective. Navigating through the maze of loss, Thomas has to work through his emotions and internalised responses to these people, determining who he is now, or he will literally die. As he moves through his journey to the past, there is always the present he has to reference: the wife and children he has left in Australia. And though Thomas’ search may seem insular at times, it’s the extraordinary force of Burman’s writing that keeps the reader deeply engaged; making Thomas’ story our own:
My eyes spit ice daggers, and when I open my mouth to swallow the night with a roar, flurries of snowflakes bellow out. Some fall on her face and my fingers brush them clear while every other part of me storms. Blizzards of snow, stones of hail, knives of ice…
For hour-upon-hour, if time exists; age-upon-age. A thousand years, or the blink of an eye. From rock to sand; from earth to rock. Time to learn how mountains are born, how beaches sift into shape, and how it all begins again. Turn, turn. (277)
Although the ending is given away right from the start, the shear physical blow of it still comes as a shock. Suddenly all the disjointedness in the novel, which never impedes readability or progression, is put right in an affirmative transformation that is both large and tiny in scope. The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore is deeply original, powerfully moving, and hugely satisfying. The reader can expect to cry, but not in any contrived way. The way in which Burman manages to traverse the line between the inner and outer world is masterful. This is a novel deeply rooted in time and place, while it moves beyond both of those things. It is an exceptional debut.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast www.blogtalkradio.com/compulsivereader, and Paul Burman is our next guest.