If you’ve ever sat with a dying person, you know that the passing from one realm to another can often be a hazy and mysterious sort of time – for both the person dying and those sitting vigil. At least in my experience, it’s a time flooded with memories, of reflecting back on what (and who) was important in our lives, of realizing what really matters.
In such a state, time is the only constant. It’s present in the ticking of the clock, the slow passage of the minutes between breaths, between being awake and asleep.
In Tinkers, George Washington Crosby is a tinker, a fixer of clocks, a keeper of time. The symbolism of this is prevalent throughout the novel, which takes place over several days as he is dying in a hospital bed set up in his living room, with his family surrounding him. As George fades in and out of consciousness, he is remembering his life growing up in New England.
“George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.” (pg. 18)
It’s not an original premise or theme, but what makes Tinkers stand out (and what I absolutely loved about this book) is the gorgeous writing and melodic language. Paul Harding can most definitely write (there are echoes of Faulkner here) and so beautifully at that. Tinkers has been described in some reviews as prose that you can actually hear; the words are harmonious and in sync with each other so perfectly, and that’s what makes this novel stand out.
“He tinkered. Tin pots, wrought iron. Solder melted and cupped in a clay dam. Quicksilver patchwork. Occasionally, a pot hammered back flat, the tinkle f time sibilant, tiny beneath the lid of the boreal forest. Tinkerbird, coppersmith, but mostly a brush and mop drummer.” (pg. 12)
As George lies dying, Tinkers becomes more of a story not about George’s death, but the life of his father Howard and how the choices he made impacted the next generation and the one to come.
There has been some criticism in other reviews about the disjointed nature and rambling style of the narrative, and I admit that sort of bothered me a bit. But I think that is intentional and an integral part of the story. It doesn’t make for a smooth, linear story, though – there are lots of detours and tangents – so if that sort of thing irks you (and it usually does me), Tinkers might not be for you. (It’s received mixed reviews, and has been compared to Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, which was a DNF for me.)
George Crosby (and his father, Howard Aaron Crosby) reminded me of both of my grandfathers, men who could very much be described as tinkers, who were curious about how things worked and who had the right tool to fix anything.
“That was it, he realized; the clock had run down. All of the clocks in the room had wound down – the tambours and carriage clocks on the mantel, the banjo and mirror and Viennese regulator on the walls, the Chelsea ship’s bells on the rolltop desk, the ogee on the end table, and the seven-foot walnut cased Stevenson grandfather’s clock, made in Nottingham in 1801, with its moon-phase window on the dial and pair of robins threadin flowery buntings around the Roman numerals. When he imagined inside the case of that clock, dark and dry and hollow, and the still pendulum hanging down its length, he felt the inside of his own chest and had a sudden panic that it, too, had wound down.
When his grandchildren has been little, they had asked if they could hide inside the clock. Now he wanted to gather them and open himself up and hide them among his ribs and fainting ticking heart.” (pg. 33-34)
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