by Anne Spillard.
Pan Books 1989 (1987).
It’s odd how, re-reading this twenty-five years later, I find that I recall neither characters nor plot from that first reading other than that the narrator tells people’s fortunes from an ordinary deck of cards.
That and the fact that there are a few obscure Arthurian references thrown in.
This second rather more careful reading reveals there is a little more subtlety than at first appears from a cursory perusal, making it more satisfactory yet, curiously, curiouser.
Let me start with a tale called Laüstic. A Breton lady rises every night to admire a young knight (and he, her) from her window. Her suspicious husband asks her why she leaves the marital bed and she tells him that it is to admire the song of a nightingale. Her husband, being very spiteful, arranges for the nightingale to be caught and killed so she doesn’t have her sleep disturbed. In sorrow the lady – who knows that all is up with the relationship – sends the bird’s body in secret to her knightly love as a sign that they can no longer see each other, and he places the little corpse in a reliquary to carry around with him forever.
This is one of the Breton lais retold by the medieval poet known as Marie de France. The plot of The Cartomancer involves the finding of a manuscript confirming the true identity of the poet, and though Laüstic (“The Nightingale” in Breton) is never directly referred to I think it’s likely that the author may have been thinking of this lai while planning her novel. The tale of a doomed relationship and the death of something loved is mirrored in the love triangle of May, the man whose home she lives in, and the college Lothario with his own dark secret.
Since Marie de France is known as an author who also retold Arthurian legends this confluence of Breton lais and Arthurian references adds depth to what might otherwise be regarded as Spillard’s rather slight narrative; you should also know that though slight it’s nevertheless spiced with pinches of humour.
The Cartomancer is set somewhere in the North of England – Cumbria perhaps, or at any rate an area north of Lancashire – in a village called Cornfield (there’s a Carnforth in Cumbria); this turns out to be a dormitory settlement for many of the academic and administrative staff of Camelot College located in the nearby town of Avalon, maybe a stand-in for Lancaster.
May Knott, the fortune-teller of the title, is living with an academic and, in mixing with the partners and colleagues of other college staff, is inveigled into being attracted to one of the administrative staff. This looming affair, and May’s adeptness at the cards, soon promises mighty complications in the bitchy politics of academia and shifting sands of personal relationships.
May is also a budding novelist, and in the novel people keep glancing at and commenting on her draft – which is, of course, the novel you are reading, so it all becomes a little bit metafictional. Add to that characters who by and large have literary or medieval European names (for example Edwin Harley, May’s ‘patron’, has the names of an Anglo-Saxon king and the 18th-century founders of the Harleian Collection of manuscripts in the British Library) and Camelot College is itself distinguished by key departments such as Medieval French, Psychology and European Studies – and it soon becomes clear that signposts are being erected in order to direct the reader to, quite literally, read more into the text.
The novel is structured into thirty-three chapters, each prefaced by a named card or two and a reading such as “A hard time lies ahead” or “Accomplishments flower where they were not expected”. This suggests that the plot may have planned using a deck of cards; and puts me in mind of texts using a similar modus operandi – I think of Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1973) or The Greater Trumps (1932) by Charles Williams (who also produced his magnum opus with a unique treatment of Arthurian legends).
Fortune-telling is of course a form of storytelling – a kind of future narrative – and seems very appropriate not just as subject-matter for a novel but also for its processing, if indeed this is how Anne Spillard worked. Given its metafictional dimension it does seem possible, and could explain why the Laüstic plot isn’t more blindingly obvious.
I’ve given the impression that the novel is rather mechanistic with my discussion of plots derived from Breton lais, Arthurian legend and randomly dealt cards, and that would be a distortion of its worth. The innocent reader should be drawn into a story of relationships, individuals and the exigencies of fate, and so it proved when I first read this; with more than a score of people appearing in the dramatis personae I had plenty of opportunities to observe the foibles and, occasionally, unsuspected strengths of the players.
But I also had to know why, having hung onto it for a quarter of a century, I felt the need to give it a second chance. And now at last I can let it go, perhaps returning to the lais that probably inspired it, those tales that talked of loves doomed and unrequited, or long-suffering but ultimately rewarded.
Repost of review first published 19th July 2016. Novelist and poet Anne Spillard lives in the Cumbrian village of Burton-in-Kendal, four miles from Carnforth, and won the Yorkshire Post Book Award for Best First Work for The Cartomancer in 1987