William Maxwell

I finished this book a few days ago, after dragging out the experience as long as possible, savouring every word and saving the last couple of chapters because I didn’t want it to end. I loved Time Will Darken It and think it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

The book is set in Illinois in 1912, and is about the marriage of Austin and Martha King. It begins when Austin’s cousins, Mr and Mrs Potter and their adult children Nora and Randolph, arrive from Mississippi for an extended stay. It is clear from the start that Austin and Martha don’t really want the visit to take place; Austin has invited them ‘in order to pay off an old debt that someone else had contracted’ and Martha, who has just found out she is pregnant, is angry with Austin for inviting them. Many characters in the book allow themselves to be influenced by other people and Austin especially is dutiful and reliable, wanting to be good and to think of himself as ‘a good man’ more than anything else, but there are destructive consequences to this way of living. The cousins’ visit has very negative effects on Austin’s marriage and his reputation in the town, starting when Nora falls in love with Austin.

In addition to the main storyline, there are vignettes, almost like short stories in their own right, about the lives of the Kings’ neighbours, friends and colleagues. The novel’s title comes from a book about landscape painting and it does very much take a wide view that encompasses the whole town. There are many interesting characters but the character I liked the best was probably Martha. She is very insecure as the book opens but she is more of a free spirit than Austin, and I felt sorry for her as her marriage began to go wrong. Nora is a complicated character; I partly sympathised with her as she is a thoughtful, intelligent, adventurous person who doesn’t really fit in with the rest of her family and yearns for a different kind of life. However, she can be quite irritating at times, and almost deliberately innocent, as she doesn’t seem to realise the effects her actions have on Austin and Martha. The story of ‘the Beach girls’, two sisters who live next door to the Kings, is a very powerful part of the novel, and it is painful to see how their lives are outside of their own control. The book also takes a look through the ‘great pane of glass, opaque from one side, transparent from the other’ that divides the street between the comfortable houses at the top and the shabby neighbourhood in which the Kings’ cook, Rachel, lives. The story of Rachel, her children and her violent husband is woven into the novel.

One thing I like about William Maxwell’s writing is his incredible insight into people and their inner lives. He can write dialogue that is full of hidden meaning, that says more than it appears to on the surface, and that reveals so much about the character who is speaking, and their relationships with the people around them. He presents individual scenes, one after another, some momentous and some inconsequential, not directly telling us what the characters are like, but allowing us to eavesdrop and form our own conclusions. I also like the way he can create a whole cast of plausible and complex characters, so that you see the world from multiple angles, a world that you almost live in yourself during the time you’re reading the novel. I liked the way the town and its characters came to life, as a sepia-tinted photograph does. There is an old-fashioned, autumnal feel to this novel. I suppose I am hoping to be transported into another world when I read, and this novel definitely did that for me.

It’s not just a form of escapism though as I think the ideas William Maxwell writes about are ones that are very important to me and probably to many people reading his novels, questions like what is the best way to live your life, and how people try to become independent and free. He expresses the pain that comes from feeling constricted and powerless, from loneliness and love that ends in disaster, as well as the way in which the opinions and personalities of other, more powerful people (family, employers, neighbours) influence the characters’ lives.