The characters in Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth

I found Here on Earth in a book fair I shouldn’t have gone to but went and, if gone,  I shouldn’t have bought anything which was not on my to-read list, but I did (or so I thought). I saw the cover and it instantly jumped out at me. I looked inside to convince myself to buy it, and off went my resolution. Finding it was accident, serendipity or chance, I don’t know. Neither did I know that I would read it over that weekend abandoning another great nonfiction book I was reading. The name seemed familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it till I came home. It was on my Goodreads to-read list. To think I had added it three years back and it has landed on my shelf only now, without me ever searching for it makes me want to attribute it to fate but I doubt Fate bothers itself with such puny things. Happenstance more like.

I never thought I would like magical realism, and lyrical prose usually annoys me but this was different. In a way it reminded me of The Last Song of Dusk, a book I had liked  but I wasn’t too keen on reading something like that in the near future. But a fair warning, this is not a romance. It is a cautionary tale of doomed love and obsession.

When we are young we believe in so many unrealistic things, like living in a fairytalish world, where everyone gets what they deserve, and every thing works out in the end. Alas, reality isn’t so simple or straightforward. It doesn’t matter if something is fated or not. It’s how we deal with what has happened and what we ultimately do.Here on Earth makes it amply clear.

There was a line in the book, which I cannot find now (I didn’t stop to copy lines until I was near the finish line), about lions and lambs being warm blooded, which chilled me to the bone. They are not as different as the world makes them out to be. Predator and prey are their ecological roles but they belong to the same class (Mammalia). How could I, a student of biology, not have considered this fact before.

Alice Hoffman’s descriptions are otherworldly but felt so real that you want to believe every single word, and hope it doesn’t break your heart but it does. A thing which isn’t real can feel realer than the everyday reality (that we mostly choose not to dwell on). That is the power of fiction written from a honest place; I am surprised every time it shakes me up and makes me see things anew.

After I finished the book I got to know that this is a reworking of Wuthering Heights of which the author is a huge fan. Since I have not read the classic in question (sacrilege I know, more to follow) the effect of this book was only its effect, no hangover. I have  never really wanted to read Wuthering Heights, and now I never will. Too old for obsessive all consuming doomed love.

What follows is a discussion of the characters in the book and not a book review. If you have not read the book now would be the time to stop reading. SPOLIER ALERT!

Unfinished business always comes back to haunt you, and a man who swears he’ll love you forever isn’t finished with you until he’s done.

The central theme of the book can be summed up by the above line. A lot of the book is to do with past and hate, insidious and all consuming hate, which has taken over Hollis’s life and even love cannot set him free. The sad thing is he doesn’t know it till the very end. Hollis is selfish, cruel and plain soulless. For some reason he reminded me of Voldemort, alone and friendless.

March loved Hollis but he wanted to own her and there is no good way to do it without ruining everything. He decided who her friends should be (no one other than him), where she should go (nowhere), and what she should do (nothing), deliberately stifling her independence. It is not Hollis’s circumstances that made him a monster, it is what he was inside. Hollis is the past that awaited March with open arms, to envelope her in a  cage, like a prisoner of war and never let her go.

 She believed that all you wanted, you would eventually receive, and that fate was a force which worked with you, not against you.

 Hank is March’s nephew. Hollis takes him in to exact revenge on his father, Alan, March’s brother. Like Hollis he also does not have much but he grows up to be an upstanding young man, who is grateful for what he has been given (the bare minimum) and never asks for more; a very different person from Hollis even though he grew up in his shadow.

No one gets what he deserves, that’s what Hank is thinking right now. Things happen, and it goes all wrong. An entire life time can become a dead end.

Hollis could have saved Alan, Hank’s father from being an alcoholic but he fuelled his addiction. He could have given his child Hank a proper home, not put just a roof over his head. It was payback  he was after. Revenge had made his heart cold and he had nothing to give but cruelty, and take people’s love to a horrible place from where return was impossible.

Some reviewers had problems with the way she portrayed small town life and the stock characters but I enjoyed it. It was like an eerie, cold and wild Stars Hollow.

If you can’t change a fact of life, then be smart enough to walk away from it, that’s always been Hollis’s motto. Walk away fast.

You can know a person by the philosophy they hold dear and live their lives by. Hollis’s words speak for himself, reveal himself as he is, more than a mirror ever could. When the going gets tough he will avert his face from the reality and bolt. He can’t stand to be entangled or to be vulnerable, and love demands both. He did not love March, he needed her. He was obsessed with her and wanted to possess her,  and keep her in a gilded cage.

March thought Hollis was the love of her life and that she belonged with him and the worst part is, she allowed him to colour her entire life and take over her soul. No human being should have that much power over you. It always ends badly.

He appreciates the topsy-turvy in life; he is always believed , for instance, that mutation is good for a species. If he’d been someone who was easily convinced by statistics, rather than a man who rejoiced in the odd and unprecedented, he would never have gone after March in the first place.

Richard, March’s husband, is a nice and an even tempered human being, who understands bugs better than people (he is an entomologist). A little is known about his career and how devoted he was to his studies and students, but it is never made clear why he loved March. He chose her knowing that she didn’t love him but perhaps thought that she could love him for all the kindness and generosity he had showered upon her. But love works in strange ways. It does not follow Newton’s law of action and reaction. She did grow to care for him but she never loved him. It was Hollis she was crazy about. And to be honest I don’t think she loved him either.

Look at the trouble love brings. Look at the mess it makes.

Hollis and March share many similar traits. Both are selfish, reckless and destination bound for destruction. This is not love. They cannot save each other. They ruin each other. But March is not vindictive or cruel like Hollis, who wouldn’t think twice before killing a defenseless creature to make his point.

When all is said and done, the weather and love are the two elements about which one can never be sure. That’s what you learn at sixty, and, as it turns out, no one is ever surprised by this bit of news.

This book is full of secrets. The affair behind the stable marriage and the heartbreak behind the companionship, the not so perfect family life that the world does not see. Judge wonders about the age old question, can one love two people at the same time. I think the question should be, can he love them as they deserve to be loved? The answer is there in the book itself. His daughter Susie cannot commit to anyone for the fear that her relationship would turn to be like her parents. We inherit so much more than our genes and pick up things they never would have wanted their offspring to.

We never know the whole truth nor do we wait to see all the sides of it before we make our decision or pass judgement. It’s always a case of fill in the blanks. That’s what we do all our lives, yet we never stop passing snap judgements. I have written people out of my life before hearing their side of the story so I know a thing or two about judgement and the damage it causes.

For Hank and Gwen, the setting and the truths it revealed this book was tolerable in spite of the annoying and self absorbed lead characters. The saving grace. Hank is an unreal character, in the sense that he is too good to be true. But people like him do exist. They not only balance out evil, they rein evil in and make the world a better place.

What he feels for her is tearing him apart and keeping him together and, it appears it is also turning him into a liar.

The humour in unexpected places is like stumbling onto a treasure on a dark road.

History is personal, Gwen understands that now. All you are seeing is what’s before you, the rest is guesswork.

Alice Hoffman must love dogs and be a dog owner herself. There are three pet dogs in the book whose names we know of (many nameless dogs populate the book too) and she has given them each a character.

She has a way of forming unlikely connections and making them work and it is lovely when the reader discovers it. I wished there was an epilogue. I would have liked to have known how their lives turned out. Fiction reveals the truth which is easily palatable sometimes, better than the grim reality which offers no consolation whatsoever.

As the book ended, for me the most interesting character changed from Hank to Alan. And for some strange reason he reminded me of Boo Radley. You have to read the book to find out.

 Among men and women, those in love do not always announce themselves with declarations and vows. But they are the ones who weep when you’re gone.


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