Reviewed by Simon
Delta Wedding might win the award for the most beautiful book I’ve read for this issue of Shiny New Books – as an object, I mean, though the term can also apply to the writing. Along with the other new reprints from Apollo (an imprint of Head of Zeus), the paper quality, choice of image, and interesting directional lines on the cover, come together to make a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Luckily the inside of the book lives up to the exterior.
The premise for Welty’s 1945 novel is there in the title: a wedding is taking place in the deep South, and the whole family are gathering around for it. There are no mentions of war: this may have been written during World War Two, but is set back in 1923 – a couple of decades but a million miles away. The wedding is quite simple – 19 year old Dabney Fairchild is marrying a man twice her age, without any real noticeable connection between them, though nobody seems overly concerned about whether or not the match will be a happy or unhappy one. But the lead-up to the wedding is anything but simple, filled with the minutiae of family arguments, anxieties, and affections.
This is not a novel to read for plot or structure. The only other one of Welty’s works that I’ve read, The Optimist’s Daughter, is much leaner and forward-focused, and (it has to be said) probably better; Delta Wedding is a novel to wade into, enjoying the patchwork which is woven around the reader, never quite settling or knowing which direction to go in.
There is a crowd of voices and perspectives, starting with young Laura McRaven, who is Dabney’s cousin and whose mother has recently died. She yearns to be one of the wedding party, wearing one of the dresses which (scandalously) are in different shades of red – but, as she explains to everybody, she cannot because her mother has died. The moment where she finally is co-opted into the wedding party is very Welty indeed: it turns out to be an obstacle that never really existed. As soon as Laura puts the wish into words, it is granted by her aunt without a second thought.
Laura’s view, as cousin but outsider, is a good start for the reader trying also to get to grips with this vast family of Fairchilds. And it truly is vast. Praise be for whoever put together a family tree online, which came in handy – there are far too many characters, really, so that I only got the impression of individuals among a mass (with some notable exceptions, such as Dabney). And that is probably how Laura encountered them too, with her constantly observing eyes:
Laura from her earliest memory had heard how they “never seemed to change at all.” That was the way her mother who had been away from them down in Jackson where they would be hard to believe, could brag on them without seeming to. And yet Laura could see that they changed every moment. The outside did not change but the inside did; an iridescent life was busy within and under each alikeness. Laughter at something went over the table; Laura found herself with a picture in her mind of a great bower-like cage full of tropical birds her father had shown her in a zoo in a city – the sparkle of motion was like a rainbow, while it was the very thing that broke your heart, for the birds that flew were caged all the time and could not fly out. The Fairchilds’ movements were quick and on the instant, and that made you wonder, are they free? Laura was certain that they were compelled – their favorite word.
You can see, there, the richness of Welty’s writing. She hops from person to person, observing and reflecting and getting beneath a character’s skin to show us their motivations and hidden weaknesses. But we never sit still for long – whether it is the great-aunts who must bestow a gift on the young bride, or the uncle and aunt whose marriage seems to splinter on one vocal argument, or the last-minute organisations that seem to fall foul – it is all a bit dizzying. A reader can perhaps be forgiven for retreating to the original viewpoint, Laura, and the fragility with which she negotiates the maelstrom. It is in those moments, I found, that Welty is at her most poignant:
And it was as if they had considered her mother all the time as belonging, in her life and in her death (for they took Laura and let her see the grave), as belonging here; they considered Shellmound the important part of life and death too. All they remembered and told her about was likely to be before Laura was born, and they could say so easily, “Before – or after – Annie Laurie died…”, to count the time of a dress being made or a fruit tree planted.
Each page has moments of depth and insight, and Welty excellently conveys the stiff heat of the season throughout. And the reader comes out the other end feeling rather as though they have been stifled in the crowd, claustrophobic but at the same time cared for. In this large family, every way we turn there is somebody to try to understand, affections and relationships overlapping, never standing still for long enough to analyse. If Delta Wedding doesn’t have the compact discipline of The Optimist’s Daughter, it is ambitious in an entirely different way – and leaves the reader feeling immersed, enriched, and perhaps a little exhausted.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Eudora Welty, Delta Wedding (London, 2016). 978-1784971680, 314pp., paperback.
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