1650, book review, Ely, engineering, England, feminism, historical fiction, introspection, land, literary fiction, lucid prose, Manhattan, Nieuw Amsterdam, seventeenth century, Stella Tillyard, the Netherlands, water
Review: Call Upon the Water, by Stella Tillyard
Atria, 2019. 269 pp. $26
Summoned to England in 1649 to help oversee the draining and development of wetlands called the Great Level, Jan Brunt, a Dutch engineer, seeks professional advancement. A reserved, taciturn man who outwardly reveals little other than his seriousness of purpose, within, he harbors great passion for the natural world he would master. Sharp-eyed and introspective, Jan follows currents of thought like the watercourses he strives to control, both of which lead him to startling places. Most significantly, his ramblings bring him to Eliza, a reactive, passionate woman of the fens where he measures and surveys. Such people, according to Jan’s informants, are half-savage and of no account. But Eliza and Jan begin an affair that prompts him to question much of what he thought he knew of life.
From this tantalizing premise, Tillyard weaves a narrative at once physical and metaphysical, using the most basic elements, water and land. With an elegant simplicity I admire, Call Upon the Water explores what land and water mean, how will and freedom struggle against natural and human-made obstacles, and what that implies for love between two people of very different worlds and outlooks. Consequently, Tillyard offers a profound look into our essential surroundings, which usually pass unnoticed because they’re constantly within sight. Her novel gradually takes you over, giving you much to ponder, a magic that begins with her deceptively simple prose:
I am a Dutchman and an islander. Water and the sky are safe to me as my mother’s skirts. I know an empty silence and a full silence. Stand still in a full silence and it’s loud with noises. A heron takes flight; he creaks like a ship in sail. Ducks scuffle in the reeds. I hear the beat of wings, the movement of creatures in the grass, water rippling, and the wind that accompanies me everywhere, sighing and roaring. Nature, that seems so quiet, pours out its songs. Even in the darkness there is a velvet purr of sound, of moles underground and field mice above.
Tillyard uses similar pared-down, evocative language to establish the way things work in the 1650s, whether she’s recounting Jan’s surveying procedures, describing the harbor of Nieuw Amsterdam (which figures in the story), or narrating how indentured servants live in North America. These vivid pictures show Tillyard’s grasp of social history, and a deep one it is. What a shame, then, that the jacket flap reduces this rich, complex portrait to a bland recitation that goes out of its way to spoil the story, recounting the action up until about the last thirty pages. If you read Call Upon the Water — and there are good reasons to do so — do not, repeat, not look at the jacket flap.
Now that I’ve said that, I confess I wound up liking the book less than I thought I would. That’s partly because the storytelling jumps around from the Great Level to Nieuw Amsterdam and elsewhere like a restless traveler. It’s as though Tillyard has set her sights on a circular narrative with two beginnings that eventually meet, and she’s invested too much in this device to back away from it. But if we’re meant to be surprised on reaching that long-awaited junction, the resulting aha! doesn’t justify the heavy lifting required to get there. Similarly, when Jan realizes he loves Eliza, a shift in narrative perspective calls undue attention to itself, an affectation particularly unnecessary, since the words already convey how smitten he is. Tillyard doesn’t need artifice to tell this, or any other, story.
Conversely, she seems oddly unwilling to clarify certain aspects of her narrative, perhaps because she fears to show or tell too much, another form of artifice. Still, I want to know why Eliza behaves in certain ways, or what she sees in Jan, worthy though he is; yet, for much of the novel, she’s a shadow figure. When her voice finally appears toward the end, it’s a shock, more so because I don’t find her entirely credible. To cite one example, I like her feminism, which she sums up as, “No man should think because I am a woman and a slighter shaped, that my eyes and my thoughts are smaller than theirs. That is a mistake easy to fall into, as others have done.”
But I don’t know how she comes to this attitude, which surely begs for explanation, especially in 1650. Nor do I understand how Jan and Eliza manage to ignore conflicts inherent in their relationship—not that they have to talk them through, but they should at least recognize that they’re there. All you know is that Eliza claims a preternatural ability to house deep or inconvenient feelings in well-contained, separate compartments. I’m not convinced.
Despite these reservations though, I can recommend Call Upon the Water as a portrayal of life seldom seen, with much to reflect on, told in marvelous prose. For many, that will be more than enough.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher, in return for an honest review.