Jigsaws, the history of toys, family, and death
The aging author reflects upon her beloved maiden aunt Phyllis and their shared companionable time spent doing jigsaw puzzles. At first interested in producing a short book to be sold in museum gift shops, Drabble, a writer and a scholar, follows different trails, writing brief ruminations on children’s primers, needlepoint, and homey anecdotes of the privates lives of royals and the great English authors. Not only Auntie Phyl, but Drabble’s father, Robert Southey, Jane Austen and a host of other historical characters come to life.
Three hundred fifty pages about jigsaw puzzles. Near the beginning my will grew faint – I remembered the time I tried to read that Alice Munro memoir and bailed on page 7. However, I like, no, love, Margaret Drabble and hung around to find my patience rewarded. The book is deceptively simple in structure – it seems meandering, but it possibly is not. There are certainly plenty of references to the Oulipo school. The book is also a meditation on growing old, a lookback over a writing life. It’s hard to categorize. Jigsaw puzzles and Auntie Phyl and her rural village are the touchpoints the author returns to. Throughout history, society has tried to emphasize the pedagogical nature of jigsaws, even though they are essentially just time killers. Certain people seem attracted to the deep satisfaction finishing one brings. It’s a treatise on going on off on tangents.