Machine without Horses, by Helen Humphreys. Pub 2018
I bought this one last year on the strength of the author – Helen Humphreys is a long-time favourite – but ended up reading Wild Dogs instead. I came back to this one on vacation, on my e-reader after my pile of books held nothing more entrancing.
This novel is surprising in that it is part memoir and part novel. The memoir part is about the author’s experience in trying to write the novel, including her original inspiration, her process, her starts and stops, research, and life. It was an interesting glimpse into the process of writing a novel based on a real person, using elements of fact to create fiction.
The additional surprise was the topic – Megan Boyd, a Scottish woman who was both famous and obscure, a salmon flydresser known to thousands for her prodigious and exquisite flies. Her life has been covered sparsely, but given glorious tribute in the film Kiss the Water (2013, Eric Steel).
In the memoir section, Humphreys describes how she struggles to fill in the blanks for this undocumented life, wanting to respect the person but also recognizing the need to tell a story. Her own attempts at fly tying, her own recent experiences, and her life in general eventually find their way into the story.
In the novel section, Humphreys is true to form, with lovely descriptions of people and places, dramatizing the facts of Megan’s (in the novel, she is Ruth) life with elements that feel true and sad. Also true to form is the tragic lesbian love story, but the memoir portion of the book explains this and makes it feel more true than in many of her previous novels. The one character that stands out as odd and made-up is Captain Asher; while the relationship makes sense, his demeanour and dialogue seem unreal, almost narrating Ruth’s life in a way that feels contrived, and flies in the face of the “show, don’t tell” rule for stories. The best element of the novel section is that it ultimately portrays the Ruth character as sympathetic and content, if romantically unfulfilled.
There was also an uncharacteristic anachronism – during a scene that takes place during WWII, she refers to HRH (meaning Prince Charles) as a VIP who visits. Although rooted in fact (Charles did indeed meet her), he wasn’t yet born in WWII, and so unlikely to be ordering flies then.
The title refers to a Scottish country dance that the character especially enjoys.
Overall, this was enjoyable, but both sections felt a bit rushed, with the memoir part perhaps being overlong, and the novel part a bit too short.