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Excerpt from Tenderness by Alison MacLeod, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Alison MacLeod

Tenderness by Alison MacLeod X
Tenderness by Alison MacLeod
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  • Published:
    Nov 2021, 640 pages


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In his half-sleep, under the watch of the English nurse, he could feel his feet slipping again into his old rope-soled sandals. His linen hat had a wide brim, and used to shade his eyes as he wrote behind the Mirenda. That final autumn in Tuscany, he'd decamped to the wood each morning, where he sat, pillow beneath his arse, spine supported by an umbrella pine, and hand flying fiercely across the pages as he out-ran his prognosis.

A novel into which one poured life became a life. He'd felt the force of his story coursing through its lines as blood courses through veins, as milk rises in a breast, as sap surges in wood.

Lizards ran across his feet, and birds hopped, heedless of him. Only his wrist moved. In the wind, the trunk of the pine flexed at his back, elastic and powerful. Violets spread at his feet in blue shadows. Moss breathed. A spring, banked in wild gladioli, bubbled up, dedicated to a neglected saint. On an overhanging branch, an enamel mug dangled for pilgrims and hot children.

He never saw either but, each morning, a priest in his black cassock nodded as he rushed through the wood on his way to celebrate Mass or bless the sheaves. A dog raced through the underbrush from time to time. Cicadas rattled, and in the neighbouring fields, girls sang as they cut the corn.

Far below, on the Arno's river-plain, Florence was a beautiful jigsaw of clay-pot roofs, cypresses and bright campaniles, while at the centre of the eternal world, the duomo rose up, benign and reticent.

To Secker, what had he written as his novel fattened? 'It's a bit of a revolution,' he said,'a bit of a bomb.'

On their arrival at Robermond, following the escape from the sad Astra, Frieda started unpacking their things in an uncharacteristic display of industry. As she made up his bed, she pointed to the blood- stains on his old pillow, but he refused to allow her, or their house- keeper, to take it, and Frieda, as happily slovenly here as anywhere, did not press the point, even in the face of the English nurse's discreet horror. Instead, she kicked off her shoes, stretched out on the cool marble floor, and instructed Barby to see to everything else.

In any other cottage, house or villa, he'd always set to work smack off, scrubbing floors – braces tied to waist – digging their kitchen garden, whitewashing walls, building shelves, running up curtains, making jam. They used to say I had too much of the woman in me— Frieda, by contrast, would never succumb to bourgeois necessity if she might stretch her limbs in the sun or on a cool floor, or sit at the piano and sing. she told him she knew what life was for, and he both loved and despised her for it. He used to quip to friends that, together, they made one great beast of burden; he was the beast, and she, the burden.

It was time. The nurse levered him up from his demi-monde of sleep. she felt for the galloping pulse in his wrist, silenced his complaints with a thermometer under his tongue, and pounded his pillow and bolster into submission. All the while, the strabismus-skew of her eyes studiously, if errantly, avoided his.

Had he been unkind? he wondered. Had he shouted at her? Perhaps. He hardly knew. He felt as weak as a lamb. But it had been a lucky body in spite of everything, a good body, energetic and wiry. A doctor had told Frieda he should have been dead years ago, but bloody-mindedness had preserved him until this, the advanced age of forty-four. He would not go quietly.

The English nurse reached for the shutters' handles, and her starched breast all but brushed the side of his head. He had a vague instinct to turn, open his mouth and suck. Instead a spasm of coughing overtook him. He and the bed-frame quaked.

'What's it all about?' he mumbled, breathless, breast-less, to the room.

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Excerpted from Tenderness by Alison MacLeod. Copyright © 2021 by Alison MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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