This book is not a memoir, although parts of it may look like
a memoir. Nor is it a history of the jigsaw puzzle, although
that is what it was once meant to be. It is a hybrid. I have always
been more interested in content than in form, and I have never
been a tidy writer. My short stories would sprawl into novels, and
one of my novels spread into a trilogy. This book started off as a
small history of the jigsaw, but it has spiralled off in other directions,
and now I am not sure what it is.
I first thought of writing about jigsaws in the autumn of ????, when my young friend Danny Hahn asked me to nominate an icon for a website. This government-sponsored project was collecting English icons to compose a Portrait of England, at a time when Englishness was the subject of much discussion. At random I chose the jigsaw, and if you click on Drabble and jigsaw and icon you can find what I said. I knew little about jigsaws at this point, but soon discovered that they were indeed an English invention as well as a peculiarly English pastime. I then conceived the idea of writing a longer article on the subject, perhaps even a short book. This, I thought, would keep me busy for a while.
I had recently finished a novel, which I intended to be my last, in which I believed myself to have achieved a state of calm and equilibrium. I was pleased with The Sea Lady and at peace with the world. It had been well understood by those whose judgement I most value, and I had said what I wanted to say. I liked the idea of writing something that would take me away from fiction into a primary world of facts and pictures, and I envisaged a brightly coloured illustrated book, glinting temptingly from the shelves of gallery and museum shops amongst the greetings cards, mugs and calendars portraying images from Van Gogh and Monet. It would make a pleasing Christmas present, packed with gems of esoteric information that I would gather, magpie-like, from libraries and toy museums and conversations with strangers. I would become a jigsaw expert. It would fill my time pleasantly, inoffensively. I didnt think anyone had done it before. I would write a harmless little book that, unlike two of my later novels, would not upset or annoy anybody.
It didnt work out like that.
Not long after I conceived of this project, my husband Michael Holroyd was diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer and we entered a regime of radiotherapy and chemotherapy all too familiar to many of our age. He endured two major operations of hitherto unimagined horror, and our way of life changed. He dealt with this with his usual appearance of detachment and stoicism, but as the months went by I felt myself sinking deep into the paranoia and depression from which I thought I had at last, with the help of the sea lady, emerged. I was at the mercy of ill thoughts.
Some of my usual resources for outwitting them, such as taking long solitary walks in the country, were not easily available. I couldnt concentrate much on reading, and television bored me, though DVDs, rented from a film club recommended by my sister Helen, were a help. We were more or less housebound, as we were told to avoid public places because Michaels immune system was weak, and I was afraid of poisoning him, for he was restricted to an unlikely diet consisting largely of white fish, white bread and mashed potato. I have always been a nervous cook, unduly conscious of dietary prohibitions and the plain dislikes of others, and the responsibility of providing food for someone in such a delicate state was a torment.
The jigsaw project came to my rescue. I bought myself a black lacquer table for my study, where I could pass a painless hour or two, assembling little pieces of cardboard into a preordained pattern, and thus regain an illusion of control. But as I sat there, in the large, dark, high-ceilinged London room, in the pool of lamplight, I found my thoughts returning to the evenings I used to spend with my aunt when I was a child. Then I started to think of her old age, and the jigsaws we did together when she was in her eighties. Conscious of my own ageing, I began to wonder whether I might weave these memories into a book, as I explored the nature of childhood.
Excerpted from The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble. Copyright © 2009 by Margaret Drabble. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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