Cold Mountain

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I've been re-reading Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain for the third time over the past few weeks, and I had this overwhelming urge to write about it today. I call Cold Mountain one of my 'colour' books. This may sound a bit odd, and it's a bit difficult to explain, but I'll do my best.

I often link things with specific colours, such as days of the week, or months. For example, Monday is yellow, Tuesday is blue, Wednesday is orange, Thursday is purple, Friday is black, Saturday is white and Sunday is green. When I think of a day, my mind makes an immediate colour association. I've been doing this since I was little and it only became a conscious thing to me when I realised the rest of my family doesn't do it. I've since learnt that it's fairly common, that certain people's brains just associate things with specific colours, the way some people are conversely colour blind. There's a specific term for it, but I forgot what it is.

The strange thing is, when it comes to books, I don't link every one of them with a colour, but only specific ones. The books that have a deep emotional or personal impact on me become associated with colours, while those that I connect with on a primarily intellectual level, don't.

Cold Mountain has a colour palette for me because I found it deeply moving on so many levels. I guess I'm explaining this to you as a way to highlight why I've chosen the specific images for this post. They are rather beautiful, but they are not merely pretty decorations for my words, but a form of expressing to you why I love this novel. Just look at the colours and the tone of the images, and I think you'll know why.

The images are by Laura Makabresku. When I first saw them a few weeks ago I was struck by an uncanny feeling that I saw them before in my mind when reading Cold Mountain. I immediately emailed Laura to ask her if I could feature her images on my blog and she very kindly said yes. Thank you Laura, I really appreciate it, this post would not be the same without your images.

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The only moments of rest were after the supper dishes had been washed and put away. Then Ada and Ruby sat on the porch and Ada would read aloud in the time remaining before dark. Books and their contents were a great novelty to Ruby, and so Ada had reckoned that the place to begin was near the beginning. After filling Ruby in on who the Greeks were, she had begun reading from Homer. (p. 101)

Cold Mountain has a simple plot. It is an Odyssean tale, set in the South of America during the Civil War. What drives the narrative is Ada and Inman's love story told across the expanse of distance and separation. I think one of the reasons why this novel moved me so much is because the characters felt like human beings to me. I felt like I knew them. This is no small accomplishment for a writer. And yet, we learn very little about them through their time together as lovers. It is as yearning individuals that they are shaped as human beings as we catch glimpses of their personal histories through letters and flashbacks. Like the books Ada reads to Ruby, details of their lives come and go as shy guests, imparting a little detail, and quietly departing. It is this careful creation of the immediate present mediated by past and future that renders the novel's structure both intricate and honest.

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Inman had but the back of her head to find Ada by, yet that took only a moment since her dark hair was done up in a heavy and intricate plait of such recent fashion that it was not then known in the mountains. Below where her hair was twisted up, two faint cords of muscles ran up under the skin on either side of her white neck to hold her head on. Between them a scoop, a shaded hollow of skin. Curls too fine to be worked up into the plait. All through the hymn, Inman's eyes rested there, so that after awhile, even before he saw her face, all he wanted was to press two fingertips against that mystery place. (p. 74)

Nevertheless, over all those wasted years, he had held in his mind the wish to kiss her there at the back of her neck, and now he had done it. There was a redemption of some kind, he believed, in such complete fulfillment of a desire so long deferred. (p. 407)

Writing a love story is a tricky and tenuous business. So often, stories such as these collapse into arrays of sexual encounters, in an unbroken assumption that sex not only equals love, but is also the ultimate expression of it. Frazier relies on minuscule details to express love, on those fragile aspects of our bodies rendered inexplicably beautiful through love and desire. He relies on what we make vulnerable to a lover. His love story also relies on subtle comparisons. Here, between the expanse of many pages that mirror the distance Ada and Inman have to cross for a tiny physical encounter, it is the comparison between initial desire and its altered fulfillment.

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His hand at her waist touched the whalebones of her corset stays, and when she took a step back and looked at him, the bones creaked against each other as she moved and breathed. She guessed she felt to him like a terrapin shut up inside its hull, giving little evidence that a distinct living thing, warm and in its skin, lay inside. (pp. 248-9).

His stomach and back still held the press of Ada's palms. And as he squatted there in the dark of Cold Mountain, that loving touch seemed like the key to life on earth. Whatever words were in him that needed saying, they ranked as nothing to that laying on of hands. (p. 404)

Another beautiful comparison. I think this is like the antithesis of the bodice-ripper romance novel. The whalebone corset as evidence of circumstances and culture, the flesh of the palm as a symbol of life and instinct. This may be quite simple, but very few novels can carry such simple meanings effectively. Like Laura's image, which I've chosen for these two passages, there seems to be a dialogue between distance and merging, and it is done so delicately, that I can't help but read these passages over and over again.

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The children were sleepy, and morning would dawn as early and demanding as always. Time to go inside and cover up the coals and pull in the latch. (p. 436)

For such a sweeping story, Cold Mountain attains its beauty through accumulation of unassuming details and a raw honesty to the unpredictability of life and everyday details of existence. Reading this novel is a process of ear-marking every other page, wanting to retain some of the lines you have just read.

All images by Laura Makabresku. Visit her blog and flickr account. Thanks again Laura, you are incredibly talented.

The copy of the book I've quoted from is: Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003.