The Years by Virginia Woolf

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Other reviews tell me that this isn’t as good as Mrs Dalloway or To The Lighthouse – having read all three books now, I will concede the Mrs Dalloway point, but I think I liked The Years better than To the Lighthouse. The two stories are similar, in that they deal with an extended family and the perspective switches from person to person and the closest you get to an action scene is everyone sitting around and talking, but the scope of The Years is much wider (it deals with several generations of a family and spans decades, rather than a couple years) and seemed, at least to me, to be slightly easier to follow than To the Lighthouse. I would definitely have better luck explaining the plot of this book to someone who had never read it.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about, and not what you came here to see. The reason I write Woolf book reviews isn’t to write a critique of the books (because who am I to analyze Woolf?) but to quote the everloving bejeezus out of whatever I just read, because no one is more equipped to demonstrate the greatness of Virginia Woolf than Woolf herself.

Reading this book made me realize yet another reason I love Woolf’s writing – the scope of her writing is immense. She draws back and describes entire cities from a deity-like distance, seen here when she shows us England in the snow:

“Snow was falling; snow had fallen all day. The sky spread like a grey goose’s wing from which feathers were falling all over England. The sky was nothing but a flurry of falling flakes. Lanes were levelled; hollows filled; the snow clogged the streams, obscured windows, and lay wedged against doors. There was a faint murmur in the air, a slight crepitation, as if the air itself were turning to snow; otherwise all was silent, save when a sheep coughed, snow flopped from a branch, or slipped in an avalanche down some roof in London. Now and again a shaft of light spread slowly across the sky as a car drove through the muffled roads. But as the night wore on, snow covered the wheel ruts; softened to nothingness the marks of the traffic, and coated monuments, palaces and statues with a thick vestment of snow.”

and then she zooms in a little bit, like this perfect description of the crowd at an opera:

“The orchestra was still tuning up; the players were laughing, talking and turning round in their seats as they fiddled busily with their instruments. She stood looking down at the stalls. The floor of the house was in a state of great agitation. People were passing to their seats; they were sitting down and getting up again; they were taking off their cloaks and signalling to friends. They were like birds settling on a field. In the boxes white figures were appearing here and there; white arms rested on the ledges of boxes; white shirt-fronts shone beside them. The whole house glowed – red, gold, cream-colored, and smelt of clothes and flowers, and echoed with the squeaks and trills of the instruments and with the buzz and hum of voices. …Lights winked on ladies’ arms as they turned; ripples of light flashed, stopped, and then flashed the opposite way as they turned their heads.”

and then she goes closer, looking at objects on an almost microscopic level, until we share her fascination with ordinary objects and people:

“But what vast gaps there were, what blank spaces, she thought, leaning back in her chair, in her knowledge! How little she knew about anything. Take this cup, for instance; she held it out in front of her. What was it made of? Atoms? And what were atoms, and how did they stick together? The smooth hard surface of the china with its red flowers seemed to her for a second a marvelous mystery.”

That’s why I love Virginia Woolf: she can look at a snowstorm in a city, and a single china cup, and study both of them with the same level of interest and detail, and make both subjects seem new and fascinating. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go stare at my dishes and think about my life for a while.

Verdict:four out of five stars

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