Are You Curious about Creative Nonfiction?

Here’s a Terrific Summer Read: The Paper Garden, by Molly Peacock

A captivating example of creative nonfiction is the biography The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock. The author juggles multiple subjects, including her own story, in the hallmark form of this genre. Her views and personality resonate with the same clarity as her primary subject: “Mrs. Delany,” a 17th century English artist and correspondent, who created hundreds of flower mosaics from layers of hand-coloured paper. Peacock uses her close up examination of these mosaics, held in a major British museum, as metaphors for Delany’s inner life and experiences (a device I sometimes found a tad longwinded). And yet the end result is a portrait so lifelike I feel I’ve met both the artist and her biographer.

The Author as Character in Creative Nonfiction

DSCN3835The contrast between Delany’s life—in the vastly different land of the past—and the author’s own experiences (which are interjected sparingly) underscores how much has changed for women, and how much remains the same. As a third strand Peacock inserts the story of her discovery of Delany’s art work and rich correspondence with a beloved sister, building that narrative thread until near the end, when she inserts the story of a  descendant. All these streams are layered together into a complex and intricate tale that has the feel of one of Mrs. Delany’s mosaics, with their nuanced, intricate detailing. The job is done with a deft hand, giving us just enough—and at the right moments—to heighten our interest Delany’s life and art.

The new character Peacock introduces near the end is Mrs. Delany’s many-times-removed great-niece. Under some treatments it could have been a failing to introduce someone new at this late point–asking the reader to care about yet one more person. (Doesn’t every writing instructor say this is a no-no?) But in this case it adds to the interest. The great-niece’s obsession with her ancestor and the insights it brings her answers the ultimate question about the value of historical biographies about the meaning and relevance of past lives for present generations.

I look forward to reading this lavishly illustrated book again as a writer to pick apart Peacock’s well-crafted process.