Alan Garner's "Thursbitch"

Alan Garner’s “Thursbitch”

Well, here we have it, the first 5/5 stars review of the Placing Myself challenge! I hardly know where to start but, my goodness, what a novel Alan Garner’s Thursbitch is.

Before I began reading, I don’t mind admitting that I had absolutely no idea what to expect from this author. I have never come across any of his earlier books, some of which are for children, and almost all said to be even better than this one (how?!), but I know now that his life’s work has combined archaeology, mythology, fantasy and a huge helping of folklore, all deeply rooted, at various points in time, in his native county of Cheshire, and written in what some choose to describe as the ‘Cheshire dialect’ (think Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but more on that later.)

This particular novel finds its setting in the remote and eerie valley of Thursbitch and the adjacent town of Saltersford. Jack Turner is a Saltersford jagger, or packman, who travels the long trade routes of 1730s England, returning home with strange goods and extraordinary stories of the outside world. In Derby and London he even witnesses the practice of Christianity – a religion that remains completely unknown and unintelligible to the valley where, from time immemorial, pagan monoliths, Bacchic worship (led by Shaman Jack himself) and cultic rituals dedicated to nature and her seasons have ruled the day, and indeed the night. In fact, the Tors are infused with a kind of spiritual energy or “electrical magic”that can still be felt 250 years later by Ian and Sal, two sharp-eyed walkers who explore the region in the present day.

Thursbitch Map2Thursbitch Map

Thursbitch Map3

These are some maps2 (click to enlarge) of real-life Thursbitch in Cheshire. Many surrounding places named by Garner are visible too, from Pike Low to Blue Boar, Billinge and Rainow, Lamaload, Cats Tor, Shining Tor, Old Nick’s Gate, Todd’s Brook, Jenkin Chapel, Nab End and Ewrin Lane, where Martha Barber lives and Jack meets his death. Like the valley, Garner’s Jack/John Turner is based on reality; not much is known of him, though he was clearly important to the valley, lived at Saltersford Hall and died in mysterious circumstances on Ewrin Lane, where his memorial stone still stands.

Ewrin Lane

Ewrin Lane

Alongside Jack’s personal struggles, he and his family must wrestle against the signs of modernity that are “shouldering their way”3 into the valley in the forms of this new, brutish religion and the threat of the “land man” (108), who wants to dissect the entire, wild region with stone walls according to the new property rights of the 18th century Enclosure Acts. Ian and Sal, symbolic of both religion and science in the 21st century, have their own challenges to face, too: to define their relationship, to comprehend the ways of Thursbitch and understand its curious monoliths, and to cope with Sal’s neuro-degenerative condition that is attacking her mind and body, snatching away memories and the capacity for movement.

However, it is not the plot, original and fascinating though it is, that strikes one most when reading this novel, but Garner’s unique style, which he describes with great directness below:

“I write as few words as possible and describe the minimum of activity […] There is rarely any mention of the physical appearance of a character, nor is dialogue indicated by other than the verb ‘to say’, if at all. I do not tell the reader what the character is thinking or feeling […] [There is] sparse use of adjectives and the all but total exclusion of adverbs. The use of metaphor whenever possible, in place of a simile, also focuses the text. […] Every world has to fight to prove its need to exist.”4

It is easy, when the writer himself is brave enough to put it into such definitive terms, to nod in agreement with these observations; Garner does indeed use a minimalist style of description, sometimes only providing the bare bones of characterisation or deliberately undermining the significance of certain events so that comprehension of the plot comes in fits and starts. His use of bald dialogue – i.e. short printed lines without the interruptions of pronouns or adjectives – is also particularly distinctive.

A view from Shining Tor to Cats Tor

A view from Shining Tor to Cats Tor

Of course, the instinctive reaction of many upon reading that description will be much akin to my mother’s: Oh, I can’t be bothered with all that high-art fuss. Just get on and tell the story. Indeed, Telegraph reviewer Michael Faber points out how “’Reader-un-friendly’” the book can be, with its dialectical language and “thin”5 characterisation. John Harrison of the Guardian also has a jibe at the characters, who have “none of the emotional depth” he would like, doing nothing but “bitch and moan and make aggressively metaphysical statements”6. Even the Times’ Erica Wagner, who is ultimately positive about the novel, admits to being in two minds about Garner’s complex method which “is as much archaeological as it is literary; and not just because he writes of stones”3. Garner himself admits to his novel being, like Thursbitch, “a melting pot of the mind”1, the pursuit of understanding it enough to drive one mad.


Looking north towards Thursbitch and Cats Tor

Looking north towards Thursbitch and Cats Tor

Garner’s extended description of his style is self-deprecating, suggesting his work is a technical nightmare to read, perhaps that it is impenetrable, unemotional, an academic exercise. But it’s not. His paragraphs may be short and blunt but the emotional and poetic impact of the words he uses is timeless, flowing; this is truly “an epic poem in prose”4. Garner doesn’t appear as ‘the creator’ or ‘the narrator’ in his novels – if his detail in this regard or in his characterisation is lacking then it is only “to emphasise the superiority of ancient landscape to the ant-like humans who crawl across it”5. One must only look slightly beneath the surface – embrace confusion initially to reap the reward of understanding in the end – to see how reader-friendly, how generous, the novel actually is.

The ‘Cheshire dialect’ is also something critics seem to get hung up on when reviewing this novel; for all the wrong reasons, and perhaps this is part of why Michael Faber identifies the novel as “’reader-unfriendly’”. Indeed, there are words in the text that people not from Cheshire may struggle to transliterate – “thole” (8), for example, means ‘to endure’ – for, as Garner claims, even “the modern Cheshire English is closer to ‘Gawain’”4 than it is to Standard English. Wonderful as this is to contemplate for someone with an interest in language and literature across all borders, I shy away from obsession. Garner has defined the language he uses as North-West Mercian Middle English and, in his later career, refuses to simplify it for the benefit of his readers, since it is not “’some kind of music-hall act’”5. It is a shame, then, that readers and critics still spend so much time gawping over his choice of language, as at a freak show, being either put off or, equally wrongly, overly enamoured with the “linguistic Pennine barrier”5 they see created in his fiction.

The valley of Thursbitch

The valley of Thursbitch

I absolutely abhor the word ‘dialect’, and refuse to use it in almost any context. ‘Dialect’ implies linguistic abnormality, a deviation from ‘proper’ English, which is insulting, patronising and incorrect. I don’t know anyone, and I would guess that nobody does, who speaks pure ‘Standard English’. I don’t even think I would particularly recognise it if I heard it. To categorise Alan Garner’s English as ‘other’ while not even fully understanding one’s own seems discriminatory and hypocritical. There are no dialects, only languages equally important, equally evolved, equally poetic when put to the right use. Therefore, when critics such as John Harrison praises Garner’s “blunt poetry of dialect”6 it literally makes me cringe. The implication is that the language is apt and beautiful simply because it’s ‘not quite normal’. It’s a kind of aw, bless critique one might apply to a child’s misnomers.

The novel is poetic, Harrison is right, but it is the whole novel, not merely in Jack’s historic chapters and not solely due to a few unfamiliar words. The pagan sections are full of song and dance and ritualistic incantation, with sentences long and winding or short and repetitive, like cycles of the seasons or gusts of swirling wind; the passages exude the rhythm of the earth, the poetry of faith and the solemnity of heavy stones. But Ian and Sal’s modern exchanges display poetry too as the debate between religion and science takes over; rocks are discussed as “Namurian. Chatworth Grit” with “recessed eroded scarp face[s] […] freeze-thaw joints” and “stress phenomena” (11) while Ian brings out his “Jesuitical pyrotechnics” (123) in a discussion of whether there exists a “sentient landscape” (87) or true “place of understanding” (152). Words swirl around each other or are fired like arrows in quick wordplay, and rhythm is traumatised further by the occasional drawn-out emotional outburst. The poetry differs, but there is poetry through it all, if one cares to look for it; the poetry of mystery and unanswered questions.

Thoon, the powerful, rocky outcrop associated in the novel with Bull and Dionysos.

Thoon, the powerful, rocky outcrop associated in the novel with Bull and Dionysos.

While the novel is complex and merits several readings, none of the uncertainty the reader faces in its pages can sap the pleasure of reading such a carefully-crafted, moving work; in fact, the mystery only adds to the experience. The fog of the reader’s uncertainty strikes me as being like a fog that cradles shadowy Thursbitch; a fog of energy and mystery that, even without complete comprehension can, if one engages with it, bring to life the spirits of stone, of nature, of fertility, of mortality and immortality, and bathe the reader, the characters and the valley in moods of danger, love and secrecy. Myth and folklore are enlivened through the readers’ imaginations as much as Garner’s, and if one is receptive to getting a little lost in language and allusion (which seems deliberate of Garner), and to recognising the narrative as being so much more than a sum of its undescriptive, minimalist parts, and to relying on oneself, as well as the author, to find depth and meaning in the plot and characters, then the sense of fulfilment in the reading experience is truly awe-inspiring.

Well, I’ve spent so long writing about Garner’s style and haven’t got around to what I usually love to engage in, a close reading of his themes. Still, that’s enough to be getting on with. There might be another edition coming soon!

In the meantime, why not get reading my next book? It’s The Killing Jar by Nicola Monaghan. Who knows, it might be another 5 starrer!

Update: Part 2 of this review can now be found here. Enjoy!

1 GARNER, Alan. “The Valley of the Demon.” Lecture first delivered at Knutford Literary Festival, 4th October 2013. Available online: http://alangarner.atspace.org/votd.html

Maps 1 and 2: http://www.streetmap.co.uk/. Map 3: http://www.rainow.org.

WAGNER, Erica. “Valley of the Living Dread”. Review published in the Times, 20th September 2003. Also available online: http://alangarner.atspace.org/times3.html

4 RENNER, B. “An Interview with Alan Garner.” Article published on Elimae.com, 15th April 2004. http://www.elimae.com/interviews/garner.html

FABER, Michael. “Oh, perispomenon!”. Review published in The Daily Telegraph, 5th October 2003. Accessed online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3603911/Oh-perispomenon.html

HARRISON, John. “Rubbing Salt in the Wounds.” Review published in The Guardian, 18th October 2003. Accessed online: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/oct/18/fiction.alangarner

GARNER, Alan. Thursbitch. London: Vintage, 2004.

Featured Image: The real John Turner’s Memorial Stone on Ewrin Lane, near Saltersford. The full inscription reads “Here John Turner was cast away in a storm in the night in or about the year 1755. The print of a woman’s shoe was found by his side in the snow where he lay dead.” (It is thought the date is wrong; his death was more likely in 1735.)


Buried Dead

Berlie Doherty's Deep Secret

Berlie Doherty’s Deep Secret

I may have said this already but, after this challenge is over, I’d love to explore fiction for children and young adults in more depth because, for the life of me, I can’t work out how to differentiate some of the books from adult fiction. Some of the classifications seem completely arbitrary – is it the writers who categorise themselves or is that the job of the Carnegie Medal judges or editors or publishers…? I want to get to a point where I can encourage adults to read more of this young literature instead of, dare I say, stigmatising it. I do find it hard to believe that a novel as eerie and moving as Deep Secret, by Berlie Doherty, about the flooding of a tiny, beloved village in Derbyshire to make way for a modern dam and reservoir, and about the mature grief felt by young Madeleine after the loss of her twin sister, should be missed out on by the majority of adults simply because it is labelled as ‘too young’ for them.

According to Doherty’s footnote and website, the novel is based loosely on the construction of the Ladybower reservoir between 1935 and 1945, for which the villages of Ashopton and Derwent were submerged. In 1986, Doherty visited the site during a drought which exposed the ruined houses, farm buildings and church below; it was this spine-tingling trip which convinced her to write this story.

Derwent Hall, Derbyshire, demolished in 1944.

Derwent Hall, Derbyshire, demolished in 1944.

Doherty creates a vision of village life that is difficult to fault: there is hierarchy, to be sure, with Lord Henry and his family, who inhabit the Hall estate, owning all the land that the villagers live and farm upon; but they are benevolent masters and looked upon as deeply “romantic” (8) and respectable. The hardworking farmers and their families are “never going to leave the valley” (8) out of choice, but would each choose to “die before they turn […] into a townie” (108) and, despite their status, the Lord and Lady are no more detached from their earth, for “the scents of the flowers and the murmurings of the river, and how peaceful it all is compared with [their] London home” (86) is all they can talk about. The villagers are not hungry for the outside world and want nothing more than “to be running free […] wild and wonderful” (52) in their valley.

It is by their relationship to the land that the villagers define themselves – a trend we have seen in so many novels on this challenge already – but the politics of land ownership itself is more apparent and more emotional here than in any of the others. In the beginning, the villagers are content with their lush farmland “rented from Lord Henry” (6) for their ambitions are small and do not involve the hungry, capitalistic pursuit for their own property; the modern world still seems far away from this small community. Their idea of ownership is simple and unjealous; they work the land that their families have lived on “for donkey’s years” (12) and therefore consider themselves to have more right to it than the workers from the Water Board, who slowly begin making their way into the valley “like an army taking possession by stealth” (78) to complete surveys and then building work. The families try to keep the peace for a time, their protests limited to “frowning Stranger with their eyes” (36) as wagons trundle past, for they have ultimate faith in Lord Henry to protect them.

Ladybower Reservoir, today

Ladybower Reservoir, today

It is therefore all the more crushing for them to hear Lord Henry himself admit that there is nothing he can do to stop the incomers in their effort to “flood the whole of our valley” (90). In an “Act of Parliament” (92) that is completely incomprehensible to the villagers, whose families have lived contentedly in the traditional, feudal way of life for centuries, the Water Board has “obtained permission from the government” (88) to “purchase this entire estate – the Hall, the farms and cottages that go with it” (92), without so much as an introduction or a handshake. This is business and property ownership in unintelligible terms for the farmers – not only has their powerful Lordship been revealed as impotent in the modern world, but the land itself will no longer be owned by people but by a corporation; it will be “the bloomin’ Water Board’s” (179). How can it be that politicians in London, so far removed from this idyll in Derbyshire, have seen fit to prioritise “a massive container of water” (92) over a whole way of life? This is a dramatic power shift that the villagers are forced to witness. They may not have minded answering to His Lordship, but to suddenly find themselves 150 miles from their new southern masters and treated as completely subaltern is more than they can bear.

Derwent Church tower, uncovered during 1940s drought

Derwent Church tower, uncovered during 1940s drought

Not only are the valley-dwellers forced to come to terms with the fact that power – rather than courtesy – rules the country, but they also see how money rules the world, as when the news arrives that “the Water Board is now selling the Hall to a wealthy American [who] is planning to have it taken down, stone by stone, and to rebuild it elsewhere” (142). Once again, their land is at the mercy of those who have no moral claim to it and, once again, they have to learn how unimportant they are considered in modern society, where “someone with money can just pluck [their way of life] away, just like that, like it was a rosy apple on a tree” (143).

After all, this is a world painted without the concept of good faith, ethics or respectability; the “measuring instruments” (53) the Water Board favour work in units of land area and money, and numbers fly around them “like bubbles in the air, filmy and brilliant, incomprehensible […] in a bubble storm of noughts” (320). Pride is important too, of course, because this valley will be home to “the biggest earth dam in the British Isles”, a “great achievement. A masterpiece […] a symbol of rebirth” (94) and of British arrogance. Behind the propaganda, though, the war may be over but the devastation continues: another “great trench” is forged “like a massive quarry from one end of the valley to the other [and that] reached right into the centre of the earth” (165).

I have to say, it is this aspect of the plot – the fate of the valley and the changing definitions of land ownership – that interests me most and that makes the novel stand out. In contrast, the parts involving characters’ relationships to each other are believable and relatable, but not ground-breaking in their originality. The blind Seth, who becomes Madeleine’s closest friend and confidant, is the most striking persona for me, becoming the valley’s prophet Tiresias. This novel therefore deserves 3/5 stars.

Derwent Church tower, visible above the water line until it was demolished in 1947 to prevent people swimming out to it.

Derwent Church tower, visible above water until demolished in 1947 to prevent people swimming out to it.

However, possibly the saddest thing of all is something I haven’t yet mentioned: how quickly the feudal way of life is forgotten. Within two years everyone, in their brand new homes with electricity and indoor lavatories, is ready to admit that “it just feels as if the lake was always here” (339). Witness the unceremonious death of the past, and the murderers who got away with it, the novel seems to sigh.

Next time I’ll be reading Alan Garner’s Thursbitch for Cheshire. I have a feeling it’s going to be pretty awesome!


DOHERTY, Berlie. Deep Secret. London: Andersen Press, 2010.

Featured Image: Derwent Church and graveyard, derwent Village uncovered in 1995.


Fensed In

I have never read Susan Hill’s 1983 horror novel, The Woman in Black; I have never seen any theatrical or filmic production of it and, most significantly of all, I have almost no idea what the story is about. And yet, still, when the new Woman in Black film came out in 2012, I was somehow automatically sceptical. How can a story that has come from a book be scary?, I thought. What a load of poppycock.  This ignorance from a long-term literature lover and English graduate. *sigh*

As you might have sussed, until this week, I had never even flipped open the cover of a scary novel – not a single ghost tale, horror story, or gore-fest. I’d seen the odd scary film of course (or rather, I’ve been in their vicinity, even if I was tucked safely behind the sofa at the time) and I was quite confident I could identify the typical formula:

Capture final

To summarise, your senses of hearing and sight are bombarded with signs of creepdom and thus, you are creeped out. To summarise the summary, scary films require elements that cannot possibly be recreated in books.

In a book, the only sensory perception comes to us second-hand, mediated by the characters. It is a character’s ears that are pricked up by unnatural sounds and their nose that detects faint odours of decay and their eyes that bear witness to events. The reader has no senses; there is no music or creaking or darkness that we can see; only the words on the page. There are no make-you-jump moments; reading a paragraph takes longer than a sudden change in camera angle. Pace is sacrificed, our senses are sacrificed…so what’s left that’s worth getting excited about?

Well, what a journey I’ve been on in Louise West’s 50-page ghost tale, Late, set in her home county of Lincolnshire. (I know it’s not technically a novel, but I’ve been dying to read something like this and I’m also a bit behind in blogging – it kills two birds with one stone. No murderous pun intended.)

Louise West's "Late"

Louise West’s “Late”

In this short story, a teacher is working late in a dark and draughty school that is “well over one hundred years old” (2), when she hears a noise and comes face-to-face with a ghost of a young boy who has unfinished business to which he must attend. During the night that follows she experiences the fright of her life, an existential crisis, a car accident and hours of dragging herself through mud and swamp in the pitch black in an effort to survive.

Her rural location is significant to the plot throughout: the impressive Gothic school that still stands is where her nightmare begins, her lack of phone reception “this far out in the Fens” (19) leaves her completely isolated and, under the direction of the ghostly boy, she is drawn away from the main village road and into the wild Lincolnshire countryside. Initially the landscape is hostile and unwelcoming and she, “too used to bright lights and small rooms, struggled to make out any features or landmarks” (22), which makes her dependent on her ghostly tormentor. For a while, she dreams only of being rid of him and returning home to the fireside, her dogs and her vision of domesticated comfort. Soon, though, as she treks deeper and further and comes to understand her companion’s wishes, “her eyes […] adjusted to the darkness” so that she becomes aware of “the shape of the land” (25). She even begins to identify with the boy, finding his cold, tiny hand feeling warm in hers and that the “wind blew straight through her” (23) just as it did him.

The Lincolnshire Fens

The Lincolnshire Fens

Overall, the biggest thing I’ve learnt through this novella is as follows: the suspense in a scary book may come to us indirectly, through someone else’s perception, but the fear the words inspire could not be more personal. The image of the ghost isn’t given to us ready-prepared (as it would be in a film); the reader’s imagination has to do most of the work. This, I can now see, is a far scarier tool.

Brilliantly and thrillingly written, I can’t wait to read something longer by Louise West. A worthy 4/5 stars.

Next time I’ll be reviewing Berlie Doherty’s Deep Secret. Get reading!

WEST, Louise. Late: A Ghostly Tale. Marston Gate: Amazon, 2013.

Featured image: ‘Getting Late, Lincolnshire Fens’, a painting by Bob Armstrong.



Margaret Drabble's A Peppered Moth

Margaret Drabble’s A Peppered Moth

I have an admission to make: sometimes, however unfortunately, life gets in the way of a good book. This week, I would have found it difficult to get through the simplest of storybooks, let alone one as seemingly intelligent as Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth, selected for my South Yorkshire stint. As hard as I’ve tried to concentrate my attentions on it, pre-Christmas events have conspired to prevent me from doing so. Although I have at least read every page, what has gone in one eye has almost completed flown out the other…if you’ll pardon the gruesomeness.

Even so, the fact of its setting is impossible to miss. Much like Kate Atkinson with Behind the Scenes at the Museum (which I found absolutely mind-blowing), Margaret Drabble tells the story of several generations of women through the 20th century, following their difficult and disappointing lives and their unpleasant or unbearable personalities – and yet, in both novels, it is the most dour characters that pique our interest and our sympathy.

Bessie Bawtry is Drabble’s primary antiheroine; she is born on the coal-mining town of Breaseborough, where “repressive” (13) misery lurks around every corner. Zolaesque descriptions of this northern wilderness show it as “brown and grey and navy and nigger and fawn and tan” (55): “This was the coal belt, and coal was its bed and being. Coal seamed the earth, coal darkened the daytime air, coal reddened the night skies.” (5). The very place pollutes, plagues and cripples its inhabitants with hard work and the results of dust inhalation, bringing “respiratory diseases” (7) and other, unnamed strife.



“The very earth was mined. Beneath the streets, a mile down, toiled the employees of Bednerby Main, in dark tunnels supported by wooden pit props. The ground might give at any moment and let one down into the darkness…They were of another race, an underground race. They were the scum of the earth, the dregs of the earth” 15

Suffice it to say, our impression, from beginning to end, from practically the turn of the 20th century to turn of the 21st, is bleak. We are in the heart of “spoiled industrial England” (162), and no matter how many political “Clean Air Acts” are brought in to deal with the dirt, grime and resultant illnesses, nothing can mitigate “the smell of the past [that] lingers and loiters in cushions and soft furnishings” (132).

Bessie hates it. Since childhood, she has considered herself an outsider to this environment, despite the fact “her ancestors had bred upon this spot for eight thousand years” (5); she is “alien”, “a changeling”, “smells offended her, grit irritated her”, “she was of a finer breed” (5). She tries to get out; as an intelligent girl, she gets a place at Cambridge and flees, vowing never to return. She goes back on this promise to herself far too easily, scurrying home to teach in a local school and marry local Joe Barron as soon as she finds herself unsupported. “So,” the narrator sighs at this point, “we cast ourselves in castes, even when society fails to provide them” (28). Upon marrying and having two children, the family move “to another world. A million light years away, all the way to Surrey. That’s in the south of England, you know” (149). Once again Bessie gets the chance to disentangle herself from her detested roots, to glory in her life in “tame and suburban Surrey” (191), but yet again she fails to do so; she goes back to Breaseborough when she hears of her mother’s illness, despite her fear that she will be “entomb[ed]” (200) there too.

Old Roundwood Colliery from early 1900s, Ossett, West Yorkshire

Old Roundwood Colliery from early 1900s, Ossett, West Yorkshire

The novel continues in such a vein with Bessie slowly learning that “she cannot conquer place” (79) or the ties her ancestors have on her. Her dependence on what she hates about herself dominates her character. It is fascinating that in a time of great change and excitement and political freedom, when everything was opening up and “restlessness was sweeping around the glove like influenza” (50) and “machinery had begun to click and whizz, and in the wake of the industrial revolution came movement, displacement […] global travel” (59) – that in a time such as this, Bessie Bawtry cannot even bear to leave her home: she is “agoraphobic” (172), she “felt safe only in her own nice thirties suburban home, with its pale wood, its cream paint, its nice broad shallow stairs” (172).

As I said, the women in this novel are, at times, unbearable, ruled by selfishness, stern tradition or by suppressed emotions that make them hard and unfeeling. And yet, astonishingly, they are still of interest, still memorable, still mesmerising; the language is quick-witted whilst being symbolic and – for wont of a better word – academic. This is a novel worthy of study, and I wish I’d had more chance to study it. For now (and although my gut tells me to score it higher I haven’t gathered enough evidence to do so), it’ll have to be a fairer 3/5 stars.

Over the next couple of days I’ll be reading (thoroughly, this time!) Late by Louise West. Join me.

DRABBLE, Margaret. The Peppered Moth. London: Penguin, 2001.

Featured Image: A peppered moth.


The Story So Far…

Already, I seem to have talked endlessly about the importance of the theme of belonging in the modern English novel; in almost all 9 books I’ve read so far, the writers have depicted characters who struggle to define their place in society – who feel unwanted or ‘different’, who are literally homeless, who are ostracised or discriminated against or who simply fail to fit into their surroundings, perhaps because they are newcomers to a particular place. In most cases, these characters’ lack of belonging leads to an inability to define one’s own identity, and a perpetual state of misery, loneliness and uncertainty as a result.

Maureen Lee's The September Girls

Maureen Lee’s The September Girls

Maureen Lee’s The September Girls takes up this mantle of belonging, but also shows another side to it. Her story focusses on the poverty-stricken Caffrey family, who migrate from Ireland to Liverpool, Merseyside, in the ‘20s, in the pursuit of greater things, only to find that the “grand, rich place” (4) they imagined has a great many problems of its own. Strangers in this new and foreign land, they are unwelcome, inferior and utterly worthless – or so residents of Liverpool would have them believe. Here we go again, I thought, another novel about strangers lost in an unfamiliar place which they eventually, in the final pages, learn to love. I didn’t exactly let out a yawn, but we have seen a large proportion of this Bildungsroman framework on our journey through 2000s England. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Lee did not succumb to the usual formula.

Instead of the Caffreys getting down in the dumps about the occasional insults they receive from Liverpudlian locals – “get back to Ireland and take [your] filthy family with [you]” (9) – or pining overmuch for “the sun and the sky, the clouds and the green fields of Ireland” (40), they seem hardly to mind about their change of location. Their sense of belonging is not based, as with other characters we have come across, on their ability to fit in with the world around them, but on their place within the family itself – as long as they have each other, and “a proper house of their own” (3), their universe is complete. Thanks to this strength of identity and the security of the family unit, rarely is there an occasion when they feel lost or insecure about their situation.

In fact, it is the wealthy Marcus and Eleanor Allardyce – who have held a stable and respectable position in the city for generations – whose world comes crumbling down in the course of the novel. When they meet the Caffreys, their life of comfort and luxury is completely opened up; Marcus becomes a “Fish out of Water” (29), is out of place “in his own home” (157) and Eleanor explores “the narrow streets that were virtually on her doorstep, but where [she] had never walked before” (87). The city becomes a foreign environment to this couple more than it ever is to the Caffreys – the classic Bildungsroman formula, in which the protagonists develop over time to fit into society, is unexpectedly turned on its head.

Liverpool Pier Head 1920, where the Caffreys arrived into from Ireland

Liverpool Pier Head 1920, where the Caffreys arrived into from Ireland

In addition, the context of Lee’s novel allows her to present this theme of belonging in a new and particularly interesting way; the bulk of the novel is set during the course of WW2, in which two of the three Caffrey youngsters take part in horrors abroad while the rest of the family struggles to cope with air raids and strict rationing on the Home Front. In a time in which everyone is fearfully aware of their own mortality, surrounded by individuals who have lost limbs, loved ones and homes, and in which streets and whole city landscapes are being blown apart and nothing is recognisable, everyone’s sense of belonging is in jeopardy, not just that of the new Irish family on the corner, who slip into the melee rather than continue to stand out as foreigners. Things that have previously been taken for granted, like having “four pairs of perfectly good legs” (8) in the family, are called into question in wartime. Freud’s concept of the Uncanny instantly springs to mind, in which something – such as a mutilated human body or a bombed-out row of houses – can be familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time, generating a feeling of intense psychological discomfort due to the confusion between attraction and repulsion.

Another great thing about the novel is the war-related satire. I do love a good bit of satire. In particular, Lee completely undermines the concept of patriotism – as many writers did in the war poetry I’m sure we all must have read at school – which is particularly interesting for me in this journey to pin down an as yet mythical sense of English national identity. The character of Peggy exemplifies this in the line “I thought I was being patriotic [by signing up], but now it seems more like downright foolishness” (228). During wartime of course, people are judged repeatedly on their level of patriotism – labelled cowards or heroes depending on their willingness to fight for their country – when, really, the whole thing becomes a lot of nonsense. The romanticised image of England being all green pastures or bright lights can no longer exist in the imagination to motivate troops abroad, for it no longer exists in reality: hardly any of it is “left standing” (416) by the end of the war. In theory, with the city destroyed, the only characters who should be able to survive in spirit are the Caffreys, whose sense of belonging and identity is founded only on their relationships. Read it for yourself to find out what does happen..!

Cook Street, May 1941, the 'Liverpool Blitz'

Cook Street, May 1941, the ‘Liverpool Blitz’

Overall, I found Maureen Lee’s novel a breath of fresh air. Not only is it set in a period I haven’t yet read about on this challenge, but it is also clearly an important period, in the author’s mind, in the development of Liverpool into what the city represents today. The story was varied and interesting and it is an enjoyable read. Perhaps unfortunately for Lee, I have read very many fantastic World War novels, which makes me all the more aware that this is not as mind-blowingly emotional or symbolic or engaging as some. In fact, I found its length had a detrimental effect on its characterisation, which was revealed as quite static and two-dimensional in the case of the Caffrey family members. However, I’m having to exaggerate the issue just to describe what I found to be minor frustrations – I still rate the novel as a good read at 3/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth, which I’m really looking forward to. Have you read it? Let me know what you think!

LEE, Maureen. The September Girls. London: Orion, 2005.

Featured Image: The devastated Liverpool docks after the May Blitz of 1941.