Space-probing

Sue Townsend's "The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year"

Sue Townsend’s “The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year”

All the reviews I’ve read and almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this book have said the same thing: it’s not as good as the Adrian Mole books. Still, since I’ve never read any of the Adrian Mole books, or even have the faintest inkling of what they’re about, I was pleasantly surprised by Sue Townsend’s The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year, the book I chose for Leicestershire.

Admittedly, it doesn’t say a whole lot about life in Leicester/the Midlands/England specifically, but as Eva builds herself a nest in her bed after her twins leave for university – not making any plans to emerge again – there’s a lot going on about forming a sense of belonging.

So why exactly does Eva crawl into bed in 2012 and refuse to get out again? Well, there’s a large amount of speculation from the other characters – her husband, Brian, her children Brian Junior and Brianna (yes, really), her mother Ruby and her mother-in-law Yvonne, her new handyman-crush Alex, her window-cleaner, the neighbours and, soon enough, the media and the hysterical followers outside her window…all have an opinion. Perhaps it’s depression caused by “empty-nest syndrome” (4) or by being taken for granted her whole life or by the knowledge of her husband’s lacklustre affair; perhaps she’s been “engulf[ed]” (248) by madness that makes her believe the floorboards are “made of jelly” (379); perhaps she’s an angel, a  saint, a prophet making a stand against “how horrid the world [is], what with wars and famine and little babies dying and stuff” (325). Maybe, suggests a psychologist, Eva is “in the grip of agoraphobia, probably as a result of childhood trauma” (351). However, Eva flatly denies there is any problem whatsoever – she simply doesn’t feel like getting out of bed. Even the reader is not privy to any inside information from Townsend as to what the reason behind her major plot choice is.

Space-themed chocolates produced by Mars Inc.

Space-themed chocolates produced by Mars Inc.

As the novel goes on, Eva’s relatives become increasingly irritated by her behaviour: she relies on them to get her food, rearrange and slowly dispose of her bedroom furniture, board up the windows and doors, repaint the walls a dazzling white, answer the bell to fans and crowd-controlling police officers, and, if only they would agree to it, to dispose of her urine and excrement without her even having to use the ensuite. Blame and anger are fired at her from all corners, understandably, but with crafty characterisation Townsend steers the reader to believe that these judgements are nothing but harsh and hypocritical; everyone else would willingly disengage from the world if they could, too. In fact, some already do. Brian is so feeble that he is “slightly apprehensive” (6) around his own mother; emasculated in almost every situation, he cowers in his sheds at the bottom of the garden rather than facing Eva. Brianna, self-loathing, awkward and shut-off from the world, lives her life with “her face […] mostly hidden behind a long straggly black fringe which she pushed out of her eyes only when she actually wanted to see something” (11). Autistic Brian Junior voluntarily lives “in a very small world call the internet, where cynicism is the norm and cruelty has taken the place of humour” (270); the twins do not hide the fact that they want only “to be together in their own box-world” (20). Ironically, despite their criticism, almost every other character in the novel ends up “wish[ing] it was me in that bed” (35) and at some points Eva’s bedroom becomes seriously crowded with them all “sat cross-legged on the floor” (222) trying to join with her in shutting out the world.

Property programme duo, Kirsty Allsop and Phil Spencer

Property programme duo, Kirsty Allsop and Phil Spencer

Just as all the characters are shown to be preoccupied with building themselves a nest to hide away in, so, Townsend seems to suggest, is the whole of real, English society: why else would “property programmes” have such popularity or “Kirsty and Phil” be classed as modern “heroes” (10)? In fact, this novel presents the process of constructing a place in which one can feel at home – with some combination of four walls, comfortable furniture, personally-chosen décor and private memories – as the obsession of modern England. Not because of the opportunity for investment or return, or dependent on bank borrowing and lending rates – not, in other words, with financial or economic motives – but simply because putting an individual stamp on one’s surroundings is like laying claim to a fixed, stable identity and a solid right to exist. Arguably, this is something that Eva hasn’t had before. She’s never been her own woman, only a wife to Brian and a mother to her children. It is only when left alone that she begins the struggle, like a “baby”, “start[ing] again” (420), to develop a sense of self and a sense of belonging. No more arguing with Brian now as to whether they should live “in a minimalist modular system, far away from street lighting” or “an old pile in which people had died, with bedbugs, fleas, rats and mice” (22); she makes her own decisions.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg outside No. 10 Downing Street

David Cameron and Nick Clegg outside No. 10 Downing Street

Although Townsend doesn’t provide any definitive answer as to why Eva chooses to separate herself from society for a year, it seems to me that she simply struggles to find anything to get excited about any more in a world where her husband is so middle-aged and “he had started to make a noise as he got up from a chair” (40); where there is “incessant English cloud” (102) blocking out the sun every day; where politics has become so mundane that no one is even inspired to elect a prime minister, so that confusion arises in the coalition government as to who is actually in charge: “’Is it Cameron…? Or is it Cameron and Clegg?’” (117). Even further afield, outside England, there is nothing she is drawn to, for “there was nothing on the earth left to find – not when remote South American primitives were smoking Marlboro Lights” (58) and the whole profundity of space is reduced to chocolate-bar-terms in the mass-production of Galaxy, Mars and Milky Way confectionery. Human insignificance weighs on Eva, and she is frustrated that the best the English can hope for is to “tick along nicely” (73) in obscurity. So, out of boredom, she takes to her bed to cause “chaos” (190). It doesn’t seem like one thing could possibly lead to the other – but, oh my, it does.

Strangely, I liked this novel more for its critique of society than its comedy; or, rather, I found its thorough examination of ‘belonging’ all the more striking because of its farcical undertones and fluff-less dialogue. True, the novel is not laugh-out-loud hilarious (as some fans had expected), but I don’t think it loses impact as a result, since this way tragic elements of Eva’s life are also allowed to pervade in ironic fashion. What’s more, I think it is rare to find, in a supposedly comic novel, characters to whom it is so easy to warm, despite their often ridiculous names or habits. Overall, the plot is original and interesting, surprisingly engaging considering the protagonist does not get out of bed for the whole of the narrative, and its tone is fresh. Sue Townsend has a distinctive style that I feel confident I could identify again – suffice it to say, Adrian Mole is now on my list. 3/5 stars for this one, I think.

Next week I’ll be reading my first crime thriller of the challenge, The Chemistry of Death, by Simon Beckett. Join me, if you dare…mwahahaha.

TOWNSEND, Sue. The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year. London: Penguin, 2012.

Featured Image: Solar System, field of Brian, the astronomer.

http://uncannyflats.com/thank-you-finally-an-explanation-for-why-the-solar-system-is-flat/

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The Hills Are Alive

Pressing the play button above will unleash the flowing soprano of Madeleine Grey, singing “Bailero” from Canteloube: Songs of the Auvergne.

Jonathan Coe's "The Rain Before It Falls"

Jonathan Coe’s “The Rain Before It Falls”

This is the theme tune to this novel. The music weaves in and out of characters’ lives, sweeping, eerily and yet dream-like, over the Shropshire landscape, tying together past and present, the real and the imagined. It seems to echo through the hills in the same way as the story does. The Rain Before It Falls, by Jonathan Coe, is a novel that delves under the convenient façade of comfortable homes and happy families, to force its characters – particularly its women – to question who they are and how they have come to be.

Gill and her two grown-up daughters, Catharine and Elizabeth, are active, intelligent and accomplished; they live busy lives spread across the south of England, and their family seems a close and contented one. So absorbed are they in their day-to-day affairs that they barely register the world around them; “the warmth of inside” has, for years, distracted them from how “chilly” (1) the air has become. It is only when elderly Aunt Rosamund dies, leaving behind audio tapes narrating the whole family’s history – spilling secrets, reopening old wounds and exposing rumours and truths – that their eyes are opened to the lack of connection and meaning in the modern world; a modern world that is slowly turning the past into half-forgotten memory, imagination, myth. Suddenly, a search for understanding begins; can they reach enlightenment before it is too late, before the tapes finish, the photographs are put away and the present day swallows them once more? Can they find the rain before it falls?

The majority of this novel is narrated by Rosamund as she describes, in detail, twenty family photographs and the generations of stories behind them. We ‘listen’ as Gill and her daughters listen – without knowing what the final result will be and blind to the images in Rosamund’s lap. But, my goodness, the description Coe uses didn’t leave me blind for long – each photo seemed to come alive in its minutest detail, becoming as familiar and recognisable to me as if it were pinned in one of my own albums. The intuition develops in fluid layers: we see where individuals are positioned in the image and what the occasion shows; we glimpse what lurks at the edges of the frame or behind the forced smiles; we realise what the photograph summarily fails to capture. In fact, reading these passages isn’t like reading at all: the writing transcends the pages to become an audible and – in terms of the photos – tangible story.

Evacuees in Shropshire, where Rosamund was sent during WW2.

Evacuees in Shropshire, where Rosamund was sent during WW2.

There is a tense triadic relationship in the novel between photography, memory and imagination. To begin with, the photographs seem to provide the unshakeable historic “facts” (113), reliable in their frozen, unchanging existence in a way that Rosamund’s “phantom memories” (39) can never be. Memories are, after all, one step from “fantasies, imaginings” (39), and Rosamund frequently admits, “I think this is something I am now imagining, not a memory at all” (45-6).

And yet, Rosamund also despairs at “what a deceitful thing a photograph is” (193), for “although it seems to record an occasion with perfect fidelity, it actually gives no indication of what was going through the minds of the people who were there” (130). Even as she relies on the photos to structure her story, she seems to loathe them for their trickery: “everybody smiles for photographs – that’s one of the reasons you should never trust them” (214). The photos cannot live up to her often rich memories, as “there are no colours […]; it is a black-and-white photograph”, failing to capture even the simplest details, like “the letterbox in the front door, which my father painted yellow, I remember” (36).

Ultimately, Coe presents Rosamund’s fight with the realisation that, without photographs, her memories fail; without memories, photographs mean nothing. And when Rosamund is gone, taking her memories with her, there can be “no pictures, no corroboration, no proof” (39) of all the years of love, hate, joy, grief, dreams and struggles expended to give Catherine and Elizabeth the lives they have now. This mesmerising novel is clouded with a sense of Rosamund’s conflicting desperation and exhaustion, a heartrending combination – there is so much going on in this short novel, and Coe’s writing…well, I could want nothing more.

Coe builds dark voids between each of his characters, and Rosamund’s deathbed endeavour to link past with present and reunite distant family members is made all the more tragic and hopeless by the sense that, in death, she is the most disconnected character of all. What is more,  Rosamund’s funeral is “curiously unsocial” (4); Gill’s husband is plagued constantly “with a sense of having obscurely failed her” (2); Gill’s children, despite their apparent closeness, sometimes seem to her like “alien beings” (4)…Even the members of this nuclear unit seems “so distant” and “ill at ease” (9) at times, as though “a sort of wordless distance [had] open[ed] up between them, a sudden bewildered awareness that somehow, without anybody noticing, they had become strangers to one another” (21).

Long Mynd in the Shropshire Hills

Long Mynd in the Shropshire Hills

This lack of connection seems to have a lot to do with – and even be a symptom of – the modern world that Coe describes as infiltrating the “beloved county of [Rosamund’s] wartime childhood” (9). In her memory, Gill sees Shropshire “in vivid primary colours” but it now seems “washed grey […] a sheet of perfect white, signifying nothing” with the “imperishable noise of far-off traffic” (2) crowding in on its once secluded boundaries. Dank and dirty London is creeping ever-closer, with its “imagined dangers of […] bombs [and] once-routine tube and bus journeys suddenly turned into wagers with life and death” (1). Gill does not consider herself part of provincial Shropshire nor attune to London life.

Rosamund, in contrast, is “rooted in the Shropshire landscape, saturated with the colours and contours of its hills” (102) which “are part of your story” (94), she tells her descendants. She takes comfort in the landscape, for it soothes all ills:

“Places like this are important to me – to all of us – because they exist outside the normal timespan. You can stand on the backbone of the Long Mynd and not know if you are in the 1940s, the 2000s, the tenth or eleventh century…It is all immaterial, all irrelevant. […] You cannot put a price on the sense of freedom and timelessness that is granted to you there, as you stand on the high ridge beneath a flawless sky of April blue and look across at the tame beauties of the English countryside, to the east, and to the west a hint of something stranger – the beginnings of the Welsh mountains” (94-5).

As Gill hears these words and travels, literally and figuratively, back to her roots, she realises how deeply “these fields, these villages, these hedgerows, were still inscribed upon her memory; they were the very bedrock of her consciousness”, and she begins to understand the “precious” importance Rosamund places on finding “a sense of your own history; a sense of where you come from, and of the forces that made you” (32). I will not reveal the extent to which Rosamund and Gill are successful in their quest to join hands through time, but as the past comes alive to the three modern women, they become “half-removed from [their] surroundings”; the present seems “ghostly, unfamiliar” (148) as more important matters than trivial domestics emerge. They realise the urgent need to trace these “shadows of the past” (148) and to try to define these “unexpected patterns” (205) in order to be reconnected to each other, to the world, to their home, to the meaning of life. Listening to Rosamund’s healing words gives Gill the hope, at least, that things might come together, and that the “formlessness of jumbled buildings, trees, skyline” might develop into “gradations of colour”, with once defined, rigid outlines “blurred” (12) peacefully into one.

The London skyline - an example of the jumbled buildings Gill finds it hard to accept.

The London skyline – an example of the jumbled buildings Gill finds it hard to accept.

Reading this novel was a truly cathartic experience. Coe seems to involve his readers in the narrative as though they are characters themselves. I found the relationship between photography and memory fascinating and moving and I loved the rendering of audiotape onto page – both original and believable. I was blown away by Coe’s style and simple, yet intense, descriptive technique. I can’t wait to read another of his; I’ve certainly got plenty on my wish list now that this one has earned 5/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading The Woman Who Went to Bed For A Year. No, it’s not about me; it’s by Sue Townsend. Stay tuned!

COE, Jonathan. The Rain Before It Falls. London: Penguin, 2008.

Featured Image: “Caravan Holiday With Gran”, found by TinTrunk.

http://www.flickriver.com/photos/trevira/sets/234170/

Music from: https://archive.org/details/CanteloubeSongsOfTheAuvergne

Concentration Cramp

Michael Taylor's "Linden Woods"

Michael Taylor’s “Linden Woods”

This was a bad book.

I don’t usually like calling books ‘bad’; you’ll notice even the description of my 1-star category on this blog is “not my thing” rather than a direct criticism, such as “truly awful”. That’s because I usually believe that every book is valuable to someone, even if that someone is not me. However, even with that diplomatic mission in mind – even being as objective as possible – this book irritated me because of how poorly written it is.

At the time of writing, the only other book in my 1-star category is The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall (although I’ve been having thoughts about moving Money Can’t Buy Me Love down a peg into that section too) – my goodness, those like Nobel Prize-winners in comparison to this. Well, not quite, but if I could rate this book 0/5 stars, I certainly would. As it is, 1/5 stars is the limit.

That’s it then, really, isn’t it? You might as well stop reading this review now as I hope you’re unlikely ever to pick up Linden Woods by Michael Taylor for yourself, unless it’s during one of your particularly masochistic phases. I can’t even be bothered to describe the plot; it’s not worth it. Some might be interested in my justification though (especially the author, who will probably be appalled to find his average rating on Goodreads plummet thanks to my input. Awkward) so, for the few, here goes:

Castle Hill, Dudley, Staffordshire. Copperplate engraving from 1812.

Castle Hill, Dudley, Staffordshire. Copperplate engraving from 1812.

The novel is set in Dudley which, during the Second World War (the era Taylor concerns himself with here), was part of Staffordshire, in the Black Country. At the beginning of Chapter 2, we get a painfully boring and unoriginal description of the industrial city, “grey with the spoil of coal-mining”, “criss-crossed by railways” and filled with the sound of “the hissing and huffing of mineral-hauling locomotives and the shouts of men at work” (9). We get the odd lacklustre description of the surrounding countryside too, “abundant [in] fern and dotted with silver birches” (110). But apart from that, the art of descriptive writing seems to elude our author. Oh, except for during the sex scenes, when the adjectives and imagery seem to go a little overboard, selling the novel as cheap and tacky due to its lack of artistic worth in other aspects.

There is no comparison, juxtaposition, symbolism or allusion. I couldn’t engage with any of the characters because they were so poorly painted, indistinguishable from each other due to the fact that none of them were allowed an individual narrative voice, so constrictive was Taylor’s hold on his text. I had absolutely no interest in the plot, which didn’t seem to have any rise or fall – on the one occasion, towards the end, when I thought a bit of drama might arise, my hope was quashed as quickly as it had perked up. Quicker, in fact, since after 200 pages it was quite hard to work up any hope in the first place. I wasn’t convinced by the context; war novels are normally fascinating to me because of the emotion, trauma, violence and tragedy associated with that part of world history, but in Linden Woods there is practically no mention of ‘the horrors’ at all – it might as well have been set last week for the amount of escapism it allowed me. As for the romance…Bland. Truly bland. Is that more acceptable than ‘bad’?

Next week I’m reading The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe. Things can only improve! Join me soon again soon 🙂

TAYLOR, Michael. Linden Woods. Surrey: Severn House Publishers, 2007.

Featured Image: Enville Common, Staffordshire, as mentioned in the novel.

http://photogallery-uk.co.uk/4.html

Poison

Nicola Monaghan's "The Killing Jar"

Nicola Monaghan’s “The Killing Jar”

The Killing Jar, by Nicola Monaghan, is set in Nottinghamshire. Or rather, it is set in a “shitty brown” (60) estate seemingly in the middle of nowhere, abandoned by the police and any other sign of officialdom so that crime is rife and drug addiction a plague. This county, in the East Midlands, the novel seems to say, is neither north nor south. It is in limbo, in the crease of England. Abandoned. Forgotten. The estate itself is a depressing hovel, closed off from the rest of the world; a jar, Monaghan suggests, in which inhabitants, like insects, fester uselessly until the end.

Kerrie-Ann is a child growing up on this estate, sharing a house with a mother addicted to heroin and a series of wheeler-dealer boyfriends who slowly drag her into their seedy world. By the age of 10, Kerrie-Ann is already running drug-related errands for her so-called guardians, and that’s just the start of it; as we follow her through her teenage years, we meet sickness, death, violence, heartbreak, and a heck of a lot more drug abuse. The novel is miserable, there’s no getting away from it, but it’s also mesmerising.

Most of the time the characters “[don’t] move from the estate” (134-5); everything outside its boundaries that is “foreign” (2) is despised, and yet there is also huge hatred for the neighbourhood’s own “tossers” (25). In fact, anger is the ruling emotion in these parts, and even on the odd occasion that the characters venture off the estate, the dark clouds of their home lives follow them, inescapably. That is not to say that the characters do not try, in vain, to escape, through the abuse of drugs. Kerrie-Ann herself uses them to “remember there was other places away from my house on the close” (10) and to convince herself she “Had wings. Could fly” (39) to them. Whether or not she ultimately succeeds in this endeavour is up to the reader to decide.

One of the biggest measures of ‘place’ in the novel is accent, the differences between which Kerrie-Ann is fascinated by. She recognises the sound of those from northern “mining country”, with intonation “broader than my mam or me” (12), and the “posh voice and fancy manners” (80) that signify an individual’s London roots. In fact, the people on the estate spend a lot of time “making fun of [t]his accent” (112), “add[ing] h’s all over, dropped from other places, and put[ting] on that voice […] trying to sound posh” (34). Kerrie-Ann doesn’t like London, or its “wankers who thought too much of themselves” (144), or who are “too spoiled from being well off” (81). In her experience, southerners only undertake the journey to the estate out of self-interested charity, “some kind of community service” to “shove on [a] job application” (76), or to carry out academic experiments on its inhabitants, as though dissecting scientific specimen in a laboratory.

An entomologist's killing jar for insects

An entomologist’s killing jar for insects

I’m trying not to give too much of the game away, but Kerrie-Ann is young – no more than a teenager – when massive problems and colossal decisions come her way. The devastation of her childhood years is one of the most noticeable themes in the novel: as a young girl, she plays with “horse-riding Barbie” (38), but only as payment for her drug-running; she watches “the man dressed as a bear explaining to the pink hippo and the orange grin how to share a cake” (36) on television whilst various dirty visitors shoot up in a corner; she plays princesses and fairies “in the middle of Whitwell Park wearing clothes close to falling off […] with holes in them” (226); she combines trips to the children’s playground with her own first forays into drugs.  Even as a teenager Monaghan gives constant reminders of her lost childhood; at the beach, she longs to “build a sandcastle, […] a big one with a moat” because she feels “still a kid really” (103). And, like a kid, she is still scared of “ghosts” (141) and “werewolves. Bogeymen” (146) – only now the monsters take the form of drug addicts and wild-eyed vandals. Wrapped in this nightmare, Kerrie-Ann is shown to be constantly swapping between a feeling of adulthood and childhood, a conflict that is exploited by everyone around her, who “called me Kerrie-Ann if they wanted to lecture me […] But if they wanted me to do summat for them it were ‘Kez’ or ‘Kezza’ or even ‘Kerrie-Anna’ in this teasy way” (200).

Red Admiral Butterfly, an important motif in the novel

Red Admiral Butterfly, an important motif in the novel

I think it would be impossible to truly enjoy reading this book. It’s tough-going, miserable and made me utterly uncomfortable. Because of its unrelenting bleakness, it’s not the sort of thing I’d usually choose to read, but I think that attitude simply backs up Monaghan’s suggestion that places like this Nottinghamshire estate, riddled with drugs and seemingly so far beyond help, are so often overlooked and ignored, inconvenient as they are to the  middle-classes to ‘sort out’. It’s an extremely intelligent and well-written novel, and its tone reminds me greatly of another East Midlands text, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, by Alan Sillitoe, which I loved. Perhaps I’ll get round to comparing the two some time. But for now, an admirable, albeit painful novel is The Killing Jar, to me worthy of a good 3/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading Linden Woods by Michael Taylor, which I have high hopes for. Read along with me or join me next week to see what I thought!

MONAGHAN, Nicola. The Killing Jar. London: Vintage, 2007.

Featured Image: The Morpho Pelaides butterly, an important character in the novel.

http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morpho_peleides

Bullseye (Part 2)

Alan Garner, author of "Thursbitch"

Alan Garner, author of “Thursbitch”

I warned you this was coming, Part 2 of my review of Alan Garner’s brilliant novel, Thursbitch. Goodness knows, it’s a novel worth spending time on and it would be a shame to waste all my notes.

From page 1, line 1, the setting of this novel is made apparent and unforgettable. The sense of place could not be more distinctive or important. Readers are blasted with names upon names of towns, landmarks, houses, hills and stones, without any description of the environment, as though “names alone mean everything”1. Their significance is part of the story that we gradually unearth through reading this novel – Garner hands us nothing on a plate – but initially we are disorientated, overwhelmed, lost in the fog settled over the landscape.

In contrast, as Jack Turner makes his way home with his team of packhorses, past “Ormes Smithy, up Blaze Hill and along Billinge Side”, although “he could not see for the whiteness […] he knew the road” (1). Jack orientates himself by the rocks and Tor faces around him, for “there’s not a brow nor a clough nor a slade nor a slack, nor a crop nor a crag, nor a frith nor a rake, nor a moss nor a moor, as we don’t know it, by day and by night, for as far as you can see and further” (34); he feels a connection to every nook and cranny of the land, and no matter how far he travels, he always returns, for “’this here nook of the world, for me, smiles more nor any other’” (31). He is a jagger, a traveller and trader, and the valley’s only connection to the outside world.

Saltersford Hall, the home of the real Turner family

Saltersford Hall, the home of the real Turner family

In fact, all the villagers of Saltersford know of England outside Thursbitch is that it is located “up a-top of down younder, miles-endy-ways” (20) – somewhere highly ambiguous. “’London? […] What’s that?’” his mother Mary asks him when he gets home; neither she, nor his father Richard Turner, brother Edward or wife-to-be Nan Sarah have ever been out of the valley. They haven’t even been to the top of its slopes. But, like it or not, the modern world is encroaching and life in their solitary valley is endangered by the “land man”, a “high-learnt letter gent” (108) with “big ways” (146) who, thanks to permission from the government, wants to fence out “every inch of land; walling right up Tors” (109) in order to create new property rights. To do this, he’s prepared for “raunging […] out” (109) the mystic monoliths, a violation against the forces of Bull and Dionysus and Mother Earth that is unthinkable for Jack: “He can’t, Father. Never. He can’t.” (109)

Thoon, the rocky outcrop associated with Bull and Dionysus

Thoon, the rocky outcrop associated with Bull and Dionysus

Precious though the valley is to the people of Saltersford and their way of life, the energy and spiritual presence within it that is channelled by the great stone monoliths also incites great fear among them. The throne of Bacchic revelry is Thoon, the “worst” (2), most powerful, most dangerous stone in the system, which will “take a life as lief as give” (75). (Thoon was a name of a giant or gigante of Ancient Greek mythology, son of earth mother Gaia, and father to a race of men.) Passing underneath this prominent outcrop, “the lead horse felt it, even though it was up the moor, and she reared, whinnying” (30); Martha Barber, prominent Maenad and worshipper of Dionysus herself, keeps her door strictly “bolted” (4) after dark due to its potential malevolent force; Jack warns Nan Sarah not to “ever go to Thursbitch” (75) on nights when the stones are said to move, and she flat-out refuses to go near the underground stone well at Pearly Meg “for love nor money” (29), scared of snakes or poison, or both. Present-day characters Ian and Sal can feel a powerful and intimidating force as they traverse the valley, too, feeling “’This place has had enough of us’” (27).

Believe it or not, the fear and anxiety that Thursbitch and its stones inspire is not merely artistic fantasy. In a lecture delivered about the process of writing and researching this novel, Garner himself pieces together the Old English words þyrs, ‘demon’, and bæch, ‘valley’, that became recorded as ‘Thursbitch’ in 1384. “This was no Romantic conceit”, he says. “For the people of those hills in the fourteenth century, that valley was frequented by þyrs: a demon [in the shape of] “’something big’”. Those he spoke to of the valley in the 21st century were no less unnerved: “’There isn’t a farmer in all these hills around […] as will open his door after dark […] Not even to cross the yard”.

Thursbitch monolith

Thursbitch monolith and ruins

However, as shaman of the cult of the Bull, Jack knows the ways of the stones and the rites that must be carried out; as long as these stones are respected, revered and “it’s done proper, and we mind us manners” (31), no one will get hurt. In fact, so in tune is he with the spirits of the valley that, on occasion, he seems to be one of them: words “came to him out of Thoon’s very own mouth” (5), “the sound of the brook entered him, and he grew to the stone” (45), “he and the hare and the brook and the valley were one, below Thoon” (46). He was found as a newborn baby on Thoon, it is where his children are born during the novel’s span, and it is where Nan Sarah also finds her place, her shoe fitting perfectly into “a shallow print in the rock” (33). He cares for the stones, witnesses their movements, and makes sure they’re set back in their right places, for “every so often yon moon and stars get out of sorts, and it’s given to folks same as us to fettle ‘em and put ‘em back on their high stones. […] Bull shall never die, choose what [Christian] ranters and land man do” (154).

In order to carry out this duty Jack leads the people of Saltersford in ritualistic worship, the aim being to achieve wholeness with the valley in an explosion of joy and ecstasy, so that “the deathless life became his life, so that he knew nothing of him but all that was within and without was one, and the rock and well were one, and the sky and the waters were one, and death and life were one, and he was one of them all; and there was no ending of them” (111). There are rituals for marriage, rituals dedicated to agricultural deity Crom to bless the harvest, rituals to encourage the passing of the seasons and rituals to appease restless spirits. Preparation for these rituals involves eating the hallucinogenic, high-inducing Fly Agaric mushrooms or, alternatively, drinking the urine of one who has done so, which has the same result. Yes, you read correctly, and Jack has the best “piddlejuice” (4) around, “sweet and fragrant, nectar” (61). Through this practice of “opening een and ears and tongue” (146) through the drug, a wild, Bacchic frenzy erupts, with dancing, singing and even “tearing, baying, gnawing” at a bull’s flesh as a sacrifice to Crom.

Thoon, up close.

Thoon, up close.

If we take a moment to consider all the imagery and allusions associated with this pagan lifestyle, it becomes clear that there may be more to Jack than mere shamanic abilities, for he is said to “tur[n] from servant and priest of Bull into incarnation of Bull” as he “loses his identity in identifying with the deity he serves”3. Similarly, Jack is born and dies “covered in bees” (42) or “all over honey” (8). These creatures are important mythical symbols, the bull being attributed to Dionysus, while bees were though to be manifestations of mother goddess Gaia and born of sacred bulls. They are symbols of awakening, regeneration, immortalisation and renewal; Jack, having been nursed by them at the beginning of his life, has, in other words, been nursed by Mother Earth herself. Other hints and spiritual similarities break through the mist too: like Dionysus, Jack travels the earth, spreading his faith, followed by female revelers and worshippers, overseeing the bloody sacrifice of live animals with teeth and bare hands. What is more, Jack, “knowing only the Bull’s truth, the wisdom of the Bee” (143), is often said to be both “beast and man” (145); his own father recognises that “Bull and Jack are one folk” (145).” When the bull is torn to pieces in the field, Jack too suffers a life-threatening attack that he barely makes it out of alive.

Jenkin Chapel

Jenkin Chapel

Despite the depth of his faith and the power of all these mystical figures around him, it is, astonishingly, tiny, innocent Nan Sarah who causes Jack to question his loyalties. Blinded – crazed, even – by love for her, Jack’s faith is shaken and Christianity is allowed, for a time, to creep into the valley in Bull’s place. The new religion is initially despised and ridiculed by everyone as being “a festerment” (3); sitting indoors to worship is likened to “shutting sky in a box of walls […] same as it was a suit o’ coffin stuff” (3) to those who so embrace the wild moors, and ‘services’ of the time, which preached violent and “everlasting torment” (128) for all, were dismissed as pathetic “muckfoodle talk” (130) and “hill-hooting” (131). Slowly, though, Jack’s new sermons begin to convert the smalltown population, and the Jenkin stone is even “broke” (2) down to allow Jenkin Chapel to be erected in pride of place. However, it is Jack’s father who is responsible for mixing the cement, a man undeviating from his principles; he manages to “mix a gallon of bull’s blood” (140) with the mortar, confident that Jack will see the error of his ways and that Bull shall save them from this new and “sorry land” (140).

In the modern day, connected to the past as through a “rift” (26) in time that causes a profound “geometric anomaly” (27), Ian and Sal are also trying to come to terms with their relationship to the valley and to each other. Sal, scientist and academic, quickly describes the landscape in black and white terms, reducing the geological formations from mystic portals to “textbook […] Chatsworth grit” (11) with nothing more special above them than a touch of “strong stylisation” (15). Meanwhile, Ian tries desperately to make sense of the sporadically-placed stone pillars in the same way, but fails to convince either Sal or himself. Of course, “the [monolithic] system works on observation of [light] rising and setting times at the fixed outcrop when viewed from the variously placed stones”2, but there’s something missing from this purely mathematical view.

Maenads leading Dionysian bull to sacrifice, from a Vatican bas-relief

Maenads leading Dionysian bull to sacrifice, from a Vatican bas-relief

Questions creep into Sal’s mind first, along with a strange spiritual sensation, as though “everything’s moving” (13) in a world of quiet that’s “different” (26). Ian chastises her for “bawling demotic rubbish in my ear” (64) and losing her scientific mind to subjectivity as a result of her “symptoms” (86). Perhaps this is true, or perhaps her neuro-degenerative disease has called into question her loyalty to science; perhaps she is more open now, with her own mortality in mind, to the idea of faith, of spirits, of a “sentient landscape” (87). Slowly, Sal convinces herself of her connection to the landscape, determined not to become “one of those yomping urban oiks” (65) who fail to appreciate the world around them. She encourages Ian, lover of order, justice, walls and “public right[s] of way” (71), a modern-day land-man sans immoral intentions, to put his precious map of the landscape away and “watch the real thing” (14).

Ian tries to resist her sentimentality, their dialogue packed with rebuttals –

“’It’s functional.’
‘It’s wonderful.’
‘I simply don’t have the maths.’
‘Who needs it? Just look.’” (90)

But soon he too begins to be swayed by the woman he loves, just like Jack.

Fly Agaric Mushrooms

Fly Agaric Mushrooms

Eventually, with only a box of pills to aid her instead of magic mushrooms, Sal reaches a point where, like Jack Turner, she “can’t tell which is the valley and which is me” (67); she has a “religious experience” (156) in the valley and is happy to spend eternity within its shelter. It is not heaven she senses around her, but an innate bond with the undulations that moves, with continental drift, at the same rate as her fingernails grow. In this unity of spiritual enlightenment and scientific principle she draws comfort in this “place of understanding” (152) that permeates Ian with peace too.

At the end of the novel, and without giving too much away, it is peace that the characters seek and find, rather than religious ecstasy. All signs of malevolent demons go out the window as human relationships are shown to have the greater power to influence minds, change lives and have strength enough to quake or construct whole systems of belief. Ian chooses Sal’s happiness over his beloved “spiritual or medical ethical” (137) principles; Jack is swayed into and out of Christianity by Nan Sarah before ultimately realising that his only duty should be to “do right” (6) by his love, whatever fate that brings.

“He had an odd-strucken sort of twist to his face, full of grief and good. I swear as I saw a broken man, but one as could mend. And I swear, Father, I never did see a happier man” (148).

It really is a fantastically moving novel. Please read it.

Thursbitch. Photo taken by Andy Turner.

Thursbitch. Photo taken by Andy Turner.

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

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

RENNER, B. “Notes Toward a Survey of Thursbitch by Alan Garner.” Undated. Accessed online on 31/12/2013: http://elimae.com/reviews/garner/thursbitch.html

GARNER, ALAN. THURSBITCH. LONDON: VINTAGE, 2004.

Featured Image: Valley of Thursbitch.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thursbitch_7_.jpg