International Play-Offs

Well, I can hardly believe it, but this is the very last book of this Placing Myself literary journey around England and, funnily enough, I really have come full circle in many ways. From the first moment I let it be known that I would be challenging myself to read one book from every ceremonial county of England, it has been from the Cornish that I received the most interest, feedback and, occasionally, criticism. Cornwall, many stipulate, is not a county of England, but a Duchy, with an unique historical and cultural identity, rights to political and social autonomy from Westminster, and, overall, a thriving Cornish nationalist movement.

Alan M. Kent's "Proper Job! Charlie Curnow"

Alan M. Kent’s “Proper Job! Charlie Curnow”

So because of all this interest, I’ve been dying to reach Cornwall on this fictional journey since… well, since I was all the way up in Northumberland! The author I have chosen – Alan M. Kent – was nominated by several of my Cornish commenters as someone who identifies himself as Cornish, rather than English or British, and I am so glad I followed the suggestion, for Proper Job! Charlie Curnow has been an outstanding 5/5 star read. Here’s why.

The novel is set on a dirty and dangerous estate called Trelawny, “a shite-hole right at the arse-end of Britain” (12), where live Charlie Curnow and almost all of his friends. From the outset, Cornwall is shown to be a far cry from the stereotypical “fuckers’ holiday destination” that is “always sunny, had kids playin’ in rockpools an’ makin’ sandcastles [and] every cunt walked around smilin’ an’ happy t’live in social deprivation” (122). Instead Kent’s Cornwall, and Charlie’s estate in particular, is filled with “the usual proliferation of dog shit, burnt tarmac, rubbish and broken fences” (11), and most people, young and old, are “on the dole” since all the work in Cornwall was “shite”, seasonal and unpredictable, “either selling fuckin’ ice creams t’cunts down Portreath, or else bagging groceries for second-home owners in Sainsburys” (9). In summary, Charlie and his peers sometimes “hated Cornwall”, colonised as it is by outsiders and tourists (otherwise known as “emmets” (37) from “up the line” (27)). Moreover, these tourists, just like the media and (apparently) the Westminster government, are entirely ignorant of Cornwall’s real battles against drugs and poverty, and the seeming impossibility of establishing “social cohesion” (9).

Filled with frustration at their poor state of affairs, and sick of being on the dole with no hope of a brighter future in sight, Charlie and his friends Yak, Neil and Bev decide to take their fate in their own hands and form a band. Not just a wimpy, lacklustre, cover-songs-only, teenage-years-style band, either; rather, through the combination of good musical talent and hard writing/gigging/practising, they are determined to develop a rock band that will “make the fuckin’ scene” in Cornwall, and “take the world hold by the bollocks” (20) to prove that the county can produce much more than just “clotted fuckin’ cream” (19) and so-called “Cornish butter” (27).

Cornish author of this novel, Alan. M. Kent - an expert on all things relating to Cornish literary and historical culture, apparently.

Cornish author of this novel, Alan. M. Kent – an expert on all things relating to Cornish literary and historical culture, apparently.

As much as Charlie and his friends might profess to ‘hating’ Cornwall, therefore, they are also incredibly proud and nationalistic about their home, aiming to prove that both it and they themselves are worthy of having a definitive place “on the map” (56). Charlie, in particular, is aware (even through all the Trelawny grime and misery) of the truth behind the stereotypical observations of “Cornwall’s ancient and romantic landscape” (7) and the “noble tradition[s]” (37) that are part and parcel of Cornwall historical, Celtic identity; he notices the beauty of the “frost in the air and the moon […] over Carn Brea (18). He knows that “Cornwall used t’be fuckin’ called West Barbary n’people from up the line reckoned we was fuckin’ savages”, and so wants the band to develop a modern identity that is just as “intense…it’s gotta’ reflect where we’re from” (65-6).

There is still a great difference between Charlie’s nationalistic feelings and those of the “fuckin’ middle-class beardie-weirdies” who “sat ‘round an’ lamented lost olde worlde Cornwall” and had “fuck-all else t’do but argue over spellings o’place-names” (128). He has no real interest in their version of Cornwall’s identity, or even of learning the Cornish language which “sounded unnatural as fuck” (133) to him. But, as the band garners more and more interest and success, Charlie is proud to feel like Cornwall is becoming “the centre o’the world” again, “not just some forgotten piece o’it” (226). Heck, “if the bus driver t’Trelawny knew” of Charlie’s band, then that’s all he needs to know that “he’s made it. He knew it had been a proper bleddy job” (246).

Cornwall (aka Kernow - Charlie's surname!) "must have political recognition as a nation", some argue

Cornwall (aka Kernow – Charlie’s surname!) “must have political recognition as a nation”, some argue

Kent is an absolute master of describing Cornwall’s various, conflicting and yet co-existing identities, which appear through perspectives ranging from the supremely nationalistic (as the “’Free Cornwall’ graffiti” [33] around the estate attests to) to the blissfully ignorant of any political undercurrents in the youth- and surfer-paradise. Crucially, there is no single version of Cornwall that its inhabitants and all-important seasonal visitors can agree on. Just as, I suppose, throughout this challenge there have been multiple embodiments of Englishness too. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For now, Kent makes important political points about the subjugation, simplification and homogenisation of Cornish culture. By centring his novel around modern youth, he is also able to showcase the crisis the generation faces in growing up in a county that cannot define itself as it wishes to. Charlie’s efforts to establish himself among his peers and his compatriots reflects Cornwall’s own need, as Kent seems to see it, to redefine itself on its own terms. After all, it is the county’s outsiders (whether that be tourists, national media or Westminster) who insist on perceiving Cornwall in a single, sunny light and who ignore any pressing news that may jeopardise this idyllic vision. Neil and Yak put it plainly when they say:

“I mean it’s hard fur people in Cornwall to be proud o’who they are, ‘cause no fucker on tv has a Cornish accent. You’n be fuckin’ Irish, or Scottish, or Scouse or fuckin’ Geordie – an’ everyone thinks you’m cool, but if y’speak like we, no fucker wants t’knaw ‘ee […] Up the line they think we all have straw ‘angin’ out o’our mouths an’ spend the days makin’ clotted fuckin’ cream” (19).

Stereotypical Cornwall - beachy holiday destination. This is a far cry from the poverty-stricken perception Charlie has of his home.

Stereotypical Cornwall – beachy holiday destination. This is a far cry from the poverty-stricken perception Charlie has of his home.

I’m so glad I have managed to end this challenge on a high, with a book that I enjoyed. Now all that’s left is for me to summarise the year’s reading. With the Scottish referendum well on the way, I’d better get going! See you soon.

 

KENT, Alan M. Proper Job, Charlie Curnow! London: Devon, 2005.

Featured Image: Cornish Nationalists protest to be seen as a people distinct from the English and from the UK. This year, Cornish was finally recognised as an official ‘national minority’ (like Scots, Welsh and Irish) but, for many, this doesn’t go far enough.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/cornish-people-formally-declared-a-national-minority-along-with-scots-welsh-and-irish-9278725.html

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The Lookout

Graham Swift's "Wish You Were Here"

Graham Swift’s “Wish You Were Here”

While appearing to be very different, there are some startling similarities in theme between the last two novels I’ve read: Katherine Webb’s The Half Forgotten Song, for Dorset, and Graham Swift’s Wish You Were Here, set partly in the Isle of Wight. Both are grounded at the English seaside and yet contradict the usual idyllic stereotypes; both feature aging characters tied to their landscape and haunted by their past; both are hung up on the horrors of war, whether that be WWII, the Iraq War or even war within oneself. What’s more, the main households in the novels are called The Watch (Webb) and The Lookout (Swift)…The theme of looking on at the world outside whilst being cut off from it – of being left alone, in other words, to be terrorised by one’s own mind – could not be more strongly shared. Strange, eh?

The protagonist of Wish You Were Here is the taciturn but quietly emotional (and frankly brilliantly- and heart-wrenchingly-written) Jack Luxton. Jack is the last in a long line of Luxton farmers from Devon, but he cut all ties with the area and moved to the Isle of Wight with his wife Ellie after his parents’ death. His Devon years, at the family home at Jebb Farm, were wracked with hardship and grief though, at times (almost exclusively because of the love and admiration he has for his little brother Tom), filled with immense joy. Having to cope with their mother’s death, an outbreak of the fatal BSE (mad cow disease) in the UK – at which point they were forced to murder their own beloved cattle and plunge themselves into economic hardship – and their father’s deterioration after both events was too much for the young Jack and Tom. On the morning of Tom’s eighteenth birthday, after having confided in Jack, Tom ran away before sunrise to join the army; ran away from the home that has become their prison, filled with bitterness and hatred. Jack, meanwhile, protected Tom’s flight, bottled his own emotions against all odds, and remained.

Cows suffering from BSE disease display an inability to stand up or walk and lower milk production, among other symptoms.

Cows suffering from BSE disease display an inability to stand up or walk and lower milk production, among other symptoms.

Years later, having heard nothing from Tom despite his numerous letters, but no less well-remembered of him, Jack has become the owner of Lookout caravan park on the Isle of Wight. He fled with Ellie, as soon as his father’s death freed him, away from Jebb Farmhouse and all its horrible memories, to “the bottom of the Isle of Wight” (4) where he could no longer see or be reminded of the Devonshire landscape, to “a whole separate land, with only a short sea to cross, but happily cut off from the land of their past” (210). Not only cut off from the past, as it happens, but also from current events in the rest of the world that would otherwise fill him with concern: such as wars that Tom may be involved in. “There was a war going on, that was the story. Though who would know, or want to know, down here at Sands End?” (60).

Another thing the Isle of Wight offers Jack that he never had at Jebb farm (thanks to his father) is the opportunity to be in control, to take agency. He sees his new herd – caravans this time, rather than cattle – as “an encampment, down there […] some expeditionary, ragtag army” (30). He even has souvenir flags of the site to stake his claim (yet again those war themes and motifs). In his new position, he is no longer only “that common enough creature, a landsman, by experience and disposition” but has also become “an islander” (135) – someone with a well-defined, watery-bordered, manageable-sized patch to patrol. On an island, there can be no confusion about where the boundaries lie. Can there?

Caravan Park on the Isle of Wight

Caravan Park on the Isle of Wight

Well, it turns out there can, because Jack simply cannot allow himself to fully let go of his past. Despite trying to convince himself that he is an army general, in possession of his own little piece of England, displaying no vulnerability, there are times when his confusion about his “proper place” (3) and his true identity have him at war with himself: “A war on terror, that was the general story. Jack knew that terror was a thing you felt inside, so what could a war on terror be, in the end, but a war against yourself?” (60).

Jack is haunted, daily, by “the strange, opposite feeling: that he should have been there, back at Jebb, in the thick of it; it was his proper place” (3). His is a farming family of “generations going back and forwards, like the hills” (22) around Jebb, and to leave that place is, in essence, to forsake everything and everyone he loved. He remembers the feeling, with pain and regret, of being so tied to the Devon farmland that “England had meant only what the eye could see from Jebb Farmhouse – or what lay within a ten-mile journey in the Land Rover or pick-up. There’d been a few day-trips to Exeter or Barnstaple. Two stays, once, in another county: Dorset. Even the Isle of Wight, once, would have seemed like going abroad” (56). There is an intimate connection between himself and “a certain kind of bulging hill, a certain kind of hunched, bunched geography […] areas of bare hearth with a familiar ruddy hue” (219). It is a connection that he fears to reawaken because of the grief and guilt he feels for running away. Ironically, he is only filled with admiration for Tom for doing precisely the same thing at age eighteen.

Author Graham Swift

Author Graham Swift

But I haven’t even pointed out the main crux of the novel. As the blurb says, “on an autumn day in 2006”, Jack “receives the news that his brother Tom, not seen for years, has been killed in Iraq.” Hurled into the midst of repatriative and funereal affairs, Jack’s emotional state, married life and whole understanding of self hangs by a thread: memories of the brothers’ past together whirl by him all the stronger, and “the map of England wheel[s] in his head” (217) as the world becomes “all unknown country now” (132), with “the rain beating a tattoo against it” (353).

This novel is utterly mesmerising, dizzyingly suspenseful and, above all, completely heart-wrenching in every respect. It is not often that I am as genuinely moved by a novel as I was by this one. There are a whole cast of characters that I have not even mentioned who simply and yet deeply drawn, being fundamentally relatable even in sometimes such bizarre situations. Above all, however, Jack Luxton is Swift’s absolute star feature of this novel. The non-linear approach Swift uses (he jumps about between past and present and narrative perspective regularly) means the reader clings to Jack’s perception of events to ground their understanding; we are intimately tied up in the way he sees the world, and my goodness it is a unique way. You must read this, you really must. 5/5 stars for a thoroughly moving read.

Next week I’ll be reading my penultimate book for this challenge! It’s Eva Ibbotson’s The Dragonfly Pool. Join me then!

 

SWIFT, Graham. Wish You Were Here. London: Picador, 2012.

Featured Image: Military repatriation.

http://www.barrowuponsoarwarmemorial.co.uk/page6.htm

Crumbling

Dover, as described by Helen Oyeyemi in her Kent-based novel White is for Witching, is a place with its identity in crisis. And it’s not only the city that is struggling to define itself.

“She heard and smelt the water at the bottom of the cliffs, but it felt like a long time before she’d walked long enough to glimpse the sea crashing and breaking against the shore, foam eating into stone. England and France had been part of the same landmass, her father had told her, until prised apart by floods and erosion. She was not sure what time it was; when she looked at the sun she could understand that it had changed position but she did not dare to say how much. There were cruise ships coming in, vast white curved blocks like severed feet shuffling across the water. She waved half-hearted welcome. She felt the wind lift her hair above her head. In daylight the water was so blue that the colour seemed like a lie and she leant over, hoping for a moment of shift that would allow her to understand what was beneath the sea” (88)

Helen Oyeyemi's "White Is For Witching"

Helen Oyeyemi’s “White Is For Witching”

Situated precariously on the bottom edge of England, with land that literally crumbles into the sea, Dover’s identity appears to be in a state of vulnerability. It is “a fucking mess”, one character says; the maritime gateway to southern England has too many foreign refugees (mainly Kosovans, we hear) getting into fights amongst themselves as well as “pissing off the locals” (203). These “incomers” have changed the way Britishness is thought of in Dover; they have even, some would argue, “twisted” the concept of Britishness into something that seems “bad” (116). For Dover’s inhabitants, particularly teenage twins Miranda and Eliot, it is becoming more and more difficult to anchor themselves in its shifting waters.

Aside from these political / geographical troubles, Miranda and Eliot Silver, and their father Luc Dufresne are also trying to cope with the loss of Lily, the twins’ mother.

For Miranda this is particularly difficult, as the generations of Silver women share an affinity and a connection that is “older” than all of them. Even in death, great-grandmother Anna is tied “to her daughter Jennifer, to Jennifer’s stubborn daughter Lily, to Lily’s even more stubborn daughter Miranda” (118). In the ghost-filled family home in Dover, which Luc is frantically trying to fill with life and prosperity by turning it into a successful B&B, Miranda can nevertheless hear and feel the presence of the other long-lost women: “her GrandAnna laugh[s] at something Lily said” (196) in an upstairs room while haunting music, which only Miranda can hear, plays in the halls. Without the support of her mother, Miranda sees “the world in pieces” (38), and it seems as though her own body is about to crumble too, or to “concertina, bones knocking against each other” (233).

A land unstable: erosion of the white cliffs of Dover

A land unstable: erosion of the white cliffs of Dover

As it is, the reader bears witness to Miranda’s breakdown which drains her both physically and mentally before her family’s eyes. Her mind quakes from grief and depression that borders on insanity; not only does she hear voices and see strange things in mirrors and believe she can walk through walls into hidden rooms of the house, but she also forgets who she is: “she would need to know how old she was and she didn’t know” (131). At the same time, she suffers from pica, a disorder which means she hungers, not for food, but for plastic, dirt and, strangely enough, Dover’s very own chalk. The lack of real nutrition she ingests makes her body wither and shrink until she becomes so thin that she is practically two-dimensional, despite her father’s huge and varied efforts to get her to eat. All in all, through the deterioration of her mental and physical state, she slowly becomes “the girl who hardly even exists” (185).

But as well as the story of Miranda’s breakdown and the relationships she develops (the book is not all miserable), this novel tells the story of a house. The creepy family house in which Miranda, apparently, disappears into other dimensions and communicates with the spirits of her female ancestors. Is Miranda simply insane, or does the house really have a life of its own?

Spooky: Dover Castle looms over the city

Spooky: Dover Castle looms over the city

The answer to that question is for the reader to decide, but the house is certainly given a voice in this novel. ‘29 Barton Road’ narrates whole passages of this book, telling how “I was nothing like that flat of [the family’s] in London” (74) and how Miranda “wandered up and down my staircases, in and out of my rooms” (117). The house even admits to leading its inhabitants astray and trapping them in another world within its walls: “I unlocked a door in her bedroom that she had not seen before […] When she was safely down the new passageway, I closed the door behind her” (84). The house is frightening, haunting, threatening. It is not only Miranda who notices strange goings on either; on one occasion the family’s housekeepers quit abruptly and flee their accommodation, leaving a note that says:

This house is bigger than you know! There are extra floors with lots of people on them. They are looking people. They look at you, and they never move. We do not like them. We do not like this house, and we are glad to be going away.” (57)

There are ghostly, witchy and magical elements to this novel that add to the narrative confusion, ambiguity and brilliance. In reality, it’s quite frightening. If you’re reading this review and are thinking that the set-up (i.e. generations of women linked through the centuries, a big old family home) sounds a lot like that of Katherine Webb’s The Legacy, I suppose you would not be a million miles away. However, in writing style, Webb and Oyeyemi are fathoms apart. For all the beauty of Webb’s traditional narrative structure, Oyeyemi writes non-linear prose which darts across the page between narrators and between margins; at times it seems like you are reading poetry. Where I deemed Webb’s novel original, I would say Oyeyemi’s is utterly unique. Sometimes it is hard work, but that is part of the reward. Overall the novel is chilling and deeply mesmerising, no matter how much or how little you go in for the other-worldly: 5/5 stars.

Author Helen Oyeyemi

Author Helen Oyeyemi

As a brief note to finish off, this short novel does what I think is an incredible job of mapping conflicting ideas of modern Britishness and Englishness, especially in its portrait of Dover, as I’ve already touched on, and in the representation of its supposedly ‘typical English family’ (hardly so, as it turns out). Even within Miranda’s family, the reader bears witness to the shift in ideas over time: her great-grandfather was the artist of patriotic World War Two cartoons, “all on the theme of plucky Brits defeating the enemy by maintaining the home front – a stout housewife planting her potatoes and taking a moment to smack one that looked just like Hitler on the head with her trowel, that sort of thing” (69). Moving down the generations, Miranda’s great-grandmother is appalled that her granddaughter Lily “didn’t know what Britannia meant” and that she said “patriotism was embarrassing and dangerous” (115). Britishness, as I said before, is in crises here. In summary, this novel has been a great one to read for this challenge.

Next week I’ll be reviewing James Long’s The Lives She Left Behind for Somerset. I’d better get cracking!

 

OYEYEMI, Helen. White Is For Witching. Oxford: Picador, 2009.

Featured Image: Characteristic White Cliffs of Dover

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2114912/White-Cliffs-Dover-Thousands-tons-chalk-crash-sea-large-section-collapses.html

Wending Woodward

Katherine Webb's "The Legacy"

Katherine Webb’s “The Legacy”

Katherine Webb’s The Legacy is set in Wiltshire, in and around the large, ancestral family home where twins Beth and Erica Calcott spent their childhood summers with their grandmother, and which they are now in the process of inheriting after her death. But this idyllic country home houses many generations of family secrets. As Beth and Erica begin sifting through their grandmother Meredith’s possessions, they uncover half-forgotten truths from their own childhood as well as tragedy that spans a whole century of bitter Calcott women, stemming from irreversible choices made by their great-grandmother Caroline in her unexpected pre-war life on a cattle ranch in Woodward County, Oklahoma.

It is, as another reviewer so aptly put it, one of those multi-generational family sagas that I am such a sucker for. Webb writes beautifully, hauntingly and effortlessly. It is definitely not, as the front cover unfortunately suggests, chick-lit or a throwaway, easy beach read. It’s a fantastically written, suspenseful, tragic and deeply affecting novel which strikes chords that have continued to reverberate long after I laid the book down. My favourite chapters, and those through which I think the book’s originality really shines, are those told from Caroline’s point of view: her loving marriage to Corim and subsequent upheaval from glamorous 1900s New York to the bare, sweltering, harsh “gaping landscape” (205) of dusty Oklahoma; her struggle to become accustomed to the “unbearable” (205) life away from civilisation and alongside strangers; her transition from happy, bright-eyed city girl to broken and battle-hardened old woman who bestows suffering and resentment on her own daughter, and fails to give or inspire any tenderness in her grand- or great-grandchildren.

Main Street in Woodward, Oklahoma, c. 1911

Main Street in Woodward, Oklahoma, c. 1911

For a reading challenge themed around characters’ relationships with place and space, this novel is perfect. Its pages are filled with “dizzying” (205) descriptions of the fear, difficulty, loneliness and thorough psychological pain of adapting to unfamiliar and unfriendly environments:

  1. Caroline must transition from New York City to Woodward County where, “when she opened the [ranch] door she felt as though she might fall out, might tumble into the gaping emptiness of the prairie without man-made structures to anchor her” (215); where “she felt the urge to run, to throw herself back indoors before she disintegrated into the mighty sky” (205).
  2. Similarly, twins Beth and Erica must grow accustomed to the darkness, “damp” and “austerity” (7) of the empty Calcott manor which is nevertheless full of memories that force them to feel like they are still unhappy “children” (9) within its walls. This is Wiltshire, not London, and Erica notes: “I am out of practice at living in the countryside; ill-equipped for changes in the terrain, for ground that hasn’t been carefully prepared to best convenience me” (13); “I had forgotten the quiet of the countryside, and it unnerves me” (58).
One of the famous chalk carvings in the Wiltshire hills

One of the famous chalk carvings in the Wiltshire hills

Aside from the house being the Calcott family seat, Webb also describes its setting in the ancient Wiltshire landscape, the “chalk downland, marked here and there by prehistory, marked here and there by tanks and target practice” (13). The house and the lonely hills surrounding it seem equally haunted, and yet separate: the house exists in its own sphere, its gates closed to the outside village and locality. Its particular history and its particular tragedies cut it off entirely from everything and everyone else. As a reader, the house’s world is mesmerising.

Overall, it may not give me much insight on Wiltshire, but this is a book I would recommend to any reader, as one that is part romance, part suspense-thriller, part western and wholly gripping. Don’t be put off by the old-family-home-filled-with-secrets cliché: this novel turns out to have so many more levels than that, and so much originality. Most refreshing and pleasing of all is Webb’s writing style: I can’t wait to read some of the other things she’s written. For now, a whole-hearted 5/5 stars.

Next time I’ll be reviewing After Phoenix by Martine McDonagh for Bristol. Get reading and join me later!

 

WEBB, Katherine. The Legacy. London: Orion, 2010.

Featured Image: Main Street in Woodward, Oklahoma c. 1910

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodward,_Oklahoma

 

‘Best of British…and ta very much’

David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green"

David Mitchell’s “Black Swan Green”

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell, is the story of 13-year-old Jason Taylor’s battle with being 13 years old. Puberty, peer pressure, teenage awkwardness, school bullies, a crippling speech defect and life in a dysfunctional family in an isolated Worcestershire village – called Black Swan Green – make it all the more difficult for him to find a place for himself against the backdrop of the 1980s Thatcher era and the Falklands War.

Judging by my work colleagues’ reactions when I described the plot to them, to most people this book sounds unbearably bleak. To me, even from the outset it sounded fantastic. As a general rule, I’m a sucker for anything written about the fascinating creature that was Margaret Thatcher, as well as a great lapper-upper of coming-of-age/ formative year novels or Bildungsromane (whatever you want to call them).

The controversial Margaret Thatcher

The controversial Margaret Thatcher

This is the first David Mitchell book I’ve read but it certainly will not be the last. I deeply admire his success in writing from the perspective of a child; I find it requires great skill to convey the interpretive innocence and worldly misunderstanding of a young person in a way that does not result in a narrow, oversimplified, frustrating interface with the reader. This skill abounds in Mitchell’s novel: the world is not simplified through Jason’s outlook; rather, the character’s imagination is shown to compensate for what he does not fully comprehend, generating a representation of his issues and his surroundings that is entirely fresh, entirely compelling and entirely distinct from an adult’s perspective. Indeed, the construction of the relationships between Jason’s classmates and family members and even the odd stranger is some of the finest and most subtle work in the novel, complete as it is with biting dialogue and undertones of rivalry, pressure, judgement and, in some unexpected cases, love.

The effect of this narrative mastery produces a 5/5 star novel that is deeply relatable for anyone who has been through adolescence and, invariably, come face-to-face with the accompanying periods of bitching, bullying, discomfort and self-loathing contiguous with this brutal phase of life. (Do any of us know anyone who was never bullied to some degree at school?!) Most unbearable and un-putdownable for me were the scenes between Jason and his detached parents. Overall, Jason’s experiences are made to seem simultaneously dreadful and heart-wrenchingly ordinary. As a reader, you feel Jason’s pain and uncertainty as flashbacks of your own, becoming the victim all over again, whilst at the same time the sense of injustice you feel on his behalf turns you into his protector. This is not just an immersive, formative experience for Jason but for the reader too, whose own life is put into perspective by seeing Jason’s play out.

The destroyer the HMS Sheffield on fire during the Falklands War, 4th May 1982.

The destroyer the HMS Sheffield on fire during the Falklands War, 4th May 1982.

As it happens, Black Swan Green is also a great novel to choose for this Placing Myself challenge, since it has a heck of a lot to say about place and space.

Mitchell seems to suggest that a lot of Jason’s insecurity and nervousness in day-to-day life stems from his inability to form a relationships with the physical environment in which he lives. In fact, the very first sentence of the novel, in which Jason recalls his father’s command, “Do not set foot in my office” (1), exemplifies the continuing theme of Jason being barred from relating to space, even in his own house. Neighbouring farmers are no more helpful in offering him a mode of belonging; they resent Jason’s “townie” (163) presence in the village, for his family lives in “little toy mansions on land [the farmers have] been workin’ for generations” (89). What’s more, Jason’s frequent encounters with Ross Wilcox and the other neighbourhood bullies means that he feels as if “Planet Earth’d shrunk to a bubble five paces wide” (271); no wonder he can find no place of comfort in the village when on every street he is tormented and persecuted by boys from school.

A view over the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

A view over the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

Just to make matters worse, the village itself is so lacking in status in England – “it’s the most boring county so no one ever knows where it is” (215) – that he would be unable to feel pride in his upbringing even if he wanted to. Its lack of swans despite its name is a big “joke” (82) that fills him with a sense of inadequacy in the face of outsiders. As a result he is, quite literally, prevented from finding and respecting his own place in the world – without a true home, his identity is unstable, and his self-worth and self-belief suffer as a result.

“God, if I had a car like Ewan’s MG, I’d get out of Black Swan Green faster than a Super Etendard. Far away from Mum and Dad and their three-, four- and five-star arguments. Far from school and Ross Wilcox and Gary Drake and Neal Brose and Mr Carver […] I’d never, ever ever come back to muddy Worcestershire” (135-6).

Amazonia: In Jason's mind, his woods are on this scale.

Amazonia: In Jason’s mind, his woods are on this scale.

The only place Jason seems remotely happy – although still not consistently – is in the woods. Reminiscent of Ann in Pollard, “trees,” he says, “’re always a relief, after people” (10); not only is “the real Jason Taylor” (296) allowed to come out in the woods, away from prying eyes, but he is also able to take pride in the fact that he knows “all the paths in this part” (11), and is continuously interested in exploring more and more, to “track the bridlepath to its mysterious end” (87) for the sheer adventure of it. The respect that is lacking for ridiculously-named Black Swan Green is made up for in his reverence for the woods, where time and nature are “older” and “truer” (296) than anything manmade. Within these woodland walls, he can convince himself that he is no longer shy, but an intrepid explorer, master of his surroundings. Perhaps, then, there is hope he may find a place for himself in the world yet? Alas, at the end of the novel, when he has matured in more ways than one, he realises “this whole wood’s only a few acres […] Two or three footy pitches, tops” (364) – his childhood imagination, which conjured a majestic forest in which to hide himself, crumbles at these words. Growing up and realising the possibility of moving away and moving on with his life is a broadening of his horizons, to be sure, but the wake from innocence comes with a nasty jolt, and the fight to belong may never be over. (I don’t want to gush, but my goodness how Mitchell’s writing does move me.)

David Mitchell, author

David Mitchell, author

If Jason’s life wasn’t unstable enough with such a lack of physical belonging, Mitchell goes one step further to bar his protagonist from forming a confident relationship with language. Not only does Jason struggle, like every child, to express himself in an adult world – “I want to bloody kick this moronic bloody world in the bloody teeth over and over till it bloody understands that not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right” (149) – but, with a stammer he has to combat in every single sentence, Jason can rarely find words to accurately represent himself to others. Once again, the process of establishing his identity in the world around him is jeopardised, leaving his sense of selfhood floundering in uncertainty. For a 13-year-old, stammering in front of his peers is equivalent to “death” (11) and, unnervingly, his private nickname for the spirit that constricts his own throat is the “Hangman” (31). He lives in mortal fear of this spirit preying on his alphabet, taking one letter after another until the J-words go and “I won’t even be able to say my own name” (31). Truly, the way Mitchell describes Jason’s distress with holding simple conversations is haunting; Jason’s creativity in circumventing problem words fills the reader with consternation as well as intense sorrow that he can be left to struggle alone, so let down by those around him.

Jason, the Hellenic hero, returning with the Golden Fleece

Jason, the Hellenic hero, returning with the Golden Fleece

But, just as the woods provide Jason with some imaginative relief for his feeling of homelessness, so Mitchell offers Jason occasional respite from his war with words. After all, despite his difficulty with verbal expression, Jason’s proves his linguistic creativity by writing advanced poems for the village newsletter…under a pseudonym, of course, or his classmates would skin him alive. The strange and mysterious Madame Crommelynck is, for all he knows, his sole reader, poetic teacher and encourager; she is the only one who knows his true identity and who encourages him to use his “hated” real name, Jason Taylor, which he thinks of as “flavourless as chewed receipts”: “’What is more poetic than ‘Jason’, an Hellenic hero? […] And what is a poet if he is not a tailor of words?’” (193). Mitchell certainly provides Jason with hugely inventive ways of interpreting the world: he revels in discovering “secret colours nobody’s ever named” (85), in expressing the inexpressible – “a sick bus growled past and made the air taste of pencils” (246) – and in searching for true beauty, even if “beautiful [is] the gayest word going” (116) for most adolescent boys. He presses his ear against the earth and draws inspiration from it; his creativity has the potential to give him agency for his own representation in future – if only he can grasp this with both hands before he is silenced altogether.

I could go on for hours (even longer than I have done already, believe it or not) about the cleverest elements of this novel, which are all the more intelligent for being presented through a child’s perspective.

  • Like the way Mitchell describes the British class system in terms of a game of Monopoly, with the fancy cousins – who live in glamorous London, of course – already having “hotels on Mayfair and Park Lane” while Jason and his family are “still swapping Euston Road for Old Kent Road plus £300 and praying to scoop the kitty from Free Parking” (53).
  • Or how Mitchell seems to criticise the arrogant British attitude to war through a competitive game of British Bulldogs in which boys “lost three teeth” (6), were forced to turn “traitor” and which, all in all, shamefully, wasn’t “about taking part or even about winning” but about “humiliating your enemies” (7).
  • Or the way Mitchell highlights English ignorance and carelessness about all other parts of the UK: “Aberystwyth’s a bit of a dive, but Dad says John o’ Groats’s just a few houses where Scotland runs out of Scotland. Isn’t no god better than one who does that to people?” (164). “Accuracy on matters Irish is not the forte of the English” (219-20).
Monopoly board game - or, the British class system 101

Monopoly board game – or, the British class system 101

But I’m not going to go on for hours, because you really should read this incredibly moving, incredibly rewarding novel for yourselves. In fact, I think I’m going to go and start it again, right now…

Next week I’ll be reading Phil Rickman’s The Fabric of Sin. It looks like it might be a strange one, so join me soon to find out more!

MITCHELL, David. Black Swan Green. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006.

Featured Image: Black swan on the Severn River.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/macreative/5058985523/lightbox/

Vital Organs

Benjamin Wood's "The Bellwether Revivals"

Benjamin Wood’s “The Bellwether Revivals”

Most other people who’ve read Benjamin Wood’s The Bellwether Revivals, set in Cambridge, seem intent on comparing it by degrees to A Secret History and Brideshead Revisited, other novels set in elite academic environments. I’m not going to do that – primarily because *SHOCK, HORROR* I’ve not yet read either of those great works. I know, I know; I haven’t read those, I hadn’t read any science fiction or ghost tales or zombie horrors or graphic novels, or indeed many modern novels at all before this blog. What have I read?! But, hey, at least this review might be a little different to the others out there.

Oscar Lowe, “bright” and “bookish” (according to the blurb), escaped his frustrating and unhappy working-class roots early, before finishing school or realising where his thoughtful mind could take him. Now living in Cambridge and working diligently as a care assistant at Cedarbrook nursing home, the shadows of the university’s famous buildings haunt him on every street, reminding him of the world of privilege and academia that he can never be a part of. That is, until he is drawn into King’s College chapel one evening by the sound of swelling music, and meets the beautiful and intelligent medical student Iris Bellwether, as well as her frighteningly arrogant, mad-control-freak, musical prodigy, genius brother, Eden. (It’s a sign of Wood’s brilliant characterisation that I find summing up his characters in a few words nigh impossible.) So begins Oscar’s tumultuous relationship with the wealthy Bellwether family and his insight into the Cambridge circle, leading to love (for Iris), fury (at Eden), wonder (at the family’s way of life), shame (at his own), hope (for brighter prospects), fear (of losing everything) and pain (of knowing he can never truly belong).

King's College, Cambridge (Chapel on left)

King’s College, Cambridge (Chapel on left)

While the plot itself is extraordinarily unpredictable and profoundly moving, it is Wood’s characterisation in particular that blows me away. Every single character’s individuality has been created painstakingly. Through implicit and explicit detail, as though their lives are strains of music on the wind, readers grow to sense their loves, hates, talents, weaknesses, motivations, relationships – some of their secrets remain hidden from us throughout. Each character, however fleeting or prominent their presence in the novel, possesses enough depth to be a fascinating psychological study, and yet is so rounded and ‘real’ that they can’t be pinned down. This is truly an amazing debut, worthy of 5/5 stars.

The character of Cambridge itself is a weighty presence in the novel’s pages, and something Wood admits to having a particular relationship with:

“Like [Oscar], I did not attend the university, but I lived in Cambridge for three years […] Walking around the place, it is difficult to ignore the monuments to history that surround you. It is a greatly inspiring environment for someone who values the importance of learning, as I do, but it is also an overwhelming place for someone who is not an invited member of that world – the colleges are mostly walled off and unavailable to non-members, and there’s a feeling that you’ll somehow never be completed connected with it, as much as you peer in from outside.”

Indeed, the reader is distinctly aware of Oscar’s overwhelming feeling of separation from the academic world that is “lurking, pressing” (66) on every pavement. The “old buildings” (53) incite true fear in the character at times, the “formidable gothic […] spindles” and “giant blackened windows” a sight he loathes for the way they make everyone else feel “tiny, irrelevant, godless” (4). Compared to these formidable, institutional facades, Cedarbrook’s pretty, floral exterior is “like the genial smile of an old friend” (207); this juxtaposition is ironic considering the hope and opportunity that should be associated with the former, against the decay and death encroaching on members of the latter. Suffice it to say that admiration and criticism for the Cambridge environment flow in equal measure.

View over Cambridge

View over Cambridge

As well as the physical environment, it is the class implications of life in Cambridge that make it a unique setting in this novel. Prosperity and privilege are shown to go hand-in-hand here: the “tightness and etiquette” (266) of Cambridge traditions having been established by, and tailored to, the expectations of the private-schooled, the wealthy, the lucky-in-life, they suit Iris and her university clan down to the ground. The students live in a “private world” (18) on these “hallowed grounds” (8) and share memories and experiences from “a private source” (39). Oscar, as a result of his background, schooling, housing, work, and myriad other inescapable nuances of class that shouldn’t matter, but do, is an outsider. So different and, initially, unwelcome, is he to the usual circle that he is treated by Iris’ mother “as if he were one of her abstract paintings that she was training her eyes to appreciate” (100). So the unfortunate peculiarities of the British (or is it only English?) class system.

Johann Mattheson's 'perfect' organ at St Michaelis in Hamburg: both Mattheson and the haunting music of the organ are key to the plot of this novel

Johann Mattheson’s ‘perfect’ organ at St Michaelis in Hamburg: both Mattheson and the haunting music of the organ are key to the plot of this novel

However, through his relationship with Iris (who doesn’t share her mother’s snobbery, her father’s conservative class views or Eden’s sense of entitlement to the same degree) Oscar does begin to find a way in to the world he has previously been walled off from: a world of opportunity, of dreams. All Oscar has known from his childhood are “mouthy teens who […] blocked the smoggy corridors of nightclubs on weekends” (9) and estates where “the houses all looked the same. Square, innocuous brick-piles, clad in cheap grey stucco” (73). Cambridge – the city and the university, inextricable as they are – offers an alternative to this reality of modern, motorway-riddled England, where Oscar can escape with the rest, fantasise about the future, slowly learn to separate himself from his roots and the rest of reality. In doing so, he starts to understand the attraction of large houses and “acreage”, of the “tranquillity” (245) that removal from “civilisation” brings (245). For a time, he plays along with the family life in the manor, as though it’s “some theatre set: a trick house made of paper and paint, with nothing behind it but the brick walls of the stage” (233).

But, for one reason and another, he will never truly belong: his job will call him back to earth with a jolt; disaster will strike and wake him from his fantasy; words will be exchanged that remind him of his roots. No matter how high Cambridge – or dreams of returning to his education – let him float, or how wide his view over the world, he will never be able to have the life he fantasises, or stop feeling “lonely and directionless” (64). His line has been drawn since birth, his class and his choice to leave school early marking his destiny for life. The spirit of Cambridge, like a Greek Fate measuring the thread of Oscar’s life, will not grant him a second chance. Wavering from his destined path now only brings pain, heartache and hopelessness.

Hope, it seems, was only ever a form of madness, a way of temporarily filling a void. Hope, like music with its “swelling harmonies”, is capable of “flood[ing] the yawning space above them” (6) – but only fleetingly, leaving life all the more painful when it departs.

 

Next week I’ll be reading The Queen’s Secret by Victoria Lamb. Can it match up? Join me next week!

 

WOOD, Benjamin. The Bellwether Revivals. London: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Featured Image: Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge.

http://www.wallpaperdownloader.com/bing-wallpaper/images/name/TrinityCollege_20100921

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

Bullseye

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.

But.

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.)

http://www.geolocation.ws/v/P/36431562/john-turner-memorial-stone/en