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

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Wham!

Phil Rickman's "The Fabric of Sin"

Phil Rickman’s “The Fabric of Sin”

The premise of the Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman certainly sounds original:

The confident single-mum to strong-minded teenager Jane leads a religious life (in contrast to her daughter’s determinedly pagan beliefs) as a vicar of her own parish in Herefordshire, and is also the country’s first female appointed Deliverance Minister (a sort of church-condoned exorcist of bad spirits, if you can believe it). Alongside this spiritualism she takes to amateur sleuthing (why not?), investigating in The Fabric of Sin, the ninth novel in the series, the ancient Master House in Garway, on the England-Wales border, which is thought to have Templar connections and an evil energy living within its walls. As violence, mysterious events and the uncovering of scandalous historic records ensue, the Church – nay, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself – becomes involved in the case, as does Prince Charles and the rest of the Royal Family. After all, “you must never trust the buggers. Never. Any of them. Not at this level” (57). (Honestly, the plot does get that wild.)

As you might guess, I spent most of the time I was reading this novel completely taken aback by its scale of bizarreness. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything at all the matter with plotlines that are weird or ambitious…but the complete absence of conventionality in this novel’s characters, plot and structure was utterly throwing. In fact, I’m still reeling from the oddity: the bombardment of real religious imagery versus the tale of murderous cover-ups; the good-guy-bad-guy ambivalence towards the Church and the Royals; the sheer number of people across the country who seemed to have a stake and make an appearance in the melee; the tension and confusion between English and Welsh identities in their past and present manifestations…There’s so much going on in this novel politically, and so many characters who appear and disappear within a single page, and so many unfinished sentences and unanswered questions that, despite this novel being 539 pages long, blink and you’ll miss the point of it. The word that comes to mind to describe the reading experience of this novel is ‘WHAM!’

Garway Hill, Herefordshire

Garway Hill, Herefordshire

As a result, Rickman’s novel is certainly impressive and unpredictable, but also fairly stressful to read. It was more about politics than mystery-solving, so didn’t really turn out to be all that gripping. Oftentimes I was at a loss as to what was actually going on or who was involved. I don’t have much knowledge or interest in Church/Monarchy politics and that’s one the reasons I usually steer clear of Templar-centric novels: the legends behind them are so far-fetched to my simple mind that they irritate me. I didn’t really take to Rickman’s characters either – designed to be unconventional, their novelty soon wore off leaving an empty space – and so don’t feel the need to read any other novels in the series. This novel was also written in what I recognise as being a sort of lazy, careless style: non-dialogue sentences starting with “Like, when did that happen?” and non-dialogue explanations leading with the phrase, “Couple of years ago” (17), missing the indefinite article ‘a’ from the beginning. I know some people will think that’s incredibly pedantic, and point out the style is probably not lazy at all, but carefully crafted. Nevertheless, it’s a style that I personally don’t take to when there’s no obvious literary purpose.

On the other hand, I liked the powerful descriptions of the sentient landscape along the England-Wales border, and I think the novel offered significant observations on the formation of identity in England, Wales, Herefordshire and, quite separately, Garway.

“Three landmark hills were laid out along the horizon. Like ancient and venerated body parts, Merrily thought, the bones of the border. Holy relics on display in the sunset glow […] The volcanic-looking Sugar Loaf and the ruined profile of the Skirrid which legend said had cracked open when Jesus Christ died on the cross. Still somehow sacred, these hills. No towns crowded them, nobody messed with them […] The third hill had been stabbed under its summit, some kind of radio mast sticking out like a spear from the spine of a fallen warrior, a torn and bloody pennant of cloud flurrying horizontally from its shaft.” (9)

This, the England-Wales border, is the “forgotten bit of old England” (13), a landscape that “has two personalities […] Long, light views on the English side, and then deep green and full of drama as it swoops down to the Monnow Valley and Wales” (33). In this part of the country, (unlike the sometimes over-politicised Scottish-English border), lines get lost. Blurred. Is this Wales? Is this England? Who belongs where?

“Still England. It had to be; there, below the road, was the River Monnow, which was the border, failing to be crossed by a smashed and collapsing footbridge, fenced off, with a sign that said: Danger. But if this wasn’t Wales, neither was it truly Herefordshire, not with names like Bagwllydiart on the signposts.” (63-4)

The border seems harder to mark the closer you get; people struggle to cope with being “neither one place nor the other” (42); and “if someone lives just a few yards over the border in what might seem to be a very English part of Wales they become determinedly Welsh Welsh” (271) to compensate for their uncertainty of identity. This uncertainty has brought on, throughout history, a strange feeling of instability and violence which plagues the landscape, its villages and its inhabitants.

Garway Templar Church, Herefordshire

Garway Templar Church, Herefordshire

Garway is the main site of strangeness and disturbance. The village has become “like another country” (9), Merrily feels, “a remote and separate realm” (113). Even uneducated Gomer can identify that “Garway is its own contex. There’s Hereford and there’s Wales…and there’s Garway. And Garway’s its own contex” (362). Judging by this novel, the convergence of England and Wales, and the subsequent emotional and political significance, seems to be a key characteristic of Herefordshire identity, much as the northern English counties obsess about the proximity of Scotland.

Rickman also offers a criticism of modern English identity as a whole, focussing, as many other modern English writers seem to have done on this journey of discovery, on “rural warming” (18) (think ‘global warming’) – the rapid intrusion of city on countryside; on landmark events such as “Foot and Mouth in 2001” (53) or “nine-eleven and seven-seven” (199); on the level of “self-indulgent second-bloody-homers” (264) that are increasing the demand for rural property development; on “the [terrifying] amount of surveillance in this country” (82); on the “rampant overpopulation” (88) and on “shining-arsed buggers with clipboards” (186) who roam the country as troublesome representatives of bureaucracy, red-tape, and officialdom. These themes are becoming increasingly familiar as we progress through this challenge: is this all modern Englishness amounts to?

So overall, an interesting read; I was intrigued by the setting if not by the politics and, for that reason, will award the novel 3/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading Colin Grant’s Bageye At The Wheel for Bedfordshire. Until then!

RICKMAN, Phil. The Fabric of Sin. London: Quercus, 2007.

Featured Image: Green Man carving, Garway Church.

http://www.britainexpress.com/uk-picture-of-the-day-image.htm?photo=2030

‘Stuff the Country Code’

"Only One Way" - Jannicke Howard

“Only One Way”, Jannicke Howard

When, earlier this year, I first started looking for England-based novels published post-2000, you would not believe how much Zombie Apocalypse fiction found its way onto my radar screen. I could probably have set up a one-zombie-book-from-every-county challenge and I would have had just as many suggestions as I do now. Despite the temptation, I did not go down that road and, for the sake of diversity, have tried to limit the zombie horror on my List as much as possible. However, I could not resist taking a look at Jannicke Howard’s Only One Way for this place-themed challenge, torn as the plot seemed to be between North Yorkshire’s main city and its countryside.

Another factor that drew me to Howard’s zombies, rather than anyone else’s, is that her novel is self-published and distinctly sans-hype; ‘Indie’, I might say, if I was hip enough to know what that word means. I have read some big names (David Almond) and expensive publications (Alice in Sunderland) this month; it’s time to get back to the little guy.

The first thing I will say is that self-publications are risky reads and I’m not sure this one paid off for me. The lack of editing was blatantly obvious from the frequent spelling mistakes and sloppy sentence structures that, in many cases, inhibited understanding. I am also, to my detriment, a punctuation geek, and was not completely comfortable with the condition of the commas. Petty, perhaps, but I’m afraid it was enough to mar my reading pleasure.

What is more, the plot and themes contained within did not satisfy my expectations – expectations instilled in me by my dear friends and English Literature colleagues at university, Molly and Rachel, who studied zombie fiction as part of their degrees and have brilliant theories as to why

a)      it has become so popular, particularly post-9/11, and

b)      it is so apt a genre with which to represent society’s issues.

11th September 2001, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, NYC

11th September 2001, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, NYC

In fact, my dedicated experts have enlightened me to the fact that with the rise of global terrorism in the last two decades, the new, widespread popularity of zombie horror represents the fear and confusion that plague contemporary society. In layman’s terms, zombies – much like terrorists – are deadly enemies who look like us, who often share our experiences and who (especially in the case of ‘homegrown terrorists’) come from within our own communities. Despite being dismissed as trashy, or perhaps more diplomatically, ‘niche’ fiction, zombie novels can therefore be intelligent representations of the concerns of the modern world.

In addition, we all know that a zombie is a revolting creature whose gluttonous appetite for human flesh is never satisfied; they eat and eat and eat. Compare this to the culture of capitalism and consume-consume-consumerism that has grown exponentially in the techno-obsessed world and you have another reason why zombie fiction is so valuable. We may have massive national and personal debts, enough to hollow out the ground we stand on, but we still buy, buy, buy, in a vain attempt to satisfy our own monstrous greed and materialistic lust. In fact, we spend so much money that we don’t have, delaying the paying back of debts for so long, that people live eternally in a kind of negative image. And to represent this, you can’t get much more negative than a zombie, a member of the walking-dead.

In summary, Molly says, zombie horror is ‘a physical manifestation of societal problems’. Get it?

Well, if not, it doesn’t really matter, as Only One Way has very little of ‘it’. Howard does not engage with issues of the modern world more than to point out perfunctorily, in the first few pages, that the last decade has seen “terrorist attacks, petrol shortages, looming threats of flu pandemics, snow blizzards and all the other minor disasters in between” (8). The sole reminder of capitalism is that it is “hard to believe that the architects had managed to cram six individual flats into the building” (15), after which the subject is summarily and disappointingly forgotten. The same goes for the brief political observation that Britain is a “nanny-state” (7), looking for any “excuse to play big brother” (16). Even if I don’t judge it by Molly and Rachel’s standards, and look at it instead as a stand-alone read, there is very little characterisation or imagery to transcend the page or enthuse readers. I realised this lack when I became inordinately excited over the one small simile that compares Richard’s “Yorkshire dialect” to “honey over gravel” (18).

Nor do I believe that Howard designed the book to be intentionally bland in order to represent the meaningless transience of life, or anything of the like. No. Basically, the book is set on the outskirts of York. Three main characters (Ed, Richard and Naomi) watch out of their windows as the “virulent, incurable” (104) HEMO10 virus, which is spreading throughout the country and the world, takes hold of their friends and neighbours and delivers a world of “psychopathic violence and cannibalism” (83) . There are a few half-hearted attempts to classify humans as “animals” (13), part of “a dying out breed” (129), but then: The End.

At a push, I could observe that the disease seems slowly to radiate from the heavily infected city of York to the clean surrounding countryside, in much the same sad way that “outlying farming villages were sucked into the overall body of the city” as “rapid building spread out” (57). Moreover, the “city-living” (18) Ed is potentially responsible for the downfall of Richard, who lives in a small village “in the middle of nowhere” (29) and is part of “the great wilderness” (18). This might suggest that Howard is concerned that modern urban/capitalist contaminants (new buildings, motorways, material temptations) are destroying the natural countryside, as well as people’s appreciation of it. Despite this, I’m still not impassioned by the novel.

In essence, I was disappointed with this book. It was not completely terrible, because Howard did make a few attempts to engage with a problematic contemporary society through juxtaposition of city and countryside and a few comments on capitalism. However, even as a novice zombie reader without Molly and Rachel’s extensive critical knowledge, this book is underwhelming. I don’t necessarily need a book to be literarily ‘clever’ in order to enjoy it – that would be ridiculous – but I would at least like to experience descriptive setting and characterisations to hold my attention. Unfortunately, with Only One Way, I don’t, and I therefore give it 2/5 stars.

What did you think of Only One Way? Next week I’ll be reading Julie Reilly’s Money Can’t Buy Me Love, so grab a copy and have a peek before then!

HOWARD, Jannicke. Only One Way. Louise Clark, 2010.

Featured Image: Shaun of the Dead

http://www.wallpaperpin.com/album-shaun/shaun-of-the-dead-wallpaper/

Mantelpiece Surrounds

This week I read Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece which is set in Cumbria. Throughout the novel there are several explicit references to the characters’ Lake District environs, on top of which the protagonist lives and attends school in Ambleside, plays football against nearby Grasmere and takes trips to coastal St. Bees – all of which are real Cumbrian towns.

"My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece", Annabel Pitcher

“My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece”, Annabel Pitcher

It turns out I did not have a lot of choice when it came to modern books set in Cumbria; despite plugging my List at every possibly opportunity, this northern county has remained relatively under-represented in suggestions for this challenge. That being said, Pitcher’s fantastic debut – which also, rather aptly, deals in part with issues of under- and misrepresentation – might well have been my first choice in any line-up, despite being yet another so-called ‘children’s book’.

Perhaps because I’ve spent almost all of my educational life reading novels about Victorian aristocrats or epic poems written in Middle English, I’m always astonished when I come across texts that make links to real events – especially acts of atrocity – that have happened in my living memory; I imagine, with discomfort, what literature students will be saying about such ‘ancient history’ in 50 or 100 years’ time. In this case, reminiscent of the 7/7 London suicide attacks in 2005 that killed 52 people, Pitcher’s characters live in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing in London which resulted in 62 casualties, including Rose, the sister of the young protagonist, Jamie.

Unsurprisingly, this trauma tears Jamie’s family apart: his parents split up, he moves with his Dad and remaining sister, Jas (Rose’s twin), to the opposite end of the country, and is confronted again and again by his parents’ grief and neglect. Most devastatingly of all, Jamie is filled with guilt and confusion that he feels no loss; he was, after all, too young to remember his sister or exactly what happened, and his naive attempts to re-fuse his shattered family are all in vain.

Ambleside_&_Waterhead_Panorama_2,_Cumbria,_England_-_Oct_2009

The real Ambleside, Cumbria

Jamie’s bewilderment at what is going on around him is the most powerful emotion in this book; having moved away from London to the Lake District, he has lost everything he once relied on. What is more, he seems to have no hope of establishing a stable sense of belonging within his new home or his new school due to his complete inability to relate to the one event that defines his devastated family: Rose’s death. He is forever desperate to connect in some way to the girl he is supposed to be mourning, but the only memory he has fills him with self-loathing for its vagueness: the image of “two girls on holiday playing Jump the Wave, but I don’t know where we were, or what Rose said, or if she enjoyed the game” (7).

Ironically, while Jamie feels lost, there is huge importance attributed to the ‘right place’ for the dead Rose. The very title of the book establishes Rose’s ashes as belonging in her urn “on the mantelpiece” and Jamie’s father effectively keeps this area as a shrine to his daughter, providing her with food and drink, Christmas presents and a constant supply of kisses, so that the hallowed ground fills 10-year-old Jamie with fear. When the family is in the car, Jamie notices that “Dad even put a seat belt around the urn but forgot to tell me about mine” (44). Jamie’s fear that he doesn’t belong in his family home, and that he is “five steps” away from “disappear[ing] out of sight” (71) altogether, is only exacerbated by the difference he sees between his father’s treatment of him and his dead sister who is always, literally and figuratively, in “a better place” (6).

The Lake District, Cumbria

The Lake District, Cumbria

In fact, Pitcher demonstrates that the only way Jamie can come to terms with his new living situation, in the north of England, is to measure it repeatedly against his old home in London, which is “so different […] the complete opposite” (3). In contrast to the capital city, to which it is much “too far to drive” (26), there are “no people” (3) in Ambleside and “no buses or trains if Dad’s too drunk to go out” (9). Even when the findings are positive – Cumbria has “twisty lane[s]” (3) instead of “main road[s]” and the “gurgle gurgle” (26) of streams instead of the constant sound, sight and smell of traffic – Jamie finds it hard to let go of the comparisons with his London background. Although the North-South divide is not presented as tangibly in this novel as in David Almond’s The Fire Eaters, it is clearly a massive issue for young Jamie, who finds it hard to settle in between the “massive mountains” (3) that make everything else seem insignificant.

Differing concepts of what it means to be “British” (26) also come under fire in this novel, although it is not the most advanced part of the plot. For Jamie’s dad, being British and being Muslim are shown to be mutually exclusive; his grudge against the Islamic extremists that were responsible for his daughter’s death extends to all reaches of the Muslim faith, without exception. For him, the north of England epitomises “real” Britishness, where white Christian people go about their daily business, surrounded by rolling hills and beautiful views, far away from any of “that foreign stuff” (26) associated with life in London. The irony is (as Jamie soon realises) that his drunkenness, neglect and broken family are further outside his ridiculous ‘British’ standards than any characteristic Sunya portrays: she has “lived in the Lake District all her life” as part of a respectable family, with a “brother at Oxford University” (73), traits that Pitcher seems to suggest are stereotypically British. I am not wholly convinced by Pitcher’s brief treatment of ‘Britishness’ in the novel – she seems to adhere to as many stereotypes as she breaks – but she also manages to present this confusion as part and parcel of life in modern England, which makes it an important theme of the novel.

The true brilliance of this book, and something that it shares with The Fire-Eaters, is the way all of this is narrated, believably and artfully, through a child’s perspective. Although I am sometimes skeptical of this technique (it can be overused), the depth of the subject matter versus the simplicity of the child’s understanding is a winning combination in Pitcher’s case, and deserves a 4/5 star rating. It is also a pleasant surprise – literally speaking – to find a children’s novel that also results in an intentionally untidy and not-wholly-happy ending. Due to all the unanswered questions and loose strands, I would not call this, as some have, a Bildungsroman, but Jamie does at least come to the satisfying realisation that the only thing that makes a house a home is the (living) people within its walls, even if all Jas has to do is “put a cushion” (5) on the windowsill to be the best sister in the world.

Next week I’ll be reading Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland for Tyne and Wear. Let me know what you thought of this one before I get stuck in!

PITCHER, Annabel. My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece. London: Orion, 2011.

Featured image: 7/7 suicide attacks, London 2005.

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/77-inquest-i-nearly-sat-next-103936