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

The Watch

In the past couple of weeks I’ve read novels from Dorset and the Isle of Wight (review to follow), counties which often epitomise the idea of the English seaside holiday, where there are “rock pools rather than hot sun, seaweed rather than find white sand” (Webb, 53). Of course, these novels would not have been hugely interesting if they had not challenged this stereotype – and challenge it they did. “Holidaymakers – there were always some” (Webb 46), one character notes, but there are also those who are always unable to leave.

Katherine Webb's "The Half-Forgotten Song"

Katherine Webb’s “The Half-Forgotten Song”

First of all, I read Katherine Webb’s Dorset-based tale, The Half-Forgotten Song. You may remember that I very much enjoyed The Legacy by the same author earlier in the year, and I was not disappointed by my second foray into her work. Much like The Legacy, in fact, this story is made up of two narratives: one situated in the past (memories of the now elderly Dimity Hatcher from several childhood summers) and one in the present, with writer and art-collector Zach revisiting the village of Blacknowle in Dorset, meeting Dimity and uncovering her history for the very first time. Both narratives revolve around one man: the artist, Charles Aubrey.

Zach’s life has gone a little to pot recently: his relationship has broken down; his young daughter Elise has been moved abroad by his ex; his small but precious art gallery in London is dwindling into obscurity; and although he has already drained his publisher’s advance, he just cannot find the time, motivation or material to complete his book on the subject closest to his heart: the life and work of famed 20th century artist Charles Aubrey. That is, until his publisher warns him that a competing writer is close on his heels with a book on the same lines, and Zach realises he had better get a move on.

Zach is desperate to find a new slant on the oft-told story of Aubrey’s life to feature in his book. Who are the mysterious, unknown faces in his paintings? Is any one of his apparent succession of mistresses still alive to tell her tale? Why did Aubrey choose to return with his family, year-after-year in the 1930s, to the same tiny, beachy village of Blacknowle? Possessed by these unanswered questions, Zach shuts his gallery and journeys westward to Dorset, to see if anyone still remembers the artist, and can provide any answers.

Kimmeridge Bay, close to fictional Blacknowle where the novel is set.

Kimmeridge Bay, close to fictional Blacknowle where the novel is set.

To his profound astonishment, it isn’t long until he stumbles accidentally across the real-life, wrinkled Dimity Hatcher – the beautiful ‘Mitzy’ that features in many of Aubrey’s paintings from the period, as well as his so-called mistress. Now, hidden away from the world in her cottage, presumed dead by all other Aubrey-philes, timid Dimity is haunted by her own demons. Zach works painstakingly and tenderly to gain her trust and extract her secrets – but will the truth end up helping or hindering him? Will Zach’s city-born belief that “it’s kind of restful, being surrounded by landscape, rather than people” (160) stand up in the face of Dimity’s pain?

It is through Dimity, most of all, that we get a view of the county’s landscape and outlook. Whether as an old lady or as a poor, fourteen-year-old gypsy scavenger in 1937, Mitzy is absolutely tethered to her locality:

“There were roots indeed, holding her tightly. As tightly as the scrubby pine trees that grew along the coast road, leaning their trunks and all their branches away from the sea and its battering winds. Roots she had no hope of breaking, any more than those trees had, however much they strained. Roots she had never thought of trying to break, until Charles Aubrey and his family had arrived, and given her an idea of what the world was like beyond Blacknowle, beyond Dorset. Her desire to see it was growing by the day; throbbing like a bad tooth and just as hard to ignore” (193).

It is Aubrey who awakens her to the idea of what exoticism might lie outside of Blacknowle. Morocco, where the family also holidays, is as far away as Mitzy can possibly imagine – and she can imagine no further away than “Cornwall, or even Scotland” (113). Each year, as the family comes and goes from the village, Dimity becomes more and more conscious that she “had remained the same, static” (229). But while she sees them with respect and through awed eyes, they envisage her as the embodiment of Dorset simplicity, ignorance and mythical “old magic” (194). In her naivety, she is flattered by Aubrey’s wish to use her as his muse, failing to realise that he will never adore the subject of his paintings as much as she adores him.

Eventually, as the story unravels, Mitzy comes to realise that while Aubrey appreciates her precisely because of her place in the ancient and natural landscape, it is the landscape that also traps her, inhibits her and, in her old age, terrifies her:

“The wind was so strong […]. The gale tore around the corners of the cottage, humming down the chimney, crashing in the trees outside. But louder than any of that was the sea, beating against the stony shore, breaking over the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. A bass roar that she seemed to feel in her chest, thumping up through her bones from the ground beneath her feet […] The smell of the sea was so dear, so familiar. It was the smell of everything she knew; the smell of her home, and her prison; the smell of her own self” (1-2).

Author, Katherine Webb

Author, Katherine Webb

This is a novel about beautiful, terrorising landscapes that are adored by some and loathed by others. It is also a novel that encourages my good opinion of Webb for the way it is written and its suspenseful tone, although the profound, relatable characters present in The Legacy were unfortunately not as present here – I suppose largely because they were either distinctly unlikeable (Dimity) or downright average (Zach). Webb does balances the plotlines between past and present effectively, so that both engage the reader and build tension. In some places, however, I thought the pace could have moved things along quicker – it did occasionally drag. In terms of personal preference, I did not enjoy the subject of the story quite as much as I did The Legacy. Indeed, at certain points I did feel slight irritation that some memories seemed quite contrived or unrealistic – I did find myself thinking such things as ‘she wouldn’t really remember that – it’s only in there to tie up a loose end of the mystery’. So some of the narrative ‘weaving’ could have been more natural. But overall a good (half-forgettable!) book, so 3/5 stars.

As mentioned, I’ll shortly be reviewing the Isle of Wight novel Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift. Stay tuned!

 

WEBB, Katherine. A Half Forgotten Song. London: Orion, 2012.

Featured Image: Ghostly Tyneham, a deserted village in Dorset, near to fictional Blacknowle where the novel is set. It was taken over by the war office in 1943 for military training and never returned to the locals.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/37801007@N07/4875435993/

 

Inforestation

Edward Rutherford's "The Forest"

Edward Rutherford’s “The Forest”

I was a little bit daunted by this week’s book when it arrived in the post. At around 900 pages, Edward Rutherford’s The Forest is a bit of a tome. However, after a few pages I was excited to find that it continued many of the historical and natural themes present in last week’s The Lives She Left Behind, by James Long, despite being set across the way in Hampshire.

As you might have guessed given this information, the eponymous forest is the New Forest, on the south coast of England, a mere hop skip and a jump away from the Isle of Wight across the Solent. Rutherford tasks himself with recounting the forest’s vast history – or, rather, the history of humankind’s special interaction with it. The novel spans the forest’s initial protection as royal hunting grounds by William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest of 1066, until the year 2000 when its many more visitors are made up of the tourist-and-television-film-crew variety. He follows strands of the same families over these generations: the forest mutates, evolves and adapts to their usage, just as the families themselves develop varying opinions, loyalties, characteristics, statuses and livelihoods in its shadows.

The first Part of the book, for example, takes place in 1099 by telling the story of the Norman infiltration into southern Britain. Against the backdrop of a royal hunt, young Adela (of Norman origins) not only faces becoming embroiled in an assassination attempt on King Rufus, but also falls in love with courtly, Saxon Edgar, whose family has lived in the New Forest for centuries. In short, Adela and Edgar become the ancestors of several other characters in the later story, as do the mysterious, goblin-like, forest-dwelling Puckle and his wife (who are rumoured to be able to wield dangerous magic) and Godwin Pride, a cheeky peasant farmer who constantly tries to extend the boundaries of his smallholding – inch by careful inch, so as to go unnoticed – in order to defy the Norman forest laws.

The Bayeaux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of England

The Bayeaux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of England

Jumping to 1204 in the next Part, the reader learns that the ‘new’ Beaulieu monastery has become of prominent importance in the Forest environs. The Pride family still features, this time in the form of Luke Pride. Luke is a trainee monk in the monastery, who accidentally hits another monk and then flees to his sister Mary’s secret protection, believing he has killed the man. Meanwhile, Mary’s other brother, John Pride, gets into a huge disagreement with Mary’s husband, Tom Furzey (watch out for that family name later too) over who has true ownership of a beloved New Forest pony. With all this drama stressing Mary out completely, when another monk Adam shows her sympathy, it ends in them beginning an affair, and therefore procreating another line of characters that feature in various ways in the rest of the novel.

New Forest Pony

New Forest Pony

It would take me a heck of a long time to summarise each of the very detailed Parts of this novel, but suffice it to say that stories of these family lines continue, through thick and thin and highs and lows, through the Spanish Armada of Elizabeth I’s reign, through the chaos of Cromwell’s uprising, through the rise of south-coast smuggling and the Industrial Revolution. The only constant is the forest; it remains “huge, magnificent, mysterious” (2), never far from people’s minds or sight. Essentially, no matter how much the characters move up or down in the world, no matter how popular or unpopular/fashionable or unfashionable Nature is within English society at certain points in history, the characters are always drawn back in the end, instinctively, to their forest allegiance and ancestral origins.

To be honest, I suppose I shouldn’t really ask for more from a novel for this challenge: Rutherford provides not only a developing picture of the politics, geography and society of the “island of Britain” (5) as a whole, but also concerns himself with the particular and peculiar spread of New Forest towns and hamlets – demonstrating how opinions and industries differ from the rest of “the island Kingdom of England” (267) due specifically to the greater proximity to European and English royal courts, as well as the significant part the region played in naval growth (shipbuilding) and farming practices. All very factual and correct.

But not very engaging.

Toing and froing from a cast of varied characters in the manner of a series of short stories is one thing I found particularly unfulfilling. Characters were not very well developed or relatable. I am inclined to believe this is an intentional styling on Rutherford’s part – he tends to pride his historical elements over the fictional – but it is simply not to my taste. The reading experience was less like diving into a brilliantly-planned Middle Earth-esque world, as I sort of hoped, and more like poring over a historical textbook on Common Law with a few made-up scenarios thrown in. Sure, I found the thing vaguely interesting and admirably researched, but I only consider it bearable since I was skimming every pagevery selectively I might add. I think this is probably a love-it-or-hate-it type of thing. Sadly, I’m probably of the latter inclination. 2/5 stars for me, even when I consider the amazing amount of effort that has surely gone into it.

The beautiful New Forest

The beautiful New Forest

Next week I’m sort of glad to be reading the much more light-hearted Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. More your thing? Then read along, I tell you!

 

RUTHERFORD, Edward. The Forest. London: Arrow Books, 2001.

Featured Image: The Spanish Armada and English ships in August 1588, by unknown painter (English School, 16th century)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada

 

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

 

In the Bleak Mid-Spring

Peter Millar's "Bleak Midwinter"

Peter Millar’s “Bleak Midwinter”

I’ve suddenly fallen drastically behind in my reviews (life, eh?), but over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Peter Millar’s Bleak Midwinter, set in Oxford and telling the story of a resurgence of the bubonic plague.

In 14th century England, this plague (known as the Black Death, the Great Mortality and many other names) killed millions of people – approximately 40% of the entire population. It left towns and villages empty and completely changed the social and economic structure of the country, since with the population so low, the number of labourers reduced, their wages increased and their demands for better working conditions were more powerful. Landowners suffered while peasants benefitted; industries (including farming and cloth) changed; trust in the Church reached an all-time low. It was one of many challenges to the underlying feudal structure of England and Scotland to occur between 14th and 17th centuries.

In Peter Millar’s world, now, in the 21st century, the disease is back with a vengeance. Caught up in the mysteries of how, why, who is responsible for a major cover-up operation and what to do about it, is Daniel (who has moved to Oxford from the U.S. to undertake research for his thesis on medieval English history), and plucky local journalist, Theresa Moon.

I have to say, it was possibly not the most seasonal or joyful title to be polishing off over this sunny bank holiday weekend. Filled with descriptions of gothic architecture, gory deaths and violent blizzards, it didn’t quite gel with my glorious, chocolate-egg-filled days (yes, I’m so far behind in life that I’m even catching up on Easter).

Magdalen College, Oxford University

Magdalen College, Oxford University

Objectively speaking, however, I rate the novel a mediocre 2/5 stars at any time of year. The plot – farfetched and melodramatic in places – was only alright. The writer’s style was okay; he could never be accused of being avant garde. His use of metaphor also became repetitive too – he seemed particularly obsessed with the phrase (already hideously overused in the media) the ‘rape of the countryside’ which, while I appreciate the problems behind it, I find people tend to use lazily and because it sounds intelligent. Suffice it to say, it sounded less intelligent the 103rd time Millar used it in this novel. (Ok, slight exaggeration.)

Its meaning might be blatant already but the ‘rape of the countryside’ is often used to describe the destruction of the natural landscape – pretty, untainted, green and rural – by brutish manmade forces. Think of laws on mandatory badger-culling that ruin habitats, EU farming quotas which mess with the land’s innate fertility, the impacts of high-speed rail and the spread of windfarms, all of which this phrase has been used to criticise. In fact, the phrase could not be less original, since every single Biblical or civil war that ever existed involves some such description of town versus country. I don’t disagree with the meaning behind it, but the phrase itself has become totally boring.

Windfarms: one version of the 'rape of the countryside' in the UK

Windfarms: one version of the ‘rape of the countryside’ in the UK

Aside from my dislike of his wording, Peter Millar uses “the rape of the countryside” (36), to refer to the outward spread of towns and cities over time, which has led to the decline of untouched, rural areas – these are “swallowed up” (93), “digested and redeveloped as little more than traffic congestion points” (93) at an unstoppable rate. As suburbia gains the upper hand, so-called country villages in Oxfordshire become filled with “little streets of identical homes as if bought in a packet” (99-100) – “those things aren’t homes – they’re packaging” (120) Therry Moon snorts on one occasion. And, the novel warns, it seems that this pattern will never end “until the whole south of England [is] one endless suburb” (36). Indeed, the ease with which this novel transitions between London and Oxford already gives rise to the idea of one massive urban conglomeration.

Daniel and Therry make up the usual contrasting duo – one is in favour of the historic countryside (Daniel loves that Oxford allows him to “touch [the past], almost see it and hear it” (8) and cannot fathom how anyone could “ever think London was attractive” (30)) and the other, Therry, is addicted to her “big-city heritage” (36).

Past and present, country and town – this is a novel of that sort, and you probably know it well enough already.

My next post (which will appear shortly since I have a bit of a backlog!) will cover David Lodge’s Thinks…, set in Gloucestershire. It’s blooming good!

 

MILLAR, Peter. Bleak Midwinter. London: Bloomsbury, 2002.

Featured Image: pieter Bruegel’s ‘The Triumph Of Death’ (c. 1562)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death

Bullseye (Part 2)

Alan Garner, author of "Thursbitch"

Alan Garner, author of “Thursbitch”

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

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

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

Saltersford Hall, the home of the real Turner family

Saltersford Hall, the home of the real Turner family

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

Thoon, the rocky outcrop associated with Bull and Dionysus

Thoon, the rocky outcrop associated with Bull and Dionysus

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

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

Thursbitch monolith

Thursbitch monolith and ruins

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

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

Thoon, up close.

Thoon, up close.

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

Jenkin Chapel

Jenkin Chapel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fly Agaric Mushrooms

Fly Agaric Mushrooms

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

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

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

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

Thursbitch. Photo taken by Andy Turner.

Thursbitch. Photo taken by Andy Turner.

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

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

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

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

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

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