‘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/

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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