Passing ships

Katy Mahood: Entanglement
The Borough Press 2018

“Trains don’t stop at every station.”
— A mother’s response to her child’s query, from a moving railway carriage.

“Ships that pass in the night,” as Longfellow wrote, are like all us humans “on the ocean of life,” engaging with “only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.” Sometimes there is not even that look or voice, the encounter completely unconscious, and yet the voyagers may still have unforseeable influences on each other.

This is the kernel at the heart of Katy Mahood’s impressive debut novel Entanglements. The title refers to a concept in quantum physics, a connection (as I understand it) whereby subatomic particles may be separated by distance but still affect one another; observation of this connection, paradoxically, causes it to change or even cease to be.

Of course, non-physicists see entanglement in a much more mundane way, along with the frustration that comes from strands of string or wool being intertwined, and this more prosaic aspect is present too as a potent symbol in this most engaging of novels.

Entanglement concerns two men, two women and two daughters, how their lives run like railway tracks in parallel or occasionally cross, though they themselves are rarely if ever aware of those crossing points. We meet Charlie, Beth and, eventually, daughter Effie, and also John, Stella and their daughter Hope. Over some three decades and more we follow one couple, then another, back and forth, observing how (unknown to them) their lives often intersect, how even Longfellow’s “a look and a voice” may happen without any of them making a connection or even recognising one.

I’m making this sound contrived, but yet it’s not. These are individuals with familiar hopes and fears, living lives in a Britain that slowly changes, forcing them to adapt or else be consigned to oblivion. There are infidelities and loyalties, addictions and crises, violent events and dreams revisited. The author’s own life spans the decades covered by this novel: she faithfully captures the subtle changes in ambitions, in public attitudes and habits, she charts the often painful processes of maturing and the honest acknowledging of frailties.

The all too human foibles of the individuals are laid bare, and this reader wanted to shout at them for contrary behaviours, commiserate with them over setbacks, praise them for successes — all strong indications of how well the author had invested in her protagonists. There is a lingering sadness behind the final redemptive optimism that to me felt true to life, with the various journeys brought to a satisfying conclusion.

And entanglement metaphors and similes reach from the pages into real life. Railway stations feature strongly as individuals travel north to York and Edinburgh, south to Cornwall, west from London to Oxford, Bristol and South Wales, places known to the author either from her academic or subsequent career. Implied lines in novels submitted for publication and melodic lines in orchestral scores hint at further interlacing of ideas; and a further real-life intertwining comes, post-publication, with the present reviewer finally meeting the author at a literary festival, following a quarter century gap since teaching her music at secondary school.

With such entanglings are all our lives marked. May it be that they are not all followed by darkness and silence.

7 thoughts on “Passing ships

  1. This sounds like an interesting read. There are indeed occasions when we cross paths with others or we have connections that we don’t really notice consciously–should be an interesting idea to exoplore. I hadn’t come across the book before.

    1. It was only published last year, though it has recently–last month or February–come out in paperback. I spotted Katy’s name in the Crickhowell Literary Festival programme for last autumn and thought there couldn’t surely be another person with the same distinctive name–turned out I was right!

      I love it when we encounter people and discover we have places and friends and experiences in common and may even have met, but there are all those other crossed paths that we will never ever become aware of, the coincidences that can sound improbable even in a piece of fiction!

  2. What an interesting review of a book that sounds like my kind of reading. Quantum physics may have given me a momentary sharp intake of breath, but tangled strands of wool I’m more than happy with, and decades of change is promising. What a great source of reading suggestions you are, Chris.

    1. I do think you’d enjoy this, Cath: it’s very people-based, strong on relationships and life choices, but that motif of interlace (it somehow brought to mind the title of the Jorge Luis Borges short story The Garden of Forking Paths) gives it structure and significance.

      Oddly, it’s not the kind of novel I’d normally pick up but, given that I’d known the author and that she was appearing literally down the road from me to give a talk, I could hardly not give it a try! I’m so glad I did.

  3. Pingback: Winding up the Week #65 – Book Jotter

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