Glass Town Wars
by Celia Rees,
Pushkin Press 2019 (2018)
I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: […] I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, chapter XXXIV
Confusing. Puzzling. Strange. As I proceeded through the pages of this novel I had similar reactions to many readers in online reviews, but it wasn’t till I got to a mention of “true Thomas” that I began to pick my way with more confidence through Celia Rees’s episodic and kaleidoscopic narrative. And then I began to understand how its various strands interlaced, and was able to stand back and see the vision the tapestry offered.
Tom is in a coma in hospital after some unclear incident, tended by a solicitous male nurse. Tom’s fickle girlfriend posts selfies of herself with his comatose body on social media in order to capitalise on his misfortune; his computer whizz schoolfriend Milo is using Tom as a guinea-pig for an experimental dark web implant; and Lucy sits by Tom’s bedside reading aloud her class’s set book Wuthering Heights in the hopes that he might keep a hold on the outside world.
And so without his acquiescence Tom finds himself emmeshed with a paracosm created by the four Brontë siblings, the world of Glass Town and its warring polities; it becomes a world dangerous for the dreamer because events in this virtual existence will have consequences for him in the 21st century.
Tom unexpectedly finds himself leading a troop of horse soldiers to the aid of Lady Augusta, who is being attacked by the forces of the Duke of Northangerland and his sons Douro and “Rogue” Percy. With no clear idea of how or why he’s in the midst of battle, nor indeed who he really is, Tom finds himself and Augusta harried by her human enemies and by Jinns, then seeking safety with the Fairish before being captured and taken off to Glass Town, where Augusta is to be married off against her will. Jeopardy follows jeopardy, all so far making for a unsatisfactory read as it begins feels like the unconnected sequences of a video game — as indeed it is meant to. At this point I was about ready to abandon what felt like a pointless arbitrary narrative; but the author had surprises in store, and an ultimate purpose.
To say much more about the plot would be to spoil the story for new readers, so I will instead sketch in what I think Celia Rees drew inspiration from. First, there is the start of one of Charlotte Brontë’s best-known poems, “We wove a web in childhood,” describing the creation of the Glass Town stories by Branwell, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Much of the material written by the two older siblings survives but of the fictions by Emily and Anne virtually nothing remains except some poems, notes and hints: the younger pair went off to create the Pacific islands of Gondal and Gaaldine but we have precious few details of these writings. They were supposedly destroyed rather than going missing, and if the former it’s a perennial mystery by whose hand.
Naturally this childhood network of narratives echoes the contemporary World Wide Web and its sinister underworld the dark web, source of billions of narratives both true and false. Rees’s novel explores one aspect — the notion of virtual worlds — and how the insertion into the ear of a device termed an echineis (a name taken from the remora or sucker fish) might allow the individual to inhabit an alternative existence. She also points to possible downsides of this existence, that the apparent freedom this gives the player also leaves them open to external control, and that what happens virtually might well have physical repercussions in the real world.
The childhood web of the Brontës combined with today’s internet seems the slightest of links to concoct a story but Rees binds these parallels much closer. The Brontë children were much influenced by local folklore about fairies in their West Yorkshire upbringing and so, along with soldiers, courtiers, insurrectionists and others in Glass Town Wars, we are introduced to the denizens of Elfland — the Fairish — which in turn leads us to the traditional tale of Thomas the Rhymer. Thomas, you may recall, was smitten with the Queen of Elfland and she with him, but his sojourn amongst the fay resulted in a kind of time dilation for him. It is not hard to see how the ‘true Thomas’ of the ballads and medieval romances relates to the protagonist of the novel lying comatose in hospital while undergoing adventures in the world of the Brontës, especially at the time when Emily was inclined to create a new world of her own with her sister Anne.
All the foregoing is by way of context, to try and correct the notion that Glass Town Wars is simply too puzzling, too confusing to make much sense. For really this is a story about a love which runs the risk of being unrequited because of the machinations of the foul fiend called Rogue. Will Tom and Lady Augusta get together? Where do Tom’s girlfriend Natalie and steadfast reader Lucy fit in? What crucial parts have Milo (who sees himself as a character in Catch 22) and Joe the Guatemalan nurse (who is also a shaman) to play in shaping events? And does Emily Brontë have a role equal to or greater than the Game Master known as Sinbad in the unfolding story? Because, make no mistake, Emily is in truth the mainspring of this fantasia or reverie published in the year of her bicentenary.
Though not a perfect novel, especially after a bumpy first half, I nevertheless became quite fond of Glass Town Wars, with its anachronisms, sudden shifts of environments (indicated by differing chapter illustrations) and its distinctive players. I enjoyed the interplay of the various components, especially when it seemed that few details if any were superfluous: for example, when Augusta dresses up and dances as ‘a Moorishco’ the jingling sounds of her costume recalls the tinkling bells of the Queen of Elfland horse from the Thomas the Rhymer tale.
And of course it’s no coincidence that one of the main characters is in a sleeping state, not when Emily’s Wuthering Heights ends with Nelly Dean’s references to unquiet slumbers.