Robert Holdstock: The Fetch,
Time Warner Paperbacks 1992
Adopted boy gains |
gift of fetching gifts; travels |
through time and space too.
The Fetch (the US title, Unknown Regions, is taken from a subtitle of Holdstock’s Lavondyss) revisits one of Holdstock’s favourite tropes, the wood as gateway to other times, places and parallel worlds (as in the Mythago Wood series) but on this occasion the tale is set within the undergrowth which has grown up in a disused chalk quarry on the English south coast.
The action revolves around the boy Michael, adopted by a middle-class professional couple, who brings with him a maelstrom of psychic activity, changing their lives forever.
Holdstock’s starting point is the three meanings of ‘fetch’ (the act of retrieving, a spirit or doppelgänger, and a dialect word meaning ‘fetish’) which he interweaves into a narrative that also draws in archaeology, folklore, ritual, ESP, scientific ethics and a dysfunctional family.
As with many Holdstock stories there is a sense of escalating claustrophobia and menace, unleavened by any humour but told with a profound love of words, sense of place and concern over human meddling in Nature’s domain.
I must confess a feeling of connection with Holdstock. Born three weeks after him, I shared his interests in British mythology, history and storytelling until his untimely death in 2009, but came across him only once at an Arthurian conference in Cardiff in the 1990s when he must have been working on his Merlin cycle. I was impressed by the Mythago titles I had read but faintly irritated by his deliberate misspellings of many Welsh-rooted names; no such problem arises with The Fetch, however. More convincing is Holdstock’s highlighting of the family’s claustrophobic life by the occasional foray into the outside world (Scotland, Hadrian’s Wall, London) and of course into the world of the past (I especially liked the reference to early 20th-century descriptions of antediluvian sea creatures in the fossil record).
Holdstock has a soft spot for the theme of the Quest, particularly that of the Holy Grail, and that reappears here in an unusual but, in the context of this story, very relevant way, along with a striking treatment of the Fisher King. All in all, this was for me a very well crafted and haunting tale; my only reservation is the conclusion which is simultaneously rather pat and also rather open concerning the boy Michael and his family. Indeed, his sister Carol and parents Richard and Susan, who all bear very ordinary names while being subjected to not very everyday experiences, are at times well drawn but at other times I feel the motivations for their actions are hard to fathom exactly. The other enigma is the psychic archaeologist Françoise, whose ultimate function as a dea ex machina rather loses this reader’s empathy for her.
One other point: the cover illustration of my paperback edition is full of details that closely echo the details of the text — all except for the doppelgänger spirit itself: true, there are elements of a fetish with a gold mask, the fish face of a foetus, the amorphous aspect of a shape-shifting entity, the height manifested by its appearance to the psychic, but where the blood-red colour comes from I have no idea — I’ve clearly missed it in my reading.
Repost of a review first published 25th June 2012, and here republished for Wyrd & Wonder