Mysterious and mesmeric

Photo image © C A Lovegrove

After Me Comes the Flood
by Sarah Perry.
Serpent’s Tale 2017 (2014)

Sarah Perry’s debut novel is a mesmeric tour de force, mysterious but detailed, mythic but realistic, filled with distinctive characters who we nevertheless view as though through fingers. Set near the coast somewhere in East Anglia, perhaps in Thetford Forest on the divide between Suffolk and Norfolk, we could imagine ourselves in the long dry July of 2013 when the temperature averaged around 30°C.

And in this kind of sustained heat, when it’s hard to think, John Coles decides to shut up his London bookshop and head to the Norfolk coast and his brother’s family. When his car breaks down in the depths of a pine forest he comes across a dwelling, and in true fairytale style he is welcomed as a long-awaited visitor, though he knows no-one. Although he wants to correct their mistaken impression his overheated condition continually delays him, drawing him into the mystery of who they think he is, who the residents are, and what they are all doing there.

The novel’s dreamlike structure and atmospheric writing create the illusion of magic realism, heightened by underlying themes drawn from Anglo-Saxon literature, classical myth and the Old Testament, to which is added a sense that almost everything encountered is symbolic. The reader who’s unalert to these undercurrents may well be bamboozled by what they’re presented with and therefore liable to dismiss the novel as incomprehensible; but that would be a mistake.

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Bluebeard’s Castle

tower door

The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter,
Virago Press 1981 (1967)

Bluebeard’s Castle hides
a puppeteer of humans
who defy their fate

Though this is an early work, I found it a much more engrossing read than some of Angela Carter’s shorter stories in the collection The Bloody Chamber. One of the fascinating things about humans is their propensity for confounding expectations, and while it was possible to see where the narrative generally was going, I was drawn to these grotesques (despite their very obvious failings) by their surprising resourcefulness as they tried to cope with Uncle Philip’s cruel and despotic regime and almost overpowering psychic vampirism.

In fact, despite their clearly delineated and sometimes unforgivable vices (unsavoury habits, voyeurism, unmitigated cruelty, incestuous relationships and acquiescent victimhood) you can’t help admiring their positive, mostly creative attributes: Finn’s painting, Francie’s musicianship, Margaret’s jewel-like cooking, Jonathan’s model-making, Melanie’s needlework, even Uncle Philip’s sheer inventiveness and craft.

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Upright people and witches

Nighttime
WordPress Free Photo Library

John Masefield: The Midnight Folk Mammoth 2000 (1927)

“You must be the master in your own house. Don’t let a witch take the charge of Seekings. This is a house where upright people have lived. Let’s have no Endorings nor Jezebellings in Seekings.” — Grandmamma Harker’s message to Kay.

In 1885 orphan Kay Harker finds himself under the guardianship of the insensitive Sir Theopompous and the stern tutelage of an unnamed governess. His former companions, a collection of stuffed toys, have evidently been removed, their place taken by the declension of Latin adjectives for ‘sharp’, and by exercises in French, Divinity and the like.

When freed from lessons he quietly explores and investigates the surroundings of his ancestral home of Seekings, uncovering a nefarious plot to steal some long-lost treasure. He is therefore following family tradition and living up to the family name: the Harker shield displays three oreilles couped proper (that is, three disembodied flesh-coloured ears). So, true to form, Kay eavesdrops, harkening to conversations and learning from what he overhears.

Young Kay (whom we may imagine as around seven) inhabits a magic realist world midway between dreams, imagination and daily life, one inhabited by a combination of guardians and governesses, servants and smugglers, wild animals and witches, knights and toys, ancestors and archvillains.

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An old aquatint and a sailor’s yarn

The Temple at Sunium

Jostein Gaarder:
The Solitaire Mystery
Phoenix 1997 (1990)

For nearly four decades I’ve had a hand-coloured aquatint by the Romantic artist Paul Sandby (after an original by William Pars). Dated 1780, it depicts ‘The Temple of Sunium’, the ruins of which edifice still lie at the last cape every sailor sees sailing south from Athens.

It’s not a very distinguished print (my copy is blemished by water marks) and I don’t know why I particularly liked it then, but I now treasure it for its classical associations: the site from which King Aegeus threw himself into the sea when he thought that his son Theseus had been killed by the Minotaur in the Cretan labyrinth, and a place of worship dedicated to Poseidon, Greek god of the ocean and of earthquakes.

I was reminded of this picture at a highpoint of The Solitaire Mystery, when Hans Thomas and his father hope to finally see his mother Anita, who left them back in Norway many years before in order ‘to find herself’. After a journey in an old Fiat from Norway via Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the Adriatic, Delphi and Athens, father and son learn that the mother can be found at a photo-shoot in the temple at Sounion. Why she has left them, why they have sought her after many years of waiting, and what then turns out to be the eventual outcome, all this forms the frame of the story, a metaphor for the philosophical quest that Hans Thomas and his father are simultaneously engaged in on their transcontinental trip.

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A wondrous catalogue

salute

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities
Le città invisibili (1972)
Translated by William Weaver
Vintage 1997

In my late teens or early twenties I imbibed the notion of ‘holiday consciousness’ from something I’d read, I’m not sure what but it may have been from Colin Wilson’s The Occult, published in 1971. The concept I understood to be this: we become so familiar with personal rituals in the everyday places we inhabit that we become not only a bit jaded but in fact almost sleepwalk our way through existence. Holiday consciousness however involves the trick of seeing the familiar as though visiting it for the first time, as a tourist.

After this I took to travelling regular bus journeys and walking daily routes pretending I was not in my home town but in a different city, perhaps in a different country. I noticed new things that I hadn’t before: architectural details, pedestrian behaviours, the quality of light, a different awareness of spaces. It was like being on holiday while staying in one place, and awoke my tired senses and heightened my perception without the need of artificial stimulants or expending money on overseas travel.

I was reminded of this holiday consciousness when recently reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

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Shreds and patches

Clifton Heights, Bristol

Angela Carter: Heroes and Villains
Introduction by Robert Coover
Penguin Modern Classics 2011 (1969)

“When I was a little girl, we played at heroes and villains but now I don’t know which is which any more, nor who is who, and what can I trust if not appearances?”
— Marianne, Chapter 6

In a post-apocalyptic Britain young Marianne runs away to join the gypsies. Or that would be the equivalent if Carter’s novel — fifty years old now — were a traditional folk ballad. The author was a stalwart of the folk music revival in the sixties and would have been familiar with Scottish ballads like ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ in which the female protagonist is attracted to the life of travellers.

Now it would be a gross simplification to say Heroes and Villains is essentially an escape from a pampered existence to an imagined romantic way of life but that, nevertheless, is the basic plot that drives the narrative. And yet Carter instils so much ambiguity and ambivalence in her novel while interweaving conceptual shreds and patches into the warp of her novel that the exotic elements distract the eye from the apparent plainness of the garment.

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For Madmen Only

Hermann Hesse (1907) by Ernst Würtenberger

Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf
(Der Steppenwolf 1927, author’s note 1961)
Translated by Basil Creighton (1929), revised by Walter Sorell (1963)
Penguin Modern Classics 1963

What is Steppenwolf about? The author’s own note, written in the year before he died, made clear that this novel is essentially about the author himself and the existential crisis he had in the years approaching his fiftieth birthday. Steppenwolf‘s magic realism holds a mirror up to a man not too different from the one we see in a portrait by Ernst Würtenberger, painted when the author was thirty: the pacifist intellectual, his hair cut en brosse, wearing a haunted look:

I am in truth the Steppenwolf … who finds neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him.

The subject of this novel suffers from gout, depression and pains of the head and body; he feels alienated from the bourgeois world around him but can’t quite abandon it; he believes he has nothing to live for, and contemplates suicide with a razor. Is there anything more depressing to read about than a depressive’s mental state?

And yet Der Steppenwolf turns out to be more than this, to go beyond a reiteration of deep depression, and it all begins with a half-glimpsed neon sign over an ancient door:

MAGIC THEATRE
ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY

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A sad tale’s best for winter

Spider in amber (Wikipedia Commons)
Spider in amber (Wikipedia Commons)

Jostein Gaarder: The Ringmaster’s Daughter
(original title Sirkusdirektørens datter 2001)
Translated by James Anderson
Phoenix 2003

The Baltic Sea is well known for its amber, solidified resin from forests around 44 million years old, and frequently trapped in these deposits are various flora and fauna of the period. The most striking image in The Ringmaster’s Daughter, which symbolises one of its major themes, is of a spider caught in this matrix, just like its victims might be caught in its web.

The story that gives the novel its title concerns a trapeze artist who falls and breaks her neck. As the ringmaster bends over her injured body he sees an amber trinket on a slender chain around her neck, which he recognises as one he had given to a daughter he hasn’t seen for years.

The importance of this tale of the lost daughter is underlined by it being told, with variations, three times during the course of the novel, in the presence of each of the three most important women in the narrator’s life.

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Fantasy subgenres

April is proving to be a Month of Random Reading. Which is good, I think. Especially as May will be a month of fantasy reads under the Wyrd & Wonder banner.

There are eight fantasy subgenres offered for consideration, and in this anticipatory post I shall be looking at them in a little more detail, seeing what I’ve already read that falls in each category (links are to my reviews or discussions) and ruminating on what I might choose to read in the merry month of May. Though I may change my mind at the last moment.

It’s possible I shall read one example of each subgenre in the space of four weeks, perfectly achievable at the rate of two a week, but I’m making no promises!

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A fictive Principality

Somewhere in the Brecon Beacons, Wales

Continuing the theme of Reading Wales during March, this Dewithon post focuses on a selection of Principality-related fiction that I’ve reviewed over the years.

To make it marginally more manageable I’ve deliberately excluded the following categories:

  • Non-fiction titles (obvs) like Roald Dahl’s Boy
  • Fiction that’s set in a non-specific area of what could be the Welsh Marches, as with Jill Rowan’s cross-genre novel The Legacy, being neither Wales nor England (I covered an aspect of this in a previous post, ‘At the margins’, though I might return to this theme at some stage)
  • Reviews and related posts about Wales concerned with works by Tolkien and Joan Aiken (as I’ve already gone on and on and on at length about them)

The titles cross a surprising number of genres: fantasy, speculative fiction, police procedural, historical, alternate history and supernatural horror. Feel free to explore the links to the reviews—or not, as the case may be!

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Both real and magical

Newgale beach, Pembrokeshire

Cath Barton: The Plankton Collector
New Welsh Rarebyte 2018

Winner of a New Welsh Writing Award for 2017 in the novella category, The Plankton Collector is one of those dreamlike pieces that at odd moments rises unbidden to the surface of this reader’s thoughts like a bubble from unknown depths. To describe it as magic realism is not the whole story, yet the narrative does in fact drift like a leaf on a pond from one magical moment to another before catching on the rocks of reality, the reality of authentic lives lived with pain and sorrow and maybe, ultimately, hope.

We begin at the seaside with a beautiful piece of nature writing, as lyrical, say, as anything Charles Kingsley wrote in Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore. Here we meet the Plankton Collector himself, a shapeshifter who sifts sand and shells for living creatures, ultimately to show them how they might fit into the mysterious patterns of existence.

Lest the prologue, all told in the historic present, should appear too airy-fairy we may note that it is titled ‘In the Beginning’—as with Genesis we shall find that all is not perfect in the garden, that there’s a worm in the bud which will upset a family’s idyll for some time to come. The novella gropes towards a resolution that at times seems just out of our grasp.

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A fountain of youth

Natalie Babbitt: Tuck Everlasting
Bloomsbury 2003 (1975)

Who wouldn’t want to live forever? To extend one’s life so that one could savour life to the full, have new experiences, perhaps even be invulnerable to injury? There are no downsides, surely?

But a moment or two’s thought will soon reveal the drawbacks. Losing one’s friends as they grow old and die; witnessing perpetual change and not only for the better; being feared by other humans, becoming paranoid, lacking a sense of purpose or a reason for continuing. As many a fine mind has pointed out, death gives meaning to life.

This is the dilemma Winnie Foster faces when, constrained and restricted by her family, she determines to escape her bounds and go into the nearby woodland. This one act, determined on at the height of an oppressive summer, combines with two other coincidences to put Winnie in danger, the Tuck family at risk of exposure and to place the threat of Eternal Life for all in the hands of those who would exploit it for gain and unforeseen consequences.

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Into the woods

George Frederic Watts Little Red Riding Hood (1890: public domain)

Kate Hamer: The Girl in the Red Coat
Faber & Faber 2015

An impressive debut novel, The Girl in the Red Coat thoroughly deserves its plaudits. Part magic realism, part fairytale, part contemporary fiction (at one stage the 9/11 event is playing out on television) Kate Hamer has created an unputdownable story that has had many readers finishing it in a night, though I steeled myself to stretch it out a bit longer. Its theme is a harrowing one for anyone with a child, namely the disappearance of that child without a trace. The author swaps between two viewpoints, the mother Beth Wakefield and her daughter Carmel, so we see developments through both their eyes; and, as time goes on, we too begin to wonder if there will be any optimistic resolution to Beth and Carmel’s tale.

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A tale told anew

The red dragon and the white found fighting under Vortigern’s castle

Horatio Clare: The Prince’s Pen, or Clip’s Truth
New Stories from the Mabinogion, Seren 2012

Imagine a dystopian future: most of England is reduced to an archipelago; the world is ruled by some nefarious world order; and only Pakistan and Wales have held out, the latter relying on its geography to mount a guerilla war against the occupying forces — much as it did in ancient times against the Romans and the English. Into the frame step sibling warlords, Ludo and Levello, who assemble a team to plan and coordinate an effective resistance. Barely literate, they rely on hackers and scribes to ensure their success, and thus it is that Ludo’s scribe, Clip, comes to be the narrator of this future history, providing the title and subtitle of Horatio Clare’s thoughtful novella.

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A quest with twists

culhwch

Fflur Dafydd The White Trail
Seren 2011

The White Trail is one of Seren Books’ New Stories from the Mabinogion, a retelling of the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch ac Olwen. This early Arthurian story described the quest of Culhwch (pronounced Kilhookh) for Olwen, a girl he had fallen violently in love with the moment he had heard about her. But to gain her hand he has to fulfill several impossible tasks set for him by Olwen’s father, tasks he is only able to complete with the help of Arthur and his knights.

It is the longest of the native tales contained in the collection known as the Mabinogion and is a rich and complex narrative, with elements of folklore, fairytale, placename onomastics, Rabelaisian lists, black humour, grotesquery, puns and ritual all thrown in. A modern retelling will have to work very hard to include even a handful of these elements whilst also making it relevant and comprehensible to the reader. Fflur Dafydd makes a fair stab at this, to the extent that she reinterprets the action in a way that throws new light on the Dark Age tale but sensibly excises details that anchor Culhwch only to pre-modern times; on the other hand there are aspects of her narrative that for me technically don’t work, whatever genre you choose to call it.

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