The Countenance Divine by Michael Hughes

This review originally appeared in the Guardian.

Since A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which won the 1990 Booker Prize, we have seen a recurrent vogue for novels in which contemporary and historical narratives are interleaved. It is a device that has been put to many uses, but it has proved especially attractive to writers who, like Byatt, are given to flourishes of erudition and who are drawn to its potential for formal experimentation. One manifestation of this has been a trend towards increasing complexity, leading to the emergence of what might be termed the ‘novel of ingenuity’, whose proliferating timelines (as in the recent fiction of David Mitchell) provide the readiest index of its ambitions.

chmcr9iucaaaituThe Countenance Divine contents itself with four, interweaving a near-contemporary narrative with three distinct historical strands. In 1999, introverted computer programmer Chris Davidson is shoring up rickety software against the ‘Millennium Bug’, a doom that now appears impossibly quaint. It is a humdrum existence, described in an oddly affectless tone: ‘Chris liked his job. It was hard work and the hours were long, but he was very good at it.’

But Chris, we quickly realise, is not quite what he seems. On a whim, he buys a strange wooden puzzle from a market trader. As he tinkers with this ‘Practical Rebus’, he is plagued by strange thoughts: that he has been alive for hundreds of years; that the city is on fire; that he has been chosen for some special purpose.

At the office, Chris keeps up appearances. As the millennium looms and fears of economic and civil chaos grow, he beavers away on lines of neglected computer code. His inner life, however, is in turmoil, and his visions have taken a frankly apocalyptic turn: ‘The world was about to end, and it was all his fault.’

Before it can, though, we find ourselves in the London of 1888, amid the livid horrors of the Whitechapel murders. Taking the infamous ‘From hell’ letter as his starting point, Hughes presents a cache of imagined correspondence by the same hand, in which the putative Ripper gives his account of the remaining murders and alludes, in darkly cryptic terms, to his instructions from a ‘Mr Blake’ (who has, incidentally, made him a gift of a now-familiar ‘puzzle toy’).

Hughes, who has worked for many years as an actor, has an exquisite ear for diction.

This sequence, though disturbing, is a remarkable feat of ventriloquism. Hughes (who has worked for many years as an actor) has an exquisite ear for diction, and for all the dismal savagery of the acts his Ripper recounts, it is the coarse verisimilitude of his verbal tics that makes him truly terrifying. ‘Ile set you down on the ground,’ he writes, ‘nise and gentle.’

The Ripper’s ‘Mr Blake’, it transpires, is none other than William Blake. We encounter him in 1790, as he laboriously engraves his own tiny print run of Songs of Innocence and of Experience (whose formative visions, to preserve his satisfying chronological schema, Hughes locates in 1777). Blake, too, is brought to life with extraordinary assurance. We are shown not only the fervent visionary, but also the playful Dissenter and, less familiarly, the mercurial but tender husband.

Hughes has done his textual scholarship too, though he stitches it into his narrative without undue showiness. Blake’s visions, for instance, are announced by ‘a hot, gnawing chatter in his toe’, a detail that echoes his epic poem, Milton, in which the spirit of that revered poet enters Blake’s body by way of his foot. Similarly, when the remains of Milton are disinterred (and here, again, Hughes hinges his tale on historical events), Blake secures possession of one of his ribs, fashioning from it a homunculus in which Milton is, rather wearily, reanimated. This is every bit as outlandish as it sounds, yet it is, to be fair, a thoroughly Blakean outlandishness (homunculi were apt to appear in his engravings), and such are the verve and conviction of Hughes’ vision that we accept it with hardly a raised eyebrow.

In 1666, meanwhile, a blind and disconsolate Milton is racing against time to see his great epic published. Though he is no longer in immediate danger, the Restoration has left him with few friends. Unlike Blake, the convictions of his youth have deserted him, and his dream of an English New Jerusalem is in ruins. His prophecies have not been forgotten, however, and those who cling to them are now scheming against him. In the ashes of the Great Fire of London, we begin to glimpse the grand design that is unfolding across the centuries.

All of this may sound rather daunting; this is, it must be said, an intricate and densely allusive novel. Yet for all the seriousness of its meditations on literary heritage and millenarian theology, The Countenance Divine is never less than superbly stimulating. It is a debut of high ambition that marks the arrival of a considerable talent.

What the Spellchecker Saw: Amy Liptrot

What the Spellchecker Saw is an occasional series of posts in which I examine the contents of writers’ spellcheckers. Specifically, I look at their custom dictionaries, or the words they’ve added in the course of writing a particular book. This may sound unpromising, but as I tried to explain in my original post, these word lists are fascinating artefacts of the creative process; they offer, I think, a uniquely revealing insight into a writer’s language and ways of thinking.

Following Sarah Perry’s guest appearance in the last post, I’m delighted to have a new word list from another extraordinary writer to pore over. Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, which was published to great acclaim in January, is both a memoir of addiction and homecoming and an illuminating study of our complex relationships with the natural world.

I reviewed The Outrun for The Irish Times, and praised it for the humaneness and candour of its account of addiction and recovery. What I admired most, though, was not so much its sense of place – a description that seems inadequate in this instance – but rather its primacy of place. Although Amy’s return to Orkney is central to her recovery, it is no mere backdrop. She is concerned with the personal significance of place, but is also deeply preoccupied with its physical constitution, with the substance and topology of her Orkney home and with the forces of all kinds – geological, climatic, economic – that act on it.

The Orkney of The Outrun, then, is both a childhood home (with all the attendant emotional complexity) an immense laboratory of personal discovery. This gives the book both an emotional rootedness and an exhilarating intellectual range. Both are discernible, I think, in Amy’s absorbing word list. In words like rockpools and beachcombing, we glimpse the island home she ranged over as a child, while cartological and the splendidly exotic islomaniacs hint at her later fascination with mapping its shape and extent.


There is evidence, too, in words like moonbows, of Amy’s interest in astronomical and atmospheric phenomena, and of a curiosity that extends to the migratory patterns of birds (geolocators), to plate tectonics (faultline, though it may serve a metaphorical purpose, occurs here in a refreshingly literal sense) and to marine biology (the magnificent hydromedusaeamong my personal favourites from this list, refers to a subclass of aquatic invertebrates).

These are fascinating specimens, and very much in the spirit of the book, but perhaps the richest of this list’s treasures are in its lavish scattering of Orcadian dialect. In previous posts on this subject, I’ve mentioned the intriguing way in which these custom dictionaries seem to capture the essence of a writer’s individual habits of language. In this case, Amy’s idiolect is enriched by the language of Orkney, itself a fascinating confluence of Scots English and Norn, the North Germanic language that was spoken there until the 15th century.

These are words to be savoured for their sounds alone, but for most of us they do necessitate a glossary. One is provided at the beginning of The Outrun, and I’ve reproduced some of those definitions here. If you haven’t read the book already, you may well find (as I did) that these words – the glint and heft of them, their commanding and incantatory beauty – are all the invitation you need.

haar: sea fog

hillyans: mythical hill folk

holm: offshore islet

kye: cattle

lum: chimney

muckle: big

noust: hollow for storing small boats

peedie: small

selkie: seal

spoot: razor clam

teeick: lapwing

tystie: black guillemot





What the Spellchecker Saw: Sarah Perry

I wrote a blog post some time ago in which I revealed the list of words I had added to my spellchecker’s dictionary while writing The Maker of Swans.

I was reminded of it when I saw this tweet from Sarah Perry. In a spirit of fellow feeling, I sent her a link to the piece. She might find it diverting, I suggested. Or distressing. Because these things can go either way.

To my delight (and, if I’m honest, much as I had hoped), Sarah was prompted to produce a list of her own, compiled during the writing of her wonderful novel, The Essex Serpent, which will be published in June. I’m reproducing the list here with Sarah’s permission.

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In my earlier post, I tried to describe what I find peculiarly fascinating about these word lists. What’s crucial, I think, is the peculiar mechanism by which they are created, this quiet salting away of eccentricities. The words we store in this way aren’t a representative sample, exactly, or not in the usual, statistical sense. But they are, like certain kinds of light, obliquely but starkly illuminating. You see things, etched in shadow on certain October evenings, that are all but invisible in the staring brilliance of a summer noon.

They are outliers, these words, much as we may gripe at their omission from Microsoft’s dictionaries. They are cherished oddities, hoarded for their rarity, their special lustre. And they are precious, of course. They are precious in the precise sense of being irreplaceable. Not one of these words could have been exchanged for any other.

But why these words, in particular? Poring over my own list felt furtive and radically unsavoury, like drinking my own wee. But since these are Sarah’s choices, the whole thing is above board. I can sit hunched over the specimen case for hours, sighing in contentment or hissing in envy. I can get my notebook out. I can classify things.

In some cases (like daybright or blueflowered), they are nonce words, neologisms borne of some small semantic or prosodic necessity known only to Sarah. There were (we must imagine) occasions when, discovering some minute fissure in the edifice of the language, she discerned the precise contours of the word that would fill it. Darking. There. Perfect.

Others, like the delightful unciform (an anatomical term meaning ‘hook-like’) and ergotism (poisoning induced by fungus-infected cereals) are truly obscure, words whose meanings we discover with a little throb of glee and carry away, Smaug-like, to deposit atop our glittering piles. All of these words, though, are in some degree out of the ordinary. They are archaic or bookish, fanciful or folkloric, impressionistic or clinical. They are excessive, in the very best sense of the word; they are the traces a writer left as she strained at the boundaries of everyday language.

Of course, the novel isn’t full of words like these; if it were, the effect would be unbearably cloying. In fact, they are stitched into its fabric with such unobtrusive care that I had no recollection of having encountered some of them. Nonetheless, this list is uncannily faithful to the book, a distillation of its essence.

The main character in The Essex Serpent, Cora Seaborne, is a remarkable creation. She is a restless and passionately curious autodidact. She is an amateur naturalist, in the Victorian tradition, and an inveterate collector of fossils. She is a widow, and zealously protective of her new-found autonomy, and yet she falls in love — extravagantly and inconveniently — with a recalcitrant country cleric.

Cora will become, I suspect, a widely beloved character, for these qualities and many others. And perhaps it is Cora, in particular, who is so immediately and vividly summoned by this list, Cora’s impatient and questing nature, her devotion to reason and inquiry, her joyous heterodoxy of spirit.

I was lucky enough to read a proof of The Essex Serpent a few weeks ago. If I hadn’t, though, this list alone would have done it. This list, more than any blurb or review, would have made me long to read it, to inhabit this world of verdigris and oakwoods, of samphire and lapis lazuli.

Now that I have, I can only offer my heartfelt commendation. The Essex Serpent is all of these things and more. It is a treasure, this book. It is daybright and noctilucent. It is starlike.


The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

This review originally appeared, in edited form, in The Spectator.

It is the fate of the second novel to be measured against the debut that it follows, a fate that becomes inescapable when that debut is met with acclaim (Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize) or is held to exemplify some modish literary subgenre (‘gritty Scottish realism’, in Fagan’s case, a designation that was not only modish but also largely invented).

The Sunlight Pilgrims - CoverFagan was ill-served, in this regard, by reflexive comparisons to Irvine Welsh, which made much of her use of profanity and dialect. But whereas the strenuous transgressiveness of Welsh’s style has long since descended into shtick, Fagan’s coarseness of language, to the extent that it was remarkable at all, was never more than surface detail. It was clearly in the service of authenticity of voice, and never subsumed her intentions in the way that Welsh’s has. Anais Hendricks, the disturbed but resilient protagonist of The Panopticon, is memorable for much more than her readiness with swear words. Far more noteworthy, for instance, was Fagan’s rigorously unsentimental and richly illuminating treatment of vulnerability and mental illness.

When eleven-year-old Stella Fairbairn, the central presence in The Sunlight Pilgrims, lapses into vulgarity, she is half-heartedly discouraged by her mother, Constance, who resorts (in a wry gesture by Fagan) to keeping a swear jar. Unlike The Panopticon, which imagined a contemporary dystopia of dysfunctional care homes and squalid flats, The Sunlight Pilgrims evokes a bracingly plausible near-future (the year is 2020) in which climate change has lurched into a terrifyingly acute phase: there is snow in Jerusalem; an iceberg is looming off the Scottish coast.

If a recurring preoccupation is evident, it is with the inner lives of the marginalised in the shadow of vast and indifferent forces. Stella, we learn, was once a boy named Cael. Her transition, though supported by the valiant and resourceful Constance, has not been entirely untraumatic. She is subjected to horrific bullying and institutional callousness. Denied the hormonal treatments she needs and unwilling to contemplate surgery, she struggles to construct for herself an attainable ideal of femininity. In a deeply touching scene, handled by Fagan with characteristic lightness of touch, Stella watches online porn featuring a trans actor. There is nowhere else, she reflects, where she can see ‘a body like her own having sex’.

Stella and Constance are joined in their caravan park by Dylan, who, until their recent deaths, ran an arthouse cinema in Soho with his resolutely unconventional mother and grandmother. Dylan is cast adrift, both by his grief and by the encroaching crisis. As the cold intensifies and the news is filled with intimations of social collapse, these three are soon entwined in unlikely domesticity, finding in it the nearest thing to salvation that this intimately imagined and chillingly credible apocalypse has to offer.


The Sunlight Pilgrims is published by William Heinemann.

There Are No Rules

An edited version of this article originally appeared in The Irish Times.

When you publish a novel, there are certain questions that come up a lot.

What’s your book about? What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

In my case, at least, these questions have identical answers: there are no rules.

That sounds monstrously adolescent, I realise, but bear with me. I can explain. My book, without giving too much away, is about a young girl for whom there are no rules. As for advice, I don’t have any. In fact, there isn’t any, or none that matters. There are no rules.

I don’t mean that I’m special or exceptional. I’m just speaking from what little experience I have. And I did everything wrong, basically. Everything, right from the beginning.

26It’s not as if I didn’t know any better. When you’re writing a book and trying to get it published, one of the first things you discover is that there’s no shortage of advice on the subject. There are lucid primers by reputable publishing professionals. There are candid and only gently chiding self-help manuals by veteran writers. There are impassioned but violently illiterate online screeds by—well, it can be hard to tell. Plus, I wasn’t really paying attention.

And there is a lot of this stuff. No, really. There is a corpus of received wisdom so gigantic that it would take many lifetimes to traverse it in its entirety. Luckily, you don’t have to. You can ignore it, all of it. There are no rules.

No, honestly. I did everything wrong. You’re not supposed to approach an agent until you’ve finished your novel. That one is practically a commandment. Well, I approached an agent before I’d even started a novel. I asked her to hang on for a bit while I wrote one, and it was fine. Granted, she didn’t like it when it was finished, but if I hadn’t put myself in such a spectacularly awkward predicament, I’m not sure I’d have produced a novel at all. And anyway, the next agent I showed it to did like it, so it all worked out in the end. No one died. There are no rules.

But, but, but. You’ve got to follow the submission guidelines. And your query letter has to be flawless. And it’s vital to format your manuscript correctly. And so on.

Look, here’s thing. The query letter is just an email. You have to send it to the right person. You have to include the right information and write it clearly and so on. You know, like a competent adult. You don’t need rules for that. And yes, you do also have to write it in such a way that you don’t appear deranged or unpleasant, but you don’t need rules for that either. You just need not to be deranged or unpleasant.

The same goes for the manuscript. Are you good at writing? No, I mean, properly good, not ever-since-I-was-little good? And have you read lots of books? Well, you’ll be fine, then. You’ll know the sort of thing that happens in them, and what they’re supposed to look like, with the paragraphs and the dialogue and what-have-you. So, you know, just write one of those.

And by ‘write’, of course, I mean ‘type’. It’s not a Sumerian epic. You type the book like a normal person, you make sure there aren’t any spelling mistakes and you save it in the document format used by literally everyone alive. You don’t need rules for this stuff. Seriously. This is just what people do. There are no rules.

This applies to the writing too. In fact, this applies especially to the writing. Take Elmore Leonard’s oft-cited ‘rules’, for instance, which have now acquired something approaching the force of doctrine. It helps, of course, that these ‘rules’ are themselves unshowy gems of aphorism: ‘Never open a book with weather’; ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’. Nice. It’s not hard to see the appeal.

For the record, Elmore Leonard is a writer I revere. His ‘rules’, like everything he wrote, are a source of delight. What many people seem to miss, though, is that they aren’t rules at all. Leonard read widely, we may be sure, and in many genres. He knew better than most that any rule you care to formulate has any number of glorious exceptions. He even says as much, in the article in The New York Times which sets out his ‘rules’, but people don’t tend to quote those parts.

The point is, a writer of Leonard’s subtlety, humour and humility doesn’t take it upon himself to make unironic prescriptions for the entire literate world. His ‘rules’ are a wry codification of his own style, nothing more. And that style, for all its miraculous grace and levity, is just that: Leonard’s style. There are no rules.

So, yes, I did things wrong. Sometimes, I admit, I did so on purpose, just to see what I could get away with. At the beginning of my book, a character is woken from a dream. (There’s a rule about that. You can look it up.) There are even gunshots. (They don’t ‘ring out’, though. Having no rules doesn’t mean having no taste.) I don’t know whether I did get away with it, but if I didn’t it was because of my own failings, not because I broke a rule.

I introduced elements of the fantastic in a work of literary fiction. In fact, I hardly left any out. I used alternating points of view (readers hate that), and switched between the past and the present tense (readers really hate that). I set the book in unnamed places, and interleaved two historical periods without identifying either of them. A pattern may be emerging here.

I tried very hard to create a satisfying story, but there were things I refused to explain because explaining them would have killed them. I worked with the utmost care, and with an unremitting consciousness of my duty to the reader. I wrote everything – every single line – over and over again, many hundreds of times, to get it closer, to get it as close I could. I tried.

But I took certain liberties too. I allowed myself certain excesses. I had no choice, not with this story. There is great art that dignifies the ordinary passages of our lives, great art whose workings are quiet and unceremonious, and I have nothing but respect for it. But we live other lives, each of us. There is something else, always, just beneath the skin of daylight. Don’t you feel it? There is a lifelong singing, a secret rhapsody, an elsewhere to which we also belong. We must honour that too, in our art. We must try to be true to it.

This is why I did everything wrong. This is why it was necessary. And I know how it sounds, believe me, but I can only explain it in this way. It was an act of love, this thing. It was a slow convulsion, an episode of rapture. When that comes, you obey it, and you obey nothing else. There are no rules.

The North Water by Ian McGuire

An edited version of this review originally appeared in The Irish Times.

For as long as there have been novels, there have been novels of the sea. The eponymous hero of Robinson Crusoe, widely regarded as the first novel in English, is all but synonymous with the figure of the island castaway. Yet it is as a ‘mariner’ that he is introduced in that novel’s full title, and he undertakes not one but two ill-fated voyages before the one that leads him to his desert island.

51EM8LFgjRLFrom Defoe, the lineage of maritime fiction can be traced almost without interruption to the end of the twentieth century (the last complete novel in Patrick O’Brian’s much-loved Aubrey-Maturin series appeared in 1999), though its apotheosis, many would argue, was reached in 1851, with the publication of Moby-Dick. Among readers, clearly, there is an abiding appetite for tales of the sea, but that alone can hardly account for a continuity of tradition that has few if any equals among literary genres (military fiction, despite some superficial similarities, has had a much bumpier ride).

This longevity, surely, is due at least in part to our fascination with the sea itself, and in particular to its hold on the imagination of authors. For novelists, the sea is the gift that keeps on giving. For a start, there are its attractions as a setting. The sea, after all, does what no landscape can: it moves. One moment, it may be nothing more than scenery, while the next it is an inexorable force, sweeping mere human fates before it.

The sea can be much more than a backdrop, then, but it can also be less. For some writers, the sea is a canvas of seductive blankness, a surface from which the clutter of civilised existence has been scoured. Against such an emptiness, the dramatic force of a narrative is magnified, lending heroic proportions to its struggles. It is the latter approach that Ian McGuire favours in The North Water, a muscular but finely-wrought tale that satisfies traditional expectations while bringing to the genre a dark elegance of style and an unsparing vision of individual morality.

We are introduced first to Henry Drax, an itinerant harpooner animated only by his own savage compulsions and sustained by an implacable instinct for survival. He joins the crew of the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaling ship bound for the Arctic. Her captain is complicit in a murky enterprise – we learn early on of a plot to wreck the ship for insurance money – and is not inclined to be choosy about who he takes aboard. This suits Drax nicely: He has just murdered and violated (in that order) a young boy and wishes to make himself scarce.

Also boarding the Volunteer is Patrick Sumner, a former army surgeon whose military career ended in disgrace during the siege of Delhi. For Sumner, as for Drax, an Arctic whaler is a place where few questions will be asked, where his misdeeds may go undiscovered. Unlike Drax, however, Sumner is burdened by his past. Although his moral instincts have been somewhat corroded, he is nonetheless deeply preoccupied by notions of wickedness and culpability. Drax, on the other hand, is untroubled by any such distractions. For the harpooner, ‘each new moment is merely a gate he walks through, an opening he pierces with himself’.

The stage is set, then, for just the kind of elemental confrontation that tradition demands. From the beginning, too, it is clear that it will take place amidst a sizeable cargo of philosophical baggage. Here again the precedents are well established; seascapes have always provided a canvas not only for grand struggles but for big ideas. But whereas Moby-Dick looked to Locke and Kant, the colours nailed to the Volunteer’s mast are unmistakably Nietzschean; even her name, with its echoes of volition and the will to power, seems slyly allusive.

In fact, the novel alerts us to its intentions in its opening words: ‘Behold the man’ (Ecce Homo was the title of Nietzsche’s final eccentric summation of his philosophical project). The man we are invited to behold is Henry Drax, and he is not a pretty sight. A creature of ‘fierce and surly appetites’, he is bestial and unreflecting in pursuit of his urges, yet he is capable too of dim epiphanies. His atrocities, he believes, are acts ‘of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations’ and he himself is a ‘wild, unholy engineer’, insights that remind us of Nietzsche’s ‘free spirits’, those ‘investigators to the point of cruelty’ who have dispensed entirely with obsolete notions of good and evil.

But while its philosophical ambitions are at times overt, it would be wrong to give the impression that The North Water is weighed down by its big ideas. As a storyteller, McGuire has a sure and unwavering touch, and he has engineered a superbly compelling suspense narrative. Like Dr Stephen Maturin, Patrick O’Brian’s rather more upstanding ship’s surgeon, Sumner struggles to keep his nose out of the opium bottle. Once at sea, he holes up in his cabin, minds his own business and sets about depleting his own medicine chest. Drax is quick to take his measure, and soon guesses at the shadows in surgeon’s past. Sumner, though somewhat addled, is not entirely oblivious. When a cabin boy is found murdered and sodomised, Drax pins the blame on one of his shipmates. Roused from his torpor by the horrific nature of the crime, the surgeon sets about uncovering the truth.

The Volunteer and her crew, however, are soon overtaken by greater misfortunes. The plan to wreck the ship goes predictably awry, and when it does the crew must contend not only with the monster in its midst, but with the far greater brutality of the long Arctic winter. As the body count rises, the tattered morality that Sumner clings to begins to look forlorn. ‘Them’s just words,’ Drax tells him. ‘The law is just a name they give to what a certain kind of men prefer.’

As a stylist, too, McGuire is never less than assured. Though he keeps he keeps the prose lean for the most part, he allows himself occasional flourishes. While these occasionally misfire (the dockside air, perplexingly, has ‘a bathetic pong’), there are many instances of arresting brilliance. A musket shot to the head produces ‘a brief carnation of blood and gore’; a bear that Sumner pursues is lost in ‘the blizzard’s ashen iterations’.

The North Water is traditional to the last. There will be a sole survivor, of course, just as only Ishmael survived the destruction of the Pequod. It is by no means clear who this survivor will be, however, and the well-tuned plot keeps us guessing until the final pages. But McGuire’s deference to tradition is not excessive. He has produced a fine addition to the maritime canon, but one that revivifies it with a thoroughly modern acuity of style. He has established himself, too, as a writer of exceptional craft and confidence, one who is no doubt capable of approaching other genres and of making them entirely his own.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

This review originally appeared in The Irish Times.

We have come to expect more of nature writing than we once did. It tended, until recently, to come in handsomely produced and gift-friendly volumes, and to take a gently contemplative and often lyrical approach to its subject. It tended, too, to be the preserve of writers of a recognisable type (male, donnish, faintly druidical), leading the poet Kathleen Jamie to deride the cult of the ‘Lone Enraptured Male’.

theoutrunAll that changed, of course, with the phenomenal success of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. While it was not without its precursors (Olivia Laing’s To the River, for instance, charts a similar confluence of personal and natural currents), its influence now seems inescapable. Macdonald demonstrated that nature writing can be passionately erudite and beautifully observed, but also viscerally intimate and inseparable from the rawness and disorder of our lived experience. Like Macdonald, who returned to falconry following a bereavement, Amy Liptrot approaches the natural world by way of the personal, fusing nature writing with a stark and moving memoir of addiction.

The child of southern migrants, Liptrot is raised on a farm on the Orkney ‘mainland’, as the largest of the islands is known. Like all incomers, they are regarded with benign scepticism by the locals. Orkney is an unforgiving place to establish a smallholding, and most southerners don’t last long. The family makes a go of it, however, and the childhood Liptrot sketches is for the most part wholesome and contented, if not entirely cloudless. Though her parents are loving and hardworking, her father suffers from manic depression and is prone to unpredictable behaviour. Her mother seeks solace in religion and joins a group of evangelical Christians. They will later separate, for reasons that are typically contested.

On the islands, the elements breed sturdiness. As a child, Liptrot ranges fearlessly over the ‘wind-scoured and treeless’ expanse of the farm, scrambling over its stone dykes and skirting its plunging cliffs. By the time she is eighteen, though, she has grown resentful of the muck and toil of life on the farm. Feeling the adolescent’s sense of confinement, even under the limitless Orcadian skies, she yearns for ‘the hot pulse of the city’.

London doesn’t disappoint. She falls in with a loose collective of friends. They are young or youngish, scraping by on the fringes. They talk about getting into publishing, making it in music or fashion. There are warehouse parties in Soho and Shoreditch, nightclubs that vanish within weeks of opening. There are drugs, of course, because this is London and they are young. And there is drinking. There is a lot of drinking.

These sequences are especially vivid. Liptrot recalls her early excesses with the wary nostalgia of the recovering addict, and evokes them with a kind of blurred intensity. A solvent-fuelled picnic in London Fields, is a welter of ‘limbs and sun cream and honey and ants, all sticky and sweet’; she feels the urge, walking home after a party, to ‘rub the city onto my skin…to inhale the streets’.

But this idyll of hedonism is short-lived. Liptrot’s drinking is out of control almost from the beginning, and her life in London soon lurches towards chaos. Her boyfriend moves out (she had, she reflects ‘squeezed the last love from him’), and she is unable to hold down even the menial temping jobs that have sustained her. Exhausted and despairing, she enters a recovery programme. Six months later, bruised and aimless but tentatively sober, she is home in Orkney.

Alert to their familiarity, perhaps, Liptrot dispenses with these preliminary events in eighty pages or so. There is the risk of tedium, too, in chronicling the subsequent stages of recovery. For the alcoholic, sobriety is a lifelong project. The addiction narrative, having traced the upward portion of its arc, threatens to peter out in a perpetually provisional blue sky. It is a challenge that must be overcome not only by the narrative, but by the recovering addict. What is life to consist of, now that it has been so thoroughly emptied out? How are all these days to be filled?

Back in Orkney, the emptiness is not merely metaphorical. ‘The sky gets bigger,’ Liptrot observes, ‘as the train travels further north.’ She seeks refuge in a cottage on the island of Papa Westray (known as ‘Papay’), a place even more northerly and remote than the island where she spent her childhood. The house is uninsulated, perched on a narrow strip of island and exposed on two sides to an often tumultuous sea. ‘It will be impossible to live here,’ she notes, ‘without being aware of the weather.’

For all its bleakness and isolation, Liptrot feels at home here. It is this intimacy with the elements, she begins to realise, that will form the basis of her salvation. Like many recovering addicts, she is eager to find new objects for her displaced compulsions. The islands themselves become her obsession; she studies their weather, their history and archaeology. At night there are the riches of the unpolluted northern skies. She becomes fixated on ever more northerly islands, travelling to Fair Isle and battling her way up the ‘preposterous ski slope’ of its Sheep Rock, as if obsessed by the very idea of extremity.

These digressions are engrossing in themselves, but we begin to glimpse a unifying vision. Although Liptrot’s style is superficially stark, eschewing the lyrical excesses derided by Kathleen Jamie, it belies a quiet relentlessness of ambition. With her almost manic attentiveness – to ocean currents, to cloud formations, to the processes of erosion – Liptrot seems intent on absorbing nothing less than an entire environment, in all its vastness and complexity. In the aftermath of an all-consuming addiction, there is something consoling, perhaps, in this sense of totality.

Recalling a photograph taken during her lost years, Liptrot reflects that she appeared ‘unfathomably, unquenchably sad’. Drinking was never the answer, of course, and the solace she sought for so long was always illusory. There is no answer, of course, but as this humane and compelling memoir shows, there are far more interesting questions.

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

The review below originally appeared, in edited form, in The Irish Times.

412BJYKd0YLTed Hughes’ Crow marked his return to poetry following the suicide of Sylvia Plath, a cataclysm that can be felt in that collection’s violent rupturing of form. Borne of his obsession with Hughes, Max Porter’s debut appears at first to confront bereavement more directly. A woman has died suddenly. In their London flat, her husband and young sons cling to the disordered remnants of family life.

We hear their voices in alternating passages: Dad (the characters are not otherwise named) is immersed in grief, a faltering zombie of duty; the Boys, profoundly hurt, are children still, distracted and elliptical, orbiting a barely understood absence.

Enter Crow, an ancient trickster of inscrutable motives (as he was for Hughes), and here a superbly voiced embodiment of natural ferocity. Antic, capricious and fearsome, Crow nonetheless sets about defending this disturbed nest, urging its occupants like fledglings from their helplessness.

Porter has been daring in shaping this extraordinary book, but its force is in its almost unbearably proximate examination of loss. Like the small intimacies that Dad remembers, it pleads to be relived: ‘Again. I beg everything again.’

The Maker of Swans: The Making of a Cover

The Maker of Swans - Final Front Cover Image
The final cover design for The Maker of Swans

Well, here we are at last. The Maker of Swans officially has a cover.

Not that it’s been the best-kept of secrets, mind you. Early proof copies of the book began circulating a few weeks ago, and images of the preliminary cover began to surface on Twitter shortly afterwards.

Last week, though, the finished artwork was uploaded to the databases of the online retailers, which is the nearest thing a cover gets these days to an official unveiling.

And what a cover. Authors are supposed to say this sort of thing, I know, but I have loved it without reservation from the moment I first saw it. Back in June, when my editor sent me an early JPEG version, my response was less eloquent than I might have hoped.

‘It’s glorious,’ was all I could manage. ‘It’s just glorious.’

I had replied to her email within three minutes, but I’d only spent ten seconds or so typing. The rest of that time was spent staring in rapture.

And it is glorious. I can say that freely, having had nothing to do with it. The team at W&N have produced a design of singular grace and immense subtlety, and one that encapsulates the book with almost miraculous economy. I’ve paid tribute to them in private, of course (effusively, and at embarrassing length), but I was determined to give them the wider acknowledgement they deserve when the time came.

I was thrilled, then, when the design team agreed to be interviewed, to discuss not just this particular book but their approach to cover design in general; the extent to which it is constrained by conventions or shaped by trends, and the balancing of creative and commercial impulses.

Steve Marking is Art Director at Orion Books. He is a graduate of Central Saint Martins, and in his role at Orion, he oversees the design of covers for its W&N imprint. He has worked on covers for authors including Gillian Flynn, Laura Barnett and Henry Marsh.

Sinem Erkas is a multidisciplinary designer and illustrator. Like Steve, she was trained at Central Saint Martins, and her portfolio includes book covers for Orion Books, Profile Books and Bloomsbury. You can see more of her work at

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What’s the single most important job that a book cover must do?

Steve Marking: Get noticed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean shouting the loudest.

Sinem Erkas: Stand out!

There’s more to it than that, though, isn’t there? Contemporary book covers are sophisticated design artefacts, and most of them clearly operate on multiple levels. What else should a good cover do, aside from make someone pick up the book?

SM: Give the reader enough information about the subject matter and style of the book, but leave some ambiguity to make the reader intrigued. Obviously, the amount of clear information versus intrigue depends on the type of book.

And it should ultimately be a beautiful object that the reader will want to keep looking at, and will want to keep on their book shelf or coffee table.

SEI think after it grabs your attention, it then needs to keep your attention.

Growth in e-book sales has begun to slow down, and there are whispers of nervous optimism in publishing about a resurgence in the importance of print. In the last couple of years especially, we’ve seen selected titles published in special hardcover editions, with features (laminated cases, sprayed edges, opulent endpapers, etc.) designed to make them more desirable as physical objects. Are you conscious of this trend? Do you welcome it, as designers?

SM: I definitely welcome the idea of creating special editions, with tactile finishes, endpapers etc., of creating a beautiful physical object that’s as enjoyable to look at and hold as it is to read (well, almost).

SE: Of course! It’s always exciting when we have budgets to do specials, but they should always add to the design rather than cover up a bad design or over-decorate it. So many covers have finishes just for the sake of it – I’m a believer in everything being there for a reason, not just for decoration. 

Non-fiction covers tend to be more literal and programmatic than those for fiction, though there are many honourable exceptions. Are fiction and non-fiction covers very different disciplines? Do you find one more liberating than the other?

SM: With a non-fiction cover, you have to be a lot clearer about the book’s subject matter. Non-fiction can be easier to design than fiction, as you have something tangible to work with – a person, an event, a period in history. With fiction, particularly literary fiction, the cover needs to suggest a mood and emotion more than a subject, which is often harder to visualise.

SE: I think with non-fiction it’s easier to sum the book up literally or with a witty image. Fiction, however, is a bit more complex. It’s more emotional, and this provides endless possibilities and directions. This can be seen when classics are repackaged in so many ways.

Publishers invest a great deal in covers, and their design teams are constantly striving to create memorable and distinctive examples, some of which attract almost as much attention as the books themselves. Are you conscious of an ‘arms race’ to produce ever more striking and competitive designs?

SM: I think the competition to create ever more interesting and innovative covers is very healthy. Book cover design right now is perhaps as creative as it has ever been.

SE: Yes! I always try to make my next cover better than the last. And different! I don’t like being asked to do the same thing over and over. I always try to push my creative style, and not know myself what I’m going to do next. That’s what keeps it fresh. I tend not to look too much at other book cover designs or ‘the competition’ or ‘trends’ either, but look instead at other things for inspiration, like cinematography, art, illustration, text, found objects, etc.

Book cover enthusiasts often remark on the way genre is signalled by conventions in cover design – moody photography with bold typography for crime; watercolours and cursive lettering for ‘women’s fiction’, etc. – do you sometimes find yourselves rebelling against these demarcations?

SM: As a designer, you don’t want to just follow the herd, but you do need to tell the reader very quickly what kind of book it is. Conventions used in design are a visual language of codes, which can immediately tell a reader what kind of book it is. The trick is to make a book cover look like a crime novel, for example, but different enough from every other crime novel that it stands out and doesn’t blend into the background.

The amount of ‘difference’ you can get away with depends on the genre, and on sales expectations. This is why some of the most innovative covers (and consequently the most copied), have been for books without the baggage of high expectations. Like A History of Tractors in Ukrainian, designed by Jon Gray, where the designer was free to come up with something different, and the publisher didn’t try to force it into a particular conventional look.

SE: I think that’s where the fun is. Always trying to rebel against the genre look – that’s when covers really stand out! Why create something that will blend in? In some genres, it’s harder to break the mould. As a woman, I get asked a lot to design books for ‘women’s fiction’. They’re challenging, as the look generally is something quite whimsical and dated. I think literary covers are the best ones to work on because you can get away with more and the covers are more individual to the book, reflecting the writing rather than the genre. Saying that, I’m always being asked to make my typography ‘more literary’. I don’t know what that means!

Can you think of a recent cover by another designer that you particularly admired, or that you wished you had worked on?

SM: The Rosie Project [designed by Lee Motley of Penguin]. It’s one of those covers that you see every so often that is just slightly different from anything you’ve seen before. It’s nothing radical or particularly unusual – just a hand drawn title and a lobster – but it’s quirky and intriguing, very simple but strangely beautiful.

SE: Actually, I really like Steve’s latest cover for Anthony Horowitz. You can cut it up and turn it into a rocket! What more could you ask for!? You’d have to buy two copies, though. And I couldn’t cut up a book jacket.

In the case of The Maker of Swans, Orion indulged me by allowing me to provide an additional design brief, which was basically four pages of handwaving by an over-invested back seat designer. Do you dread when authors do that? Is it ever useful?

SM: In this case, it was very useful to get more detail about the book from you, and to hear your ideas and vision for the cover. It gave Sinem and me more to work with, and certainly helped us develop our ideas.

When an author has spent so much time creating a book, they are obviously going to have an opinion on the cover, so it’s important to listen to their ideas. But it can be difficult when an author has a very specific vision of their characters and plot, and gets very concerned with specific details [of design] that don’t always help to make a successful cover.

SE: [Laughs] I normally do dread that, yes! But honestly, your case was different – it was exactly what we needed for inspiration. Sometimes when you get a brief, you’re left feeling like you need to know more. Especially with fiction, it’s so important to read the manuscript (even if it’s just a few chapters) to be able to create something unique, with that added layer. Your brief really made it clear just how interesting the book is. I ignored your design suggestions, but took from it the themes and [a sense of] what was unique about your book.

We’ve spoken privately about how much I love the design you came up with, and I’m glad you ignored my amateurish suggestions. The result is utterly – and quite rightly – different to anything I had envisaged. The composition is starkly symmetrical, but also extraordinarily graceful. It has a wonderful visual economy too, and manages to encapsulate a great deal thematically that I think readers will appreciate once they’ve read the book. Was it a design that came easily, or did it go through many iterations?

An early mock-up design for The Maker of Swans

SM: I knew that Sinem’s elegant and hand-crafted style of illustration would be perfect. I suggested a swan’s neck as a starting point, and Sinem did about six rough versions. The one I thought was really interesting had the title made out of swan feathers. We tried to develop that idea but it just wasn’t working; it wasn’t swan-like or legible enough.

We went back to my initial idea of a swan’s neck, and the concept of reflection and duality in the brief led us to two interlocking swans, like a playing card. I tried to make the cover work either way up – with the title appearing twice, so it could be viewed upside down. But it was too complicated and spoiled the simplicity of the design.

The process of design often involves trying out over-complicated and unnecessary ideas, before scrapping them and going back to something much more simple. Sinem and I sat down and discussed ideas and scribbled rough sketches together, which is much more productive and creative than the usual process of emailing JPEGs back and forth.

SE: Sometimes to produce something so simple, you have to go through a complex process and keep eliminating the unnecessary detail. Before you sent over your text, Steve had done a preliminary sketch, and asked me to illustrate a very graceful swan. It looked good, but a bit one-dimensional. It needed a twist.

Another mock-up design rejected by Steve and Sinem

I then made about six rough mock-ups, which were either too obscure or too humorous. But after reading your inspiring brief, we had a chat and sketched out new ideas, scribbling over each other’s sketches. Towards the end of the day, I mentioned something about interlocking swans, like yin and yang — inspired by your themes of mirroring images — and Steve thought of an upside-down swan, and the idea just clicked!

We knew it was going to work, and I developed the illustration of these interlocking swans to be as simple as possible and perfectly symmetrical. Steve’s art direction was brilliant, and he kept pushing me to make it more and more graceful. I added a handmade texture reminiscent of wood blocking or mono printing, which I think really adds a burst of energy to it.

Another strength of this design is that it scales very well, and makes for an immediately recognisable thumbnail. How important a consideration are thumbnail images in the design process, given how much book buying now takes place not just online but on mobile devices?

SM: It’s important to consider how a cover appears as a thumbnail on screen. It can feel disheartening to spend a long time designing something that is often so small when it’s viewed. Ultimately, though, I think the consideration to keep cover designs simple and eye-catching at small sizes has improved the design of covers generally.

SE: Very! Throughout the design process, I’m constantly zooming in and out, and like to make sure my covers work well very small. My style tends to be quite minimalistic, so this works well.

 One last question. When you walk into a bookshop, is it difficult for you to suppress your critical instincts as designers, and to respond to the covers you see as a reader and a book buyer?

SM: Yes! I look at book covers as a piece of design, and am instinctively drawn to designs that appeal to me, whether or not the book itself interests me. Looking in bookshops is very inspiring. I’m always seeing things and thinking, I wish I’d done that!

SE: Totally! My bookshelves have to look good! I always find it upsetting when a brilliant story isn’t represented as it should be on the outside. Equally, I have been tricked many times into buying books — and music — with great covers that aren’t great. I have a lot of books I haven’t finished reading. I should listen to Bo Diddley’s advice [in ‘You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover’], but I can’t.

* * *The Maker of Swans will be published by W&N in February 2016.