The Dollmaker by Nina Allan

This review originally appeared in The Guardian.

Dolls in popular culture haven’t done themselves any favours. They’re battling an image problem. In the best case scenario, a discarded doll might end up on the cover of a crime paperback, a drab emblem of sullied innocence; in the worst, as in Chucky’s case, it will terrorise an entire town. To collect antique dolls, as the protagonists of this novel do, is to be seen through a glacial mass of cultural prejudice. What, we are inclined to wonder, does anyone see in them?

An only child born with proportionate dwarfism, Andrew Garvie resigns himself at an early age to exclusion and solitude, exchanging schoolyard taunts for dismal office ‘banter’. ‘There is no point,’ he concludes, ‘in even trying to belong’. He devotes himself instead to dolls, at first as an avid collector, then as dollmaker in his own right. He haunts auction houses and scours even the personal pages of specialist periodicals. It is here that he first encounters Bramber Winters.

The Dollmaker (Riverrun, £14.99)

It is here, too, that we enter the lives of dolls, but relax – it’s not what you think. Nina Allan has been known until now for her speculative fiction, but The Dollmaker is not concerned with the supernatural, at least in the usual sense. This literary experiment has a conventional setting, in a contemporary England that feels only slightly askew. The good news is that its living dolls are kept within safely figurative bounds, avatars of the exotic in a moving fable of otherness. The bad news, at least for some, is that they are every bit as unsettling as tradition requires.

Fittingly, given its subject, The Dollmaker toys with us almost from the start. It is framed by an oddball quest narrative, set in motion when Andrew replies to Bramber’s personal ad and the two begin a stilted but consuming correspondence. She is seeking information about a Polish writer and dollmaker named Ewa Chaplin, whose work has obsessed her since childhood. ‘She seemed to know,’ Bramber writes, ‘that dolls are people just like us.’

Andrew, it must be said, is a somewhat unreliable narrator, and at times resembles a peculiarly guileless stalker. ‘I had been writing to Bramber for a year,’ he says, ‘before I understood that we were destined to be together.’ This, we suspect, will come as a surprise to Bramber, whose own intentions are so far opaque. In her oddly ingenuous letters, she reminisces freely about her youth but is reticent about her present circumstances. Still, her hints are broad enough for the reader (suggesting an institional existence in a small Cornish village) if not for Andrew, who assumes that she simply dislikes using the telephone.

Without announcing his intentions, therefore, he resolves to visit her, embarking on the bumbling odyssey that gives the novel its conventional momentum. Its imaginative energy, though, unfolds unexpectedly from within, as if from a series of opulent music boxes.

Andrew sets out for the West Country, pursuing his romantic destiny with the stolid meticulousness of a loveless scoutmaster. His reasonably priced rover ticket, he notes with satisfaction, will enable him ‘to switch freely between bus, coach and train’ as his itinerary demands. To pass the time on the journey, he begins reading the Ewa Chaplin stories to which Bramber is devoted. And here the mechanism quickens, setting its mirrors in motion.

The stories are modern fairy tales, in the macabre and claustrophobic tradition of Angela Carter, and are richly veined with myth and folklore. Their settings are half-recognisable – a twilit Mittereuropa, a London overshadowed by fascism – and their recurring motifs seem come to seem foreboding. There is disfigurement and banishment, jealousy and thwarted triumph. And there is a more persistent theme, familiar from the Schubert lied: the doomed love of a wilful queen for her court dwarf. Here, as in the ballad, he is a figure not of ridicule but of enigmatic potency, who destroys the queen because he cannot possess her. Dolls are people, it seems, but perhaps not quite like us.

Andrew grows bolder as his encounter with Bramber approaches. When he steals a coveted doll from a museum, he glimpses another self, a ‘dark and forbidden’ desire. Will the dwarf destroy his beloved queen? Or are he and Bramber still free to choose other fates? The Dollmaker purports to be ‘a love story about becoming real’, and perhaps it is, in its sad and mischievous way. But it is a story, too, about becoming unreal, about what we choose to see, even in dolls, when we ourselves have gone for too long unseen. Who will love us, after all, if not people just like us?

A Keeper by Graham Norton

This review originally appeared in the Irish Times.

Elizabeth Keane, who occupies centre stage in Graham Norton’s new novel, is ‘a lecturer in Romantic poetry living in a tiny rented apartment’ in New York. We know this because Elizabeth thinks it to herself, in an opening chapter consisting almost entirely of similar ruminations. Exposition of this kind is one of the chores that the novelist must get on with, and if it is done discreetly the reader hardly notices. Norton dispenses with these niceties, issuing us instead with a sizeable information pack. We learn, for instance, that Elizabeth is recently divorced, that her mother’s death has occasioned her return to Ireland and that she dislikes Christmas.

And there is more to come. When Elizabeth admits herself to the now-deserted family home, she has hardly climbed the stairs before the revelations begin tumbling out. Encountering a mirror, she takes stock of her facial features as if encountering them for the first time, a practice popular among male writers if not among actual women. But it is when Elizabeth discovers a cache of her mother’s correspondence that the fruit machine starts to pay out in earnest.

Image result for a keeper

At this point, a parallel narrative is introduced, and one whose elements are in some ways familiar. Forty years in the past, we encounter Elizabeth’s mother, Patricia, whose own mother has died following a long illness. Released after years of dutiful servitude, Patricia resolves to seek out the romantic fulfilment she has denied herself for so long. Again, a great many particulars are supplied early on, and although there is plenty to pick over in this trove of family history, it is not at all clear what we ought to make of it.

Much of the difficulty is due to this novel’s tone, which from the outset veers between melodrama (as when Elizabeth consigns her mother’s letters to ‘the dusty oblivion of the box’) and fizzy bonhomie (‘“Kilkenny!” she cried as if it was Gaelic for Eureka.’). A Keeper, according to its cover blurb, is ‘a twisted tale of secrets and ill-fated loves’, and while unpleasant surprises are indeed in store (we will return to those shortly), we are never quite sure whether to laugh or cry.

There is no need for a character’s behaviour to be relatable, but it must at the very least be comprehensible.

This is especially true of the chapters set in the present. Elizabeth, we are given to understand, finds her hometown oppressive and her extended family unendurable, yet when she visits an aunt to probe the mysteries of the past, her excitability begins to seem almost pathological. She is, we are a told, ‘a pinball machine of emotion’, and perhaps this explains why she keeps giving ‘wry or ‘silly’ grins, even as she receives worrying news from home (her seventeen-year-old son has gone missing) and uncovers ever murkier episodes from her family’s past. The problem, though, is not just that these outbursts are jarring, it’s that they are entirely disconnected, both from each other and from the events unfolding around her. There is no need for a character’s behaviour to be relatable, but it must at the very least be comprehensible.

Back in the past, meanwhile, there are more pressing concerns. Resorting to a lonely hearts ad, Patricia has attracted a suitor and finds herself stirred by the fulsome tenderness of his correspondence. In person, however, Edward Foley turns out to be a near-wordless bachelor farmer who wanders off during moments of intimacy to see about the milking. (On one such occasion, Patricia wonders if ‘it had been her modest bosom that prompted him to seek out the heaving udders in the milking parlour’, an aside of such hallucinatory crassness that it seems almost to shimmer on the page.) Edward’s mother, meanwhile, is forever boiling hams or throttling chickens in mid-conversation, and it comes as no surprise when Patricia returns home in disillusionment, having concluded that Edward is ‘not the man for her’. Her resolve, however, is short-lived. Indeed, this is to be our last fleeting glimpse of any recognisable human instinct. Patricia takes delivery of a giant bouquet from Interflora, and is immediately persuaded to reconsider. With renewed anticipation, she sets out once more for Castle House, the remote marshland fastness near Bantry where the Foleys have their home.

Before turning to what comes next, a brief note on spoilers may be in order. Norton’s many fans will doubtless want to make up their own minds about this book, and they may rest assured that most of its secrets have been kept. However, it is impossible to give a fair account of these proceedings without discussing one central development in particular, so those who prefer to save themselves are advised to look away now.

To no one’s surprise but Patricia’s, events at Castle House take a dark turn. When a deception is discovered, she announces her intention to return home, but Mrs Foley has other ideas. Determined to establish her son in matrimonial bliss, she has conceived of a plan, and one that takes no particular account of the compliance of the bride-to-be. Patricia is briskly drugged and imprisoned in a flouncy guest room, leaving these confines only to use the toilet or undertake forced domestic labour. Though she occasionally seems put out by these arrangements, she reflects – when called upon to dust her captor’s figurines – that it gives her ‘a strange sense of satisfaction’.

This is, to put it simply, bananas. So is Patricia’s insistence that Edward is ‘not a bad man’, even if he does tear up a bit when directed to restrain her. The ghoulishness of the scenario is not in itself the problem. We might have believed that Patricia had succumbed to some form of Stockholm syndrome if we had witnessed the development of that distorted intimacy. But Edward rarely tears himself away from his udders and Mrs Foley is not so much a character as a Hitchcockian neurosis in a cardigan. What plays out instead is a rickety fiasco peopled by gormless stick figures that would be disturbing if it were remotely convincing.

There are traces here of the book this might have been. Norton has a keen eye for the quirks and textures of small Irish towns, and might have made a go of the dark and ribald comedy that seems at times to be straining to get out. But as A Keeper lurches to its sombre and oddly stagy finale, we are preoccupied not with what might have been but with what he can possibly have been thinking.

Connect by Julian Gough

This review originally appeared in The Guardian.

In the final pages of Connect, its central character arrives at a climactic epiphany. ‘Everything,’ Colt reflects, ‘can be described at every level.’ But, he goes on to acknowledge, ‘it’s better to describe things at the level at which they make most sense.’

It is an observation that neatly encapsulates both the scale of this novel’s ambition and its most distracting tendencies, the first of which is in evidence right from the start. Set in the near future, Connect focuses on the teenage Colt and his mother, a geneticist named Naomi Chiang who has discovered a potent alternative to stem cell therapies. Based on the imaginal discs that are instrumental to insect metamorphosis, Naomi’s technique, if developed, could allow complex body parts – and even brain tissue – to be rapidly regrown. Colt, who spends much of his time immersed in a virtual gameworld, is affected by a condition that resembles Asperger syndrome. Pinocchio-like, he wants to be a ‘real boy’, and sees that promise in his mother’s work.

Image result for connect goughDistrusting her own findings, Naomi has been reluctant to publish them, but her research has already attracted attention. The NSA, now entirely delinquent and vastly powerful, has spotted its military potential and wants it suppressed. When Colt persuades Naomi to give a conference paper, the two are promptly apprehended and, in time-honoured fashion, whisked away to a secret base in Nevada.

Colt, however, has been busy. He has stolen into Naomi’s lab, intent on engineering a neurotypical brain, and injected himself with an untested imaginal disc.

‘But…why?’ she asks him.

Colt hedges a little, then confesses. ‘I could talk to…to women, Mama.’

It is a touching scene, and no less so for its playful deference to superhero origin stories. It proves to be pivotal, too, not least because Colt, as tradition requires, has been granted not just the abilities he coveted, but lots more besides. His brain is now stuffed not only with an outsize corpus callosum (a structure implicated in autism spectrum disorders), but with an intricate tissue of upgrades generated from insect neurons. These enable Colt to escape from the NSA’s desert fortress, to keep ahead of the ensuing manhunt and to confront the ‘immune system’, a terrifying digital panopticon developed (in a pleasing Oedipal flourish) by his own father.

In fiction as in film, unchecked superpowers tend to alienate the audience.

These episodes are propulsive and engrossing, but life with the newly enhanced Colt isn’t all fun and games. To begin with, his condition is not in any sense ‘cured’, a development that would be inconsistent with Gough’s sophisticated and sympathetic presentation of autism. Far from exploiting it as a narrative contrivance (as other novelists have repeatedly done), he is at pains to show us the richness and complexity of experience of the atypical brain.

This approach is clearly commendable, and the resulting portrait is – up to a point – both illuminating and inclusive. The problem, for narrative purposes, is not that the supercharged Colt remains atypical, but that he becomes a singular prototype, acquiring cognitive abilities so dazzling that at first he is literally blinded. Gough has a great deal of fun with this, and for a time so do we, but as Colt’s abilities grow, he struggles to explain them to lesser mortals. When he predicts a violent eruption of solar activity, his father is intrigued, but Colt is by now reduced to an impatient shorthand. ‘The math isn’t up to the job,’ he explains. ‘But I can see it in my head.’

This too is a familiar trope, and one that becomes increasingly problematic. In fiction as in film, unchecked superpowers tend to alienate the audience (superheroes have human alter egos for a reason) and to rob the drama before us of a necessary friction. Much of the remaining conflict is between an implacable artificial intelligence and Colt’s own hypertrophied intellect, and although he suffers setbacks – and faces a final challenge that requires a uniquely human solution – it is a contest largely devoid of emotional interest.

What we are left with amounts to a frenetic livestream from Colt’s prodigious consciousness, relieved only by hyperactive digressions on everything from particle physics to cryptography, strange authorial intrusions and an onerous ballast of epigraphs (we don’t need constant interruptions from Bertrand Russell or Ray Kurzweil to appreciate the extent and eclecticism of Gough’s reading).

Yet for all its helpless excitability, there is plenty of real excitement in this novel, and a spirit of joyous curiosity that may strain our patience at times but never quite loses its charm. What Gough attempts here is to describe everything at every level, and the effort is in many ways hugely admirable. But fiction subsists on human experience, and it is better, as Colt reminds us, to describe things at the level at which they make most sense.

Property by Lionel Shriver

This review originally appeared in the Irish Times.

Towards the end of ‘The Standing Chandelier’, the novella that opens Lionel Shriver’s first collection of short fiction, one of its protagonists – or, at this point, its antagonists – makes an observation that comes to seem bleakly defining. Jillian Frisk (a self-absorbed hobbyist) and Weston Babansky (a ruminative deadbeat) have maintained a near-platonic friendship for twenty years, but when Babansky seizes a late romantic opportunity it is sacrificed on the altar of marriage, leading to an unseemly tussle over a wedding gift.

‘The ties between the two parties had been severed,’ Babansky reflects. ‘All that remained was stuff.’

The preoccupations of this collection are announced in its title, and such sentiments might appear to go with the territory. Yet here, at least, they are modestly enlivened by irony. The wedding gift in question has indeed provoked hostilities, but the contest that animates the story is – somewhat improbably – for possession of Babansky himself.

Image result for property shriver

It is an engaging study of the calculus of intimacy, and Shriver brings to it a measure of the psychological acuity for which her novels have been praised, but it is marked, as all these stories are, by a grimly transactional view of social conduct. Shriver’s characters are inveterate scorekeepers, maintaining meticulous accounts of everything from unpaid restaurant bills to unreciprocated filial love. While these exaggerations may well be deliberate, they are staged without concessions to dramatic irony, giving these fictions an airless and mechanistic quality that grows more pronounced even as Shriver finds more inventive ways to sustain her central conceit.

In ‘The Self-Seeding Sycamore’, a widow tends the garden she once disdained, only to find it aggressively colonised by a neighbour’s tree. Said neighbour, a gym-honed oaf named Burt, is duly confronted and – after a guerilla pruning raid results in mishap – briskly seduced. Perhaps recognising its slightness, Shriver elects not to burden this forlorn apparatus with an emotional payload, or indeed with any recognisable motives. ‘The Royal Male’, in which a disgruntled postman wins the affections of the retiree whose letters he has purloined, is no less flimsy, and by the time its characters arrive at their squalid and unlikely romantic accommodation, we can no longer be bothered to work out who is appropriating what from whom.

What is objectionable here is not the standard-issue right wing mudslinging but the author’s casual delinquency in rupturing the fabric of her own fiction.

But Shriver’s apparent loss of interest in the development of her theme is, by this time, the least of our concerns. The first duty of a reviewer, insofar as any consensus can be found, is to set aside prejudice and to consider each piece of work on its merits alone. A writer’s politics and public pronouncements, however distasteful we may find them, must usually be ruled inadmissible as evidence. But this duty, in Shriver’s case, is complicated by a number of factors, not the least of which is her own disregard for the boundary between fictional perspectives and her own clearly recognisable views.

In ‘The Subletter’, for instance, a character has no sooner been introduced (as the product of ‘liberal, Bennington parents’ who endorses the ‘spread-the-goodies tenets of European social democracy’) than Shriver, impatient with these lukewarm reflections, lurches from the scenery to stage an editorial intervention. ‘Had Sara ever been personally subject to the Continent’s horrendous upper-bracket tax rates,’ she interjects, ‘her politics might have lined up promptly with her more conservative inclinations in private life.’

What is objectionable here is not the standard-issue right wing mudslinging but the author’s casual delinquency in rupturing the fabric of her own fiction. But Shriver doesn’t stop there. In ‘The ChapStick’, a man visiting his ailing father finds himself inconvenienced by airport security personnel. A TSA employee is introduced thus: ‘The African American agent who issued him off to the side would not have looked nearly as fat if her pants weren’t so tight.’

This is not merely repellent but nakedly provocative, yet we can anticipate Shriver’s wide-eyed defence. In her 2016 novel, The Mandibles, an African American woman is restrained by her white family using a leash. When this depiction was criticised for its racial insensitivity, Shriver pointed out that the woman is suffering from early-onset dementia. ‘How else,’ she reasoned sweetly, ‘would they control her?’

Shriver will no doubt dispense with this criticism in similarly airy terms, but in this instance she has already advertised her own bad faith. When a supervisor shows up (he is black too, and further inflames the situation by ‘swaggering’), Shriver and her sock puppet all but cast the subterfuge aside. ‘Oh, great,’ he thinks, ‘this encounter [has] every capacity to escalate into a race matter.’ Well, quite.

The ties that are severed, in such moments, are those between the author and her reader. If we can no longer afford her the benefit of the doubt, the compact by which fiction is sustained simply collapses. All that remains, ugly and out of place, is stuff.

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

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

Do you think you know London? Hester White, who narrates Laura Carlin’s debut novel, confronts us first with this question. Hester did once, or thought she did. Raised in a parsonage in the Lincolnshire Wolds, she would listen raptly when her father returned from his travels, imagining a wonderland of ‘wherries and steamers’, where one might ‘take a seat on Shillibeer’s omnibus…stopping at The Unicorn for beefsteak with oyster sauce’.

The Wicked ComethBut Hester’s father, by the time we encounter her, is long dead, and her childish illusions have been abandoned. Orphaned at eleven, and lacking better prospects, she has been taken in by the family of his former gardener. Consigned to insalubrious lodgings among the backstreets of Bethnal Green, Hester now counts ‘foglers, lifters and murderers’ among her neighbours. Her London, she assures us, ‘isn’t the one Papa visited, or the one you might think you know’.

The year is 1831, and the streets Hester has come to know are lightless and filthy, teeming with thieves and vagrants. With its chipper rogues and multifarious squalor, it is, perhaps, a rather more familiar milieu than Hester seems to think, but it is brought to life with such grimy vitality that it seems a shame to leave it behind. But for our heroine, understandably, it has few attractions. Her ‘Uncle Jacob’ is a drunkard and a lecherous pig, her ‘Aunt Meg’ a figure of dubious charity. The urchins of the locality, meanwhile, have been disappearing with unsettling frequency. Entrusted one morning with the household’s last shilling, Hester seizes her chance.

Hester’s London is brought to life with such grimy vitality that it seems a shame to leave it behind.

Her escape hinges on the vaguest of plans, and gets off to an inauspicious start when she falls under the wheels of carriage. Its occupant proves to be an imperious young physician named Calder Brock, who scoops her up without a word and deposits her at his Westminster townhouse. There she is fussed over by servants while her injuries are tended to, and if she is suitably awed by her good fortune, she is also understandably curious. Just who is this Mr Brock, and why has she been so richly favoured?

His explanation is reassuring, if mildly improbable. Mr Brock, it transpires, is a member of the much-feared London Society for the Suppression of Mendicity, but favours enlightened methods and means to demonstrate to his colleagues ‘that even those from the gutter can be educated’. Hester plays along – she was educated by her father, but knows when she is on to a good thing – and is promptly whisked off to Waterford Hall, family seat of the Brocks, there to convalesce in the country air while undergoing an improving course of instruction.

All, needless to say, is not quite as it seems. There are dark mutterings among the servants, and Hester has misgivings of her own. A young scullery maid has joined the ranks of the missing, while Rebekah Brock, her benefactor’s sister, is said to show an excessive fondness for certain of her ladies’ maids.

But it is the enigmatic Rebekah, Hester soon learns, who is to tutor her in the ways of gentility. Hester proves an apt pupil, and the two soon establish a hesitant rapport. Intimations of a deeper attraction grow, but a misunderstanding intervenes before any declarations can be made. The obligatory reversal of fortune follows, and by the time Hester returns to London, sunk in dejection and beset by deepening mysteries, all the trappings of a satisfying melodrama have been assembled.

And this, to be clear, is no bad thing. After all, Wilkie Collins fashioned some of the most glittering entertainments of the nineteenth century from these very materials. But before Wilkie Collins, there was the penny dreadful, and it is to the tawdry pleasures of that genre that Carlin’s tale – with its unmistakable echoes of popular novels like The Mysteries of London – pays its most overt homage. The results are splendidly diverting, for the most part, but as in all such exercises, there is the looming danger of pastiche. While a degree of staginess goes with the territory, Carlin is inclined to trowel on the period mannerisms (no one hurries, in this novel, when they can ‘make haste’), and to couch the most ordinary passages in such an excess of descriptive upholstery that the reader feels threatened at times with suffocation. In one scene of domestic contentment, ‘the repast is plated’ while ‘the fire is obediently giving off heat’, which is not only cloying but faintly perplexing. By dint of sheer exuberance, though, this spirited and highly readable debut makes such excesses seem forgivable, leaving us a little bloated, in the end, but certainly not unsatisfied.

The Wicked Cometh is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor

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

If some literary fairy godmother had intervened in its fate, she could hardly have engineered a more gratifying outcome than the real-life reception of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. Garlanded by critics (including this one) and nominated for several major prizes, it has also been embraced by readers to a degree that – given its outwardly austere subject matter – could hardly have been taken for granted.

9780008235659The arrival of The Reservoir Tapes, a companion piece that first appeared in serial form on BBC Radio 4, suggests a certain confidence in this public enthusiasm, yet even those readers who admired the original novel may wonder if this new volume, appearing only eight months after its predecessor, is deserving of their attention.

Such doubts are quickly dispelled. Broadcast over fifteen episodes, and billed as ‘perspectives’ on the central events of the novel, The Reservoir Tapes revisits the small community in rural Derbyshire from which thirteen-year-old Becky Shaw disappeared. We hear first from Charlotte, the missing girl’s mother – or rather, we don’t. The arresting opening episode takes the form of an interview, but the transcript has been redacted so that only the halting and fragmentary questions remain. ‘I know this is difficult,’ the anonymous interviewer says. ‘I wasn’t implying.’ But she is, of course, and her prompting is so precisely shaded with suggestion and insinuation that Charlotte’s wounded and flinching presence is conjured without a word.

The effectiveness of such techniques is assured, in part, by McGregor’s uncanny ear for the tics and cadences of everyday speech. In the novel, his lucent and graceful descriptive passages competed for our attention, but these pieces confine themselves to the characters’ own accounts, lending them the documentary fascination of true crime and a suspense that depends – as in that genre – on the omissions and obfuscations of witnesses; on what they insinuate about others and what they reveal, knowingly or otherwise, about themselves.

Their lapses are subtle at first. Recalling a hike he led, a man notes that a group of girl guides ‘swayed when they walked, with the weight’. It might be nothing, this detail, but we begin to wonder. An elderly bachelor helps a young boy to fix his bicycle, then invites him in to ‘get scrubbed up’. The man will not let him leave until his hands are entirely clean.

These intimations become increasingly unsettling. A woman falls abruptly silent when her husband raises his hand. (‘Like getting ready to swat a fly.’) A sheep farmer assisting in the search is recognised in a TV news interview by a sex worker who encountered him years before, and who recalls an incident of naked brutality and one that revealed, perhaps, the shadowy contours of pathology.

In ‘Clive’s Story’, the most unnerving of these pieces, the same elderly bachelor is visited by the police. Questioned about his encounter with the young boy, he lapses into a rambling monologue, and what follows is a masterclass in the gentle escalation of unease. From banal ruminations on reservoir maintenance, Clive veers into a creepy rhapsody on the marvels of anatomy, reflecting on the graceful musculature of swimmers before offering his thoughts – and at this point we are wondering just how much of this monologue is internal – on the miraculous intricacy to be observed in a skinned rabbit.

‘We are well made,’ he muses, recalling his scripture at the queasy climax of the passage. ‘We are fearfully and wonderfully made.’

These stories, too, are fearfully and wonderfully made, though it is difficult to articulate just what they add to the experience of Reservoir 13. That book that was widely praised for its lightness of touch, and for the immersive effect of its sparing accretion of detail. These pieces are certainly not unsubtle, but whereas our suspicions, in the novel, were formed from no more than glancing impressions, we are presented here with much starker portraits, especially of men, and there is a heightened amplitude to our sense of dread. If the subject matter were different, we might be tempted to conclude otherwise, but coming as it does at the end of a year of grim revelations about male abusers, the fresh ‘evidence’ collected here has about it a weight of necessity.

It brings us no closer to ‘solving’ the novel’s mystery, but that was never the point. In any small town, these stories remind us, slithering nests will lurk in the shuttered hearts of men; in any small town, for as long as their secrets are kept, women and girls will suffer at their hands. This much, dismally, is no mystery at all.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

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

‘Ordinary things,’ the novelist Marilynne Robinson once remarked, ‘have always seemed numinous to me.’ Jon McGregor may not share Robinson’s preoccupation with the divine, but there are few writers whose work has more consistently affirmed the luminous dignity of the everyday. His debut novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, took as its subject an unnamed city street and the inner lives of its residents. Panoptic and quietly rhapsodic, its very title seemed to announce his intentions as a writer. ‘If you listen, you can hear it,’ it began. ‘The city, it sings.’

And sing it did. There was no shortage of beauty in this early work, though its painterly effects tended at times to eclipse its characters, presenting not so much human interactions as exquisite tableaux vivants. McGregor has long since learned to temper these excesses, honing his lyrical gifts and yielding the foreground to his characters. His growing stature has not gone unrecognised. Longlisted twice for the Booker prize, he won the Impac Dublin Literary Award in 2012 for Even The Dogs. Even by the standards of his mature work, however, McGregor’s latest novel is a remarkable achievement.


Set in an unnamed town in the English midlands, Reservoir 13 seems at first to tread familiar ground. A young girl has gone missing, and in the darkness of a midwinter morning the search is beginning. ‘It was cold and there was little conversation. There were questions that weren’t being asked.’

The missing girl, Rebecca Shaw, had been on a family holiday and had formed only a few tenuous friendships. In the photograph that is circulated her face is ‘half-turned away’. She is remembered variously as ‘Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex’, an elusive and prismatic presence in the town’s collective consciousness. Most people hardly knew her, but rumours are repeated. Stories are told. Spring arrives, and still Rebecca has not been found.

Life goes on. It is a comforting truism, something we tell ourselves in the aftermath of shocking or inexplicable events. Yet to a writer of McGregor’s particular gifts, the banal can present invigorating challenges. Life does go on, undeniably, but how? How do we absorb events like these, and how do they alter us?

To answer these questions, McGregor returns to the broad social canvas of his first novel, but his undertaking here is far more ambitious. The author himself posted a partial dramatis personae on Twitter that ran to eighty-odd entries. Many are recurring characters, not fully developed in the usual sense, but skilfully realised nonetheless. They emerge in glancing encounters, the narrative’s perspective slipping unobtrusively among them. The effect is cumulative and subtle, leaving us with a precisely calibrated sense of familiarity. These are people we might see on the school run, or speak to while queueing at the post office. We can only glimpse their inner lives, guess at their secrets.

McGregor’s prose throughout this novel is as near to faultless as makes no difference.

At times the narrative drifts apart from human company altogether, pausing to observe the foraging of fox cubs or to mark some small increment in the progress of the seasons: ‘The sun cut further into the valley and under the ash trees the first new ferns unfurled from the cold black soil.’ Descriptive writing of this kind is often praised for its ‘arresting’ beauty, yet these passages are remarkable precisely because they do not halt the reader’s momentum. Indeed, McGregor’s prose throughout this novel is as near to faultless as makes no difference. Fluid and fastidious, its sparing loveliness feels deeply true to its subject. There are moments, as in life, of miraculous grace, but no more than that.

There is beauty, likewise, in the moors and in the beech woods that surround the town, but this is no mere idyll. Here too the life that persists is driven by animal necessity. Unfledged blackbirds are taken by crows. Goldcrests feed in the churchyard yews. We see summers end (‘the butterflies rose like ash on the breeze and the ice-cream vans still appeared’) and winters encroach again (‘the sheep were nicotine-yellow against the fresh snow’). The missing girl is spoken of still, as the years pass. There are occasional ‘sightings’, though these are no longer taken seriously. She recedes in the town’s memory, but never quite vanishes. Suspicions arise (as when a school caretaker is found in possession of child abuse images), that may come to nothing.

It is a mark of greatness in a work of art that its effects, though profound, are not easily accounted for. Reservoir 13 is not a crime novel, at least in the traditional sense, and its central mystery is more than just a procedural puzzle. We do not come to know Rebecca Shaw, but we feel in the end that her life has been given a solemn and particular weight, its traces documented until they are too faint to be seen. In her absence, the swallows come and go. People marry or move away. There are moments of sadness, of squalor, of indelible beauty. Look, this humane and tender masterpiece is saying. This is what becomes of us. This is what remains. Life goes on.

Reservoir 13 is published by 4th Estate.

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.