Helen Gordon, Landfall (2011)
London-based arts critic Alice Robinson is thirty-four, unsure about her place in the world, and haunted by the disappearance of her sister Janey seventeen years previously, when her magazine ‘suspends operations’; taking advantage of her parents’ offer to house-sit for them, she moves back to the suburbs to take stock. Alice’s existence there is enlivened by the arrival of her sixteen-year-old American cousin Emily (who’s been sent over for an improving visit, though she’d rather not be there), and a large dog named Selkirk, whom Alice’s old flatmate Isabel has talked her into looking after (despite Alice’s dislike of dogs). Alice is mostly drifting through life in suburbia when her former editor holds out the possibility of an interview with one of her favourite artists, Karin Ericsson, a recluse who lives on the south coast – could this be the key to Alice’s getting her life back on track?
Helen Gordon’s debut novel is a nicely observed character study, ranging from pithy observations about minor characters (for example, Alice’s artist ex-boyfriend is described as “one of those men of a certain haircut who gravitated towards the east of the city” [pp. 8-9]) to more sustained portrayals of the main players. Alice’s neighbours’ boy, Danny, is a conflicted figure: saved from drowning as a young boy, that piece of great fortune has also made it hard for him to relate to other people (though one senses he ultimately means well), which in turn has led him to dabble in crime. Emily begins as something of a grotesque, obsessed with her body-image to an alarming degree, but, by novel’s end, she is moving towards a more positive view of life; she and Danny come together in a halting, and very real, fashion.
And Alice? She spends a lot of time thinking, but also falls back on instinct, reciting maxims from her Girl Guide and London days. Those recitations may feel forced when she’s at her parents’ house, but Alice’s practical instincts come into their own when she has travelled to the coast. She, like Emily and Danny, makes not so much peace with life, as a kind of messy truce.
Christopher Kenworthy, ‘Sullom Hill’ (2011)
Our narrator recalls his childhood in western Lancashire, in particular his period of friendship with John Stack (“You’d never see him in a group: it was John and one friend for a few weeks and then he’d move on” [p. 6]) and his ambivalent attitude towards learning-disabled Neil Kingsley. The protagonist admires John for his cheek and ability to stand up to his reprimanding teachers – but John’s bravado hides a violent home life, and now he’s picking on Neil.
This is one of the latest chapbooks to be published by Nightjar Press, who specialise in dark fiction at (or beyond) the edges of the supernatural. I make a point of mentioning this here because Kenworthy’s story takes a particularly striking approach to the subgenre. There’s nothing overtly (or even necessarily covertly) fantastical about ‘Sullom Hill’, but Kenworthy portrays John’s behaviour as being rooted in a bargain – maybe not one made with a supernatural agency, but a bargain of a similar kind. Neil’s response to John can be read in an analogous way. The effect of these is to imply a different way of looking at the world, and thereby to disturb the world’s equilibrium – creating a very subtle kind of horror.
G.A. Pickin, ‘Remains’ (2011)
The second new title from Nightjar Press takes us to a Scottish moor, where an ill-prepared walker (who is experienced enough that he shouldn’t be in his current predicament, and knows it) leaves behind an abandoned church and the remains of its surrounding settlement, and tries to find his way to the holiday cottage where he’s due to catch up with some friends from an old volunteering project – but the dark and the weather are closing in.
As a story, ‘Remains’ is very much focused on its landscape; Pickin effectively turns what is at first, if not exactly a friendly environment then at least one open to exploration, into somewhere more threatening. The ending is both nicely open and a neat closure.