Sunday Story Society: “Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring”

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Today we’re talking about “Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring” by M. John Harrison, a story which became the foundation of its author’s 1996 novel Signs of Life. To kick off, we have an extensive response from Nina Allan, which I’ll quote only in part here:

You could almost say that ‘Isobel’ is MJH in microcosm […] It bears many ur-Harrison trademarks: gaunt cityscapes in decline, disenchanted individualists in terminal disconnect mode, intimations of the marvellous. The language of the story manages somehow to be both resolute and dissolute, a gradual persuasion of the drab towards incandescence.

And here are some initial thoughts from me:

When I read this story, I still had the experience of Viriconium very much in mind; if that series moves towards the destruction of fantasy-as-escape, I see “Isobel Avens” as doing something similar. Of course, there’s Isobel’s dream of flying, which cannot be realised; and the fantastical surgery, which is no magic solution. But I also think this is a great portrait of an exhausted relationship: empty conversations; Mick Rose’s constant calls for the reader to “imagine this”, as though his relationship with Isobel happened to someone else. And there are some superb lines: “The years I lived with her I slept so soundly” – I love how equivocal that sentiment is.

So, what did you think?


  1. This was the first of the reading selection that I’d read and enjoyed before (albeit ten years or so ago), so I suppose my thoughts are going to come from a slightly different angle this time. Cards on the table, I love Harrison’s short fiction and Travel Arrangements, which came out around the same time I think as this story was reprinted on Infinity Plus, is one of my favourite collections.

    As an introduction to the MJH of the 1990s, this story is absolutely bang on target. It’s tight and personal, and it’s brash and blokeish. It feels firmly rooted in its setting and time, but also features a subtle incursion of the deeply fantastical (in this case, the almost science fictional) that, literalises his them rather than relying on metaphor.

    As a story for the reliance for happiness on impossible-to-realise dreams, it works well, but I think it also does another very clever thing in sketching a particular sort of relationship. The kind that begins not because people see something kindred in each other, but because they see something they don’t understand. The tragedy of this story for me is that Mick finds Isobel’s quirky, childlike feyness at first charming, but by the time he realises that he’s never going to be allowed to see beyond that (increasingly annoying – for me as a reader anyway) facade, it’s too late. The only time I think we get a glimpse of joined up thinking in Isobel’s head is in the letter she sends him after leaving him for Alexander, who can give her what she wants.

    I must confess that this time round I was unsure whether we needed China to come to his senses, once he’d rescued her and made sure that she was made well again. I’m not sure what that added to the story. But it’s Harrison, and he always leaves plenty of room for interpretation. And for me, ten plus years on, the story stands up as being cleverly constructed, with at times wonderfully efficient prose, and one of the most striking reveals of a fantastical idea I’ve ever come across – the bird thing, it’s all there in the text, the gifts, the dreams, Look! Owls!, the tattoos, a subliminal metonomy that leads naturally to what Alexander does to her in Miami, but still leaves enough room for it to be shocking.

  2. I’ve been hesitant to respond here because I come from a different kind of context from many British readers and so miss more — for example, perhaps the way that just mentioning Canary Wharf or Stepney conveys enough for the Londoner or British reader to get what is implied. (Much as the way JM Coetzee’s descriptions of Voelfontein or the Eastern Cape means so much more to a South African reader, the resonance of Afrikaans or isiXhosa terms and the bloodied history of locations, the evictions and skirmishes of the 19th century that need not be named because the local reader knows all about them). And in contrast to London’s specificity in this tale of three cities, Budapest, like Miami is a cipher, the bridge over the river at night, the place at the end of a flight.

    The trope of a woman like a wounded bird bothered me –like a masochistic lady into fox — and notions of a failed transfiguration. ‘Some story of love and transfiguration, cropped into all the wrong proportions for the small screen.’ I liked the grotesque, the pathos of the absurd China Rose, his persisting voyeurism and fixation, that low flying in his BMW, messianic in unredeemed Whitechapel. Which made me think not just of murdered prostitutes but of the bewildered apostles up on the mountain faced with a dazzling cloud, incomprehensible transfiguration that offered no escape from self, no flight, no transportations.

    The lost climber blinded and wandering above the South Col on Everest.

  3. So I read this story in Omni when it came out. Years afterward I kept thinking about it. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember the title, the author or enough to find it online. Cut to about a year ago as I get really involved in Mike Harrison’s great work. Up till then I’d only known Light and Nova Swing. Anyway, I find out he wrote the story and turned it into a novel. That was a nice circle of literary life. I also think the Omni issue might have been the one wherein two articles gave me the idea for the novel I just finished.

  4. There is a wonderful contrast between the mundane, empty relationship and the dreams of flying. There’s a deadness to their lives together – half of the dialogue is just saying each other’s names, especially Isobel saying “China, China” over and over again. It’s almost as if she’s trying to get closer to him, to make him real by saying his name so many times. Yet it fails. It’s also interesting that even the meeting is based on a misunderstanding, and on Isobel’s dream of flying. She thinks China is a pilot, and that’s the only reason she’s interested in him. Then she finds out that he’s a van driver, and the disappointment seems to tinge the relationship. Very powerful stuff, definitely hitting on the escapism and the retreat into fantasy. And some wonderful lines, too, like “I told myself I couldn’t heal her there, only allow her to use me to heal herself.”

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