TagRay Robinson

New Fiction Uncovered column: The Language of Fiction

This is it: my fourth and final column as guest editor of Fiction Uncovered. For this article, I decided to write about how tone and style can shape the world of a piece of fiction. I think it’s all to easy to overlook language and prose when reading and thinking about fiction (certainly I’ve overlooked them in the past) – when, actually, they’re fundamental to what fiction is. So I’ve chosen four novels with a distinctive use of style, and looked at what they do and how.

The new column is here, and you can find all of my reviews and columns for Fiction Uncovered here. And, if you want to read more from me on the books mentioned in the column, step this way:

Finally, I’d like to thank Fiction Uncovered for inviting me to be guest editor, and for hosting me this last month. I’ve really enjoyed it, and I can only hope that others have found my columns interesting, and maybe even discovered a few new books that they’d like to read.

Shiny New Books and Jam

First of all, I need to tell you about a new book recommendation site: Shiny New Books. It’s the brainchild of four UK book bloggers (Annabel, Victoria, Simon, and Harriet), and features original and reprint reviews by contributors from all corners of the blogosphere. I’m in the first issue, with a revised version of my piece on Ray Robinson’s Jawbone Lake (think of this as the Director’s Cut of the original review). Have a look around the rest of SNB; there’s some great stuff on there, and I hope the site will go from strength to strength.

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In another corner of the web, Fiction Uncovered (now the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize) is gearing up for another year, and I’ve reviewed for them the new novel by a Fiction Uncovered alumnus. Here are my thoughts on Jam by Jake Wallis Simons…

JamJake Wallis Simons appeared on the first Fiction Uncovered list in 2011 for The English German Girl, his novel about a girl sent to England on the Kindertransport in the 1930s. Following a thriller (2012’s The Pure, written as Jake Simons), the author returns with Jam, a novel which follows a varied cast as they experience one of modern life’s nuisances: being stuck in traffic.

Structurally, Jam resembles a disaster novel, insofar as it moves between the perspectives of multiple characters all affected by the same event – though here the event is not the end of the world, but a traffic jam on the M25; and Wallis Simons is less interested in the jam itself than in how his characters are changed by encountering each other. We begin with Ursula and Max, a couple not quite as firmly in love as they once were, and particularly concerned right now with letting their friends (whose daughter they’re bringing home) know about the delay. With no phone signal, Max heads out to find someone who will let him make a call; he gets talking to Jim, a supermarket delivery driver who makes clear that he can’t give away the stock in his van – though he does have some crisps in the front, if Max wants some. Other characters see what’s going on, and Jim’s van becomes the locus of attention, not all of it welcome.

To an extent, the traffic jam works as a metaphor for the characters’ life situations. Many of them feel stuck in some way – like Shauna, who’s looking for her dream man; or young Shahid, who rues his messed-up trial for Chelsea – and the night’s events enable at least some of them to move on. The way Wallis Simons orchestrates this is perhaps his novel’s key strength: some characters make a central contribution to events, others are peripheral; but all take their place as significant parts of the whole. By the end of Jam, we’ve seen a slice of life: some people win, some lose; one individual may be changed forever, while another just carries on as before. The vehicles start to move again, and those circumstances that brought everyone together become lost in the flow; but Wallis Simons has shown how extraordinary a mundane situation can be to those caught up in it.

(Original review.)

"Silence upon silence, stones piled upon stones"

Ray Robinson, Jawbone Lake (2014)

Jawbone LakeRay Robinson was last seen on this blog in 2010 when I read Forgetting Zoë, his excellent novel about a young girl held captive in Arizona, in danger of losing her very self. For his new book, Robinson travels closer to home, with a tale which is more concerned with remembering, as its characters face life without loved ones whom they remember painfully well – although, in one case, they didn’t know him quite well enough.

We begin on New Year’s Eve, with a Land Rover driving straight into Jawbone Lake, near the Peak District town of Ravenstor. The driver of the vehicle was CJ Arms, a local businessman who’d built up a successful company in Spain. CJ’s son Joe returns home from London to a family who cannot explain the crash, clinging to the hope that, as long as CJ’s body is not found, he may still be alive. Joe’s grandfather Bill asks him to travel to Spain and find out the truth of CJ’s life there; what Joe discovers will challenge everything he thought he knew about his father.

The events of New Year’s Eve were witnessed by Rebecca Miller, otherwise known as Rabbit, a woman haunted by the sudden death of her baby son a year previously. She is developing an uncertain attraction for a colleague at work, but perhaps her main hope is for somewhere to hide from the world. And a third figure, Grogan – who pursued CJ down to the lake – is watching both Joe and Rabbit, waiting for the right moment to tidy things up.

For quite a way into Jawbone Lake, I was thinking that the character of Grogan didn’t seem to fit: he’s the type of sinister hard man who is a mainstay of Brit gangster thrillers, but seems out of place in what is generally quite a reflective portrait of families dealing with grief and loss. Then it struck me that this may be the point: the thriller elements of the novel are an intrusion on what appeared to be the reality of life. Perhaps this is most clear when Joe visits Spain, and learns about his father’s other life; it doesn’t square with the CJ he knew, but is nonetheless real, and Joe has to face up to that.

So, the loss of CJ leaves a hole in the Arms family’s life that gets harder to fill the more they learn about him. The situation is subtly different in Rabbit’s case: there’s a hole in her life caused by the death of her son (and that of her mother, who passed away some years before); but it’s only by reaching into and learning more about herself that Rabbit is able to find a way forward. The general theme of hidden truth is mirrored elegantly in Robinson’s use of landscape: Jawbone Lake is not a natural feature, but a reservoir with an old village at the bottom (I must tip my hat here to the superb cover design, which heightens the artificiality of a supposedly ‘natural’ scene, and is really quite eerie); every new environment in which CJ lived seems to have brought out a different side to him.

In Jawbone Lake, you have a novel that starts off as the mystery of why this man would drive into a lake; grows into an examination of how people may try to handle grief and uncovering secrets; and that knows how to thrill, even as it treats its thriller aspect as something strange and inscrutable. So that’s another intriguing book from an author whose work should not remain a secret.

Elsewhere
Ray Robinson’s website
Interview and review at Raven Crime Reads
Robinson writes about the places that inspired Jawbone Lake

Fiction Uncovered: the list

The Fiction Uncovered list has been announced. The idea behind this initiative was to highlight books from the past year by eight established UK writers whose work may not have had all the exposure it deserves. You’ll be seeing displays of these titles in bookshops; let’s look at what the judges have chosen…

Lindsay Clarke, The Water Theatre (Alma Books)

Clarke is the only author of the eight whose name was completely unknown to me, though I understand now that he has written seven novels. I’m not sure that the synopsis of The Water Theatre (a war-reporter searches for two old friends, without knowing that they harbour a secret) instinctively appeals to me, but I am pleased to have been alerted to an unfamiliar writer.

Robert Edric, The London Satyr (Doubleday)

Edric is one of two writers on the list whom I’ve already read, albeit a different book in this case. I had mixed feelings about Salvage, but would certainly read the author again. The London Satyr sounds rather different in setting and subject matter, as it examines the dark underbelly of Victorian society in the 1890s.

Catherine Hall, The Proof of Love (Portobello)

A mathematician spends a summer working as a farmhand in the Lake District, and gets tangled up in the lives of the locals. I have The Proof of Love to review next for the Fiction Uncovered site; now I know that it’s on the list, my anticipation has only increased.

Sarah Moss, Night Waking (Granta)

I’ve heard interesting things about Moss’s previous novel, Cold Earth. This new novel, which interweaves the stories of a mother and her young family on a Hebridean island in the present day, and a midwife attempting to address infant mortality on the island in the 19th century, alaso sounds intriguing.

Chris Paling, Nimrod’s Shadow (Portobello)

I experienced an ‘Aha!’ moment when Paling’s name was read out, when I realised I’d seen his work being recommended before, but had forgotten about it. At the time, I was convinced it was Scott Pack I’d read enthusing about Paling’s books, but actually I was thinking of this piece by Stuart Evers. Anyway, Nimrod’s Shadow — the tale of an Edwardian murder and its investigation in the present day by an office assistant who finds clues in paintings from the time — has gone staright on my to-read list.

Tim Pears, Disputed Land (Heinemann)

Pears is one of those writers of whose name I’ve been aware without really knowing anything about his work. Again, Disputed Land is not a novel that grabs me just from its synopsis (a man looks back on the childhood Christmas when his grandparents summoned their family to discuss their inheritance), but I’ll look into Pears’ bibliography.

Ray Robinson, Forgetting Zoë (Heinemann)

The only book on the Fiction Uncovered list that I’ve already read; one of my very favourite reads of last year; and a novel that absolutely deserves its place here. Emma Donoghue’s Room has received plenty of attention, and Forgetting Zoë (which likewise deals with the long-term captivity of a child, though otherwise the two books are quite different) rather less so; but I think Robinson’s novel is the better of the two, and I hope more people will now take the time to discover it.

Jake Wallis Simons, The English German Girl (Polygon/Birlinn)

In the 1930s, a girl is sent from Berlin to England on the Kindertransport, but loses touch with her family when war comes. I’d already heard of this novel, but was undecided about reading it; its appearance on this list might just spur me on to do so.

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Overall impressions of the list? I’ve no reason to doubt the quality of the books (and if Forgetting Zoë is the standard, then that’s great); but, structurally, it feels something of a missed opportunity. For one thing, Fiction Uncovered was open to prose novels, story collections, and graphic novels; but there are no books from the latter two categories on the final list {*}. 75% of the authors are male, all are white, and all (as far I’m aware) English. There are no books published as genre fiction on the list. Half the titles do come from independent publishers, though, which is good to see.

Whatever the shape of the list, though, I do wish the best to all the authors featured, and hope they gain more attention as a result of Fiction Uncovered.

[*Since posting this originally, I have heard from Fiction Uncovered that relatively few story collections were submitted by publishers, and no graphic novels at all.]

The finding of lost children: Donoghue and Robinson

Emma Donoghue, Room (2010)
Ray Robinson, Forgetting Zoë (2010)

The two novels I’m reviewing here weave beautiful tales from ugly subject matter: namely, the abduction and long-term captivity of children. Both are less concerned with plot than with character – the key question is not, ‘will they escape?’ but ‘what effect do these events have on the people involved?’ Whilst the process of uncovering the answers may be harrowing, it has resulted in two powerful works of literature.

Emma Donoghue’s Booker-shortlisted Room is narrated by five-year-old Jack, who has lived his entire life in the 121 square feet of Room, the space in which his mother (‘Ma’) has been held captive for the past seven years by a man whom she and Jack call ‘Old Nick’. As far as Jack is concerned, this space is all that exists; the novel progresses from establishing the parameters of Jack’s mental world, through Ma’s (successful) escape bid, to Jack’s attempts to adjust to life in an outside world that he didn’t know was real.

Jack’s narrative voice is critical to the success of Room; though I’ve heard a few people say they felt it stumbled at times, it mostly held up for me; the main quibble I’d have is that Jack continues to call the sun ‘God’s yellow face’ throughout the book, which didn’t convince me given what else he knows, and the influence of astronomical concepts on Jack’s mental framework (he thinks of TV programmes as ‘planets’). I also have a general, vague sense that Jack doesn’t seem quite as disoriented by the outside world as I might expect him to be; but, to be fair, I can’t put my finger on any specific instances to illustrate that.

(As an aside, it strikes me that the success or otherwise of Jack’s voice depends on what one considers the first-person narrative to be. I can see that Jack’s voice may be problematic if the text is considered a straightforward spoken/written/thought account; but, unless they indicate otherwise. I tend to think of first-person narratives as ‘impressions’ filtered through the medium of prose, which leads me to allow more latitude than I otherwise might.)

The character revealed through Jack’s narration has a convincing mixture of precocity and naivety: his education through television and Ma has given Jack knowledge beyond his years in some subjects, but he still has many misconceptions about the real world; Jack’s little linguistic quirks (for example, he doesn’t go to sleep, he ‘switches off’) serve as jarring reminders that we view the world of Donoghue’s novel through a distorting lens.

But Room’s real power, I think, lies in its gaps. There’s a gap between what has happened to Ma and what Jack understands; it’s up to us as readers to fill in that gap; so, for example, Jack’s comment, ‘I think Old Nick put those marks on [Ma’s] neck’ carries much more weight for us than it does for the boy.

Even more poignant, I think, than the gap between the reality of events and Jack’s perception of them, is the gap between who Ma is and who she might have been. She was kidnapped by Old Nick as a nineteen-year-old student; at times, such as when she tells Jack her story, we catch glimpses of the independent young woman she would probably have been in her early twenties – but that life is forever lost to her, because she became Jack’s Ma instead (symbolically, we never do learn her name; even though Jack sees it written down, he doesn’t reveal what it is). Ma’s life, like the novel, revolves around Jack; it’s a struggle for him to comprehend what’s happening when she tries to assert her individuality in the outside world. By novel’s end, however, there’s a sense that both Jack and Ma are ready to move on.

If Room is focused relentlessly inwards on Jack, then Ray Robinson’s Forgetting Zoë faces outwards, reaching across vast landscapes and into the lives of not just its abductee, but also her mother and her captor. In 1999, Thurman Hayes takes his mother’s body to Canada, where she grew up; whilst there, he abducts ten-year-old Zoë Nielsen. For the next eight years, Hayes keeps her captive in his ranch in the Arizona desert and its underground bunker; by the time she escapes, the girl Zoë was is a distant memory.

Robinson’s prose and characterisation in this novel are exquisite. Here, for example, is Thurman reflecting on his father’s hands:

…to Thurman the hands only ever spoke one word and that was hurt. They contained bones that had fractured many times and reset, broken against walls and furniture, the skulls of cattle, Mom, Thurman. Hands so masterful at gripping axes and shovels and carpentry tools and soldering irons, the stock of his rifle and shotgun. So useful for overturning a table with a single, effortless flick, for giving a backhand so fast it was heard before it was felt, for grabbing a fistful of hair and smashing heads into walls.

The precision of the detail there is so vivid, and the way it illustrates manual ability sliding so easily into violence. The opening section of Forgetting Zoë shows brilliantly how the young Thurman is damaged and becomes the monster we see in the later parts of the novel. Growing up in a violent household, with feelings of inadequacy because he can’t be the man his father wants him to be, Hayes’s feelings bubble over and he ends up with a confused attitude to women that leads him to…

Well, that’s another striking thing about Forgetting Zoë: some of the key events take place ‘off-stage’, so there are gaps in our knowledge of cause and effect. For example, we never see the actual abduction of Zoë; whilst it’s readily possible to construct a theory of why Hayes kidnaps her, we don’t know the full story; when we meet him and Zoë again after the abduction, they are changed characters; we have to work to reach them once again, which adds another layer of richness to the novel.

Another lacuna in the narrative is the bulk of Zoë’s captivity. In 1999, we see the beginnings of Zoë the ‘true Canadian girl of big sky, big moon, of big sunsets and clouds’ slipping away in the bunker; but the contrast with her eighteen-year-old self when we jump forward to 2007 still carries quite an impact. The section covering the run-up to Zoë’s escape is perhaps the most powerful in the whole book, as Zoë is torn between her desire to escape and her reluctance to leave Hayes behind. With its uncertain passage of time, this section has a sickening ebb and flow, as one wonders if Zoë ever will gain her freedom – and the fact that we already know from the section title that she will does nothing to diminish that effect.

The title of Forgetting Zoë refers more than anything to Zoë forgetting herself. She starts to do that during her captivity, of course; but there’s a more positive interpretation of the title to be found at the end – that of being able to forget the past. As with Jack in Room, there is a sense of new beginnings for Zoë. And, as good a book as Room is, I think Forgetting Zoë may just be one of my reads of the year.

Links

Room
Emma Donoghue’s website
Video interview with Donoghue
Some other reviews: Adam Roberts; Farm Lane Books; Bookgeeks; Savidge Reads.

Forgetting Zoë
Ray Robinson’s website
Scott Pack interviews Robinson
Some other reviews: BookmunchFarm Lane Books; Scott Pack; Alison Flood for The Observer.

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