Category: Moore Alison

Salt Publishing: The Retreat by Alison Moore

This new novel by Alison Moore (probably best known for The Lighthouse) is typically unnerving – and it’s my favourite one of hers yet. In the 1990s, fortysomething Sandra joins an artists’ retreat on a private island, hoping to rekindle her interest in painting. She’s also been fascinated with the island since childhood, as it belonged to a reclusive silent movie star. 

The retreat does not go as Sandra had hoped. The other guests are standoffish, excluding her from their conversations and activities. (My favourite telling detail in the book is that the other group members tend to fob Sandra off with a cheese salad when making dinner, as she’s the only vegetarian in the group.) Her work is defaced, her things go missing… There’s a sense that something supernatural may be menacing Sandra, not just her fellow guests. 

A second strand of The Retreat is set in the present or near future. Carol retreats to the island to work on a novel, but she’s by herself – and going there by private arrangement, rather than in response to a public advertisement. Ghosts interfere with Carol’s stay, too but the tone is lighter – or at least, that’s the way Carol reacts. 

Tension builds gradually in The Retreat, as it moves from the interpersonal to overtones of the supernatural. But, look, the highest compliment I can pay this novel is that I just wanted to keep on reading it. I don’t generally say that I couldn’t put a book down, but certainly I was always impatient to pick The Retreat up again. If you’re in the mood for a ghostly tale, give this a go. 

Published by Salt.

Missing – Alison Moore: a snapshot review

A new Alison Moore novel always promises to be splendidly unsettling, and Missing is no exception. Moore’s protagonist is Jessie Noon, a translator living in the Scottish Borders. Jessie’s job may be about finding the right words in order to make a connection between writer and reader, but her life is full of gaps and ambiguities. Her son walked out on her years ago, her second husband much more recently. Her cottage might be haunted, and a plot strand set in 1985 suggests that something tragic happened then between the teenage Jessie and her young niece.

Missing is full of everyday minutiae: supermarket shopping, train travel, a halting relationship between Jessie and a local outreach worker. But there’s a constant undercurrent of tension and uncertainty: you can never be quite sure how each individual element will resolve. As a result, reading Moore’s novel feels like being on a knife-edge.

Book details

Missing (2018) by Alison Moore, Salt Publishing, 184 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

A Review of Nightjars, part 3

It’s time for the third part of my review of Nightjar Press chapbooks (the first two parts are here and here). As before, these are reviewed in the more-or-less random order that I read them.

Conrad Williams, ‘The Jungle’ (2013)

Our narrator is an artist who’s working on a jungle scene with no animals; he wants the scene itself to suggest their presence, menace and violence just out of sight. When he’s not painting, he likes to take his two-year-old son Fred to the playground or somewhere; though he’s determined that Fred should not be placed in the way of danger. On this particular outing, the pair pass a man who appears to change into a large animal — and then the jungle continues to encroach. 

Conrad Williams is one of my favourite writers working in dark fiction, horror, whatever you prefer to call it. I always feel that he’s in full command of his material, and that’s the case again here. He ramps up the tension, giving ordinary places a sense of looming danger. He also stops in just the right place to cap it off. 

Alison Moore, ‘The Harvestman’ (2015)

Earlier this year, I read Alison Moore‘s third novel, Death and the Seaside. As it happens, this story was the foundation for that novel, though it works perfectly well as a piece of fiction in its own right. 

Eliot is living on the south coast of England. He owes some rent to his landlord, Big Pete; and also has eyes for barmaid Abbey, Big Pete’s girlfriend. One day, Abbey invites Eliot to the flat above the pub, that she shares with Big Pete. This isn’t likely to end well.

Moore’s story evokes the atmosphere of an off-season, slightly dingy seaside town; but there’s a vein of symbolism running through ‘The Harvestman’ that really enriches the piece. Eliot has long spindly legs that remind him of harvestmen, creatures that disgust him, that can just detach a leg if they get trapped. For different reasons, both Eliot’s father and grandfather lost the use of their legs; the question becomes, can Eliot escape his situation with himself intact? Reaching the answer to this is an intriguing journey. 


Christopher Burns, ‘The Numbers’ (2016)

One morning, Danny arrives unexpectedly at his family’s farm. He’s not particularly welcome, not after trying it on with his sister-in-law (though as far as he’s concerned, he was picking up on her cues). More generally, Danny is seen as the useless appendage of the family, having sold his share in the farm and being unable to get a job (he was never good with numbers, after all). Still, he is taken in and given breakfast — then it’s down to business. 

This is a story of two halves, beginning in a rather subdued fashion (albeit with a definite undercurrent of tension) before turning deftly into something darker, that casts those earlier comments about Danny in a new light. It’s very well done, with such a strong impact. 

Book details 

‘The Jungle’ (2013) by Conrad Williams, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 
‘The Harvestman’ (2015) by Alison Moore, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

‘The Numbers’ (2016) by Christopher Burns, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore: a snapshot review

This review was first published as a thread on Twitter; I’m going to repost some of these on the blog, sporadically. I’m calling it a ‘snapshot review’ because it was written as a snapshot of what I thought about the book at the time. 

Bonnie is a would-be writer, struggling to make ends meet in her new flat. Sylvia, her landlady, inveigles her way into Bonnie’s life, suggesting that they go on holiday to the seaside. But Sylvia knew Bonnie a long time ago, and her motives now are mysterious.

This is a tightly wound novel: there are strands on Bonnie, the story she’s writing, and Sylvia; placed so closely together that there’s little room to breathe. Events, feelings, and a general atmosphere of dread seem to seep between chapters, as Moore arranges her material to emphasise similarity and repetition.

So much remains non-specific that it’s impossible to pin down the novel completely. The feeling of dread grows, because it can’t be identified or understood.

Book details

Death and the Seaside (2016) by Alison Moore, Salt Publishing, 192 pages, paperback (review copy).

Book notes: Alison Moore and Christopher Coake

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (2012)

Time for my first foray into this year’s Man Booker longlist. Alison Moore’s name came to my attention when I read her short story ‘When the Door Closed, It Was Dark’ a couple of years ago. Her debut novel, The Lighthouse, shares that earlier tale’s unsettling atmosphere and intense focus on detail.

A man named Futh travels from England to Germany on a walking holiday to take his mind off the end of his relationship with Angela. Instead, he dwells on the past: his uneasy relationship with his womanising father; his friend Kenny’s mother, who didn’t act quite as you’d expect of a friend’s mother; those rocky times with Angela. Lighthouses are a recurring metaphor: the lighthouse-shaped perfume case belonging to his mother that Futh now carries, though it’s empty; the lighthouse Futh saw on a childhood holiday to Cornwall, and wondered ‘how there could be this constant warning of danger…and yet still there was all this wreckage’ (p. 56).

There was plenty of ‘warning’ when Futh was growing up, but it doesn’t seem to have made him much wiser about relationships. Similarly, Moore’s secondary protagonist, bed-and-breakfast owner Ester, is apparently stuck in a destructive cycle of having liaisons with her guests, and hiding the fact from her husband Bernard, who’s lost all interest in her. The narrative loops back and forth to different periods in the characters’ lives, gradually revealing more – all in precise, evocative prose. The Lighthouse is a fine first novel that deserves the extra attention it’s going to get from its Booker longlisting.

Alison Moore’s website
The publisher, Salt Publishing
Some other reviews of The Lighthouse: Adam Roberts; Words of Mercury; Culture and Anarchy; Emily Cleaver for Litro.

Christopher Coake, You Came Back (2012)

I’d call Christopher Coake’s debut novel a ghost story, but really it’s more about believing in ghosts – which, in You Came Back, is partly a symbol of hanging on to the past. Coake’s protagonist is Mark Fife, who’s rebuilding his life several years after his young son Brendan died, and he separated from Brendan’s mother Chloe. Now, Mark is in a new relationship, with Allison; he’s contemplating proposing to her when the owner of his old house turns up, claiming that the house is haunted by Brendan’s ghost. What does it mean for Mark – and his relationship with Chloe – if that turns out to be true?

You Came Back works well enough as a portrait of parents’ dealing with life after bereavement. But what I particularly like about Coake’s novel is the elegant way that it can be read both literally and metaphorically. Take it literally, and you have an examination of how Chloe, Mark, and their relationships with others are affected by the possibility that Brendan somehow survives. Read the novel metaphorically, and it’s a story of grieving parents who won’t let go, even if that means dragging everyone else they love down with them. On top of this, You Came Back does not shirk its responsibilities as a work of suspense; Coake leaves open to the end the question of whether there really is a ghost. After all, the whole novel is concerned with what people might do when faced with something they’re almost certain is not true – but can’t help thinking that it could be.

Christopher Coake’s website
Some other reviews of You Came Back: Little Words; Chasing Bawa; Dana Stevens for Slate; Christopher Bundy.

A pair of Nightjars

Alison Moore, ‘When the Door Closed, it Was Dark’ (2010)
Joel Lane, ‘Black Country’ (2010)

A short story is, by its nature, generally more tightly focused than a novel – after all, it has fewer words in which to make its point. This can make some things easier for the shorter form to accomplish: for example, there’s less pressure for a short story to illuminate a wide area of the space it occupies; it can focus more intensely on doing a smaller number of things, and perhaps have a greater impact in doing so.

These thoughts came to my mind when reading the latest chapbooks from Nightjar Press, which are both short, intense bursts of story. ‘When the Door Closed, it Was Dark’ by Alison Moore tells of Tina, a British girl who has travelled to another country to work as an au pair, and finds it hard to adjust to her new surroundings. There’s a palpable sense of menace about this piece, which comes less from images and individual word choices (though it has its share of striking examples; I love this image from when Tina is trying to understand her host family’s rapid conversation: ‘her formal phrases were like wallflowers at a wild party’), than from details of the broader structure. Tina never learns the family members’ names – they’re just ‘Uncle’ or ‘Grandmother’, and so on – which itself makes them more unknowable to her; but, more than this, the whole piece feels like a closed system. We discover barely anything about Tina’s life before the moment of the story; and the accretion of repeated details – the monotonous food, the outside staircase – heightens the feeling that there’s no escape. Moore’s tale is excellent.

‘Black Country’ by Joel Lane is narrated by a police officer who travels back to what was Clayheath (his birthplace, now subsumed into the broader urban landscape of the West Midlands) to investigate a series of strange incidents – the local children are apparently turning violent all of a sudden. Our man is reluctant to return, as he thought he’d left his old life behind; but he seems discontent with even his current circumstances. ‘Black Country’ is a story built on shifting sands, as the actual investigation recedes into the background somewhat (though an answer to what’s going on is provided by the end), and the focus is more on the narrator’s emotional state. Lane’s main theme, I would say, is loss – loss of place, and loss of self. There’s a parallel, I think, between the protagonist’s difficulty in getting a handle on his life, and the social and geographical changes being depicted. I feel that those parallels don’t quite have all the breathing-space they need to establish themselves fully, but it’s a very good story and portrait nonetheless.

Alison Moore’s website
Nightjar Press

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