TagJawbone Lake

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

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