Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg
Fourth Estate, 2nd June 2016
*My copy supplied by the publisher via Netgalley.
The 2nd of June seems to be this year's fashionable publication date for all the books designed to appeal to me. I count four ARCs on my TBR coming out that day and all of them sound ruddy amazing. I've been psyching myself up for a personal mini-challenge of reading them in quick and glorious succession, so that I can write about them in the run up to the Big Day. First up is a debut by Eleanor Wasserberg, a recent graduate from the UEA Creative Writing course, that nursery of shiny and fresh talent. I'll admit it: in the first instance it was that glorious cover that had my request finger clickety-clicking on Netgalley. Isn't it beautiful? In the moments after I give in to temptation like that there is always a moment of uncertainty; I've been disappointed by things in lovely packages before. My fears were quickly allayed: Foxlowe has game from the beginning.
At Foxlowe everyone had two names. One is secret, meant to be lost. For most, it worked like this: first they had the one they came to Foxlowe with peeled away like sunburnt skin. Then a new name, a new life.
I used to get jealous of the Family with their secret outside names, while I only had the one, like half a person. Sometimes an old name would slip, strangled at a syllable with a blush. This was a sign to watch for, in case someone might wish to become a Leaver.
Now I am doubled that way, named twice, but for me it worked in reverse: my new name came later, on the outside, like putting on that crusty old skin that should be lying on the floor.
Our narrator is Green, the first and only child born into the Family, a hippy community of artists and outcasts. She is named auspiciously for the Joni Mitchell song "Little Green": Choose her a name she will answer to/Call her green and the winters cannot fade her/Call her green for the children who've made her/Little green, be a gypsy dancer. Standing at a distance of many years she looks back at a childhood spent running wild through the broken-down grandeur and grounds of Foxlowe, a stately home inherited by the community's founder Richard. Totally isolated from the outside world, with only the occasional glimpse of Outsiders on the neighbouring moorland, her life is shaped by the influence of the Family's matriarch Freya. From her Green learns a stark morality in which the Good is caught in an eternal cosmological struggle against the Bad. The Good is renewed each year at the summer solstice where the Family observe a ritual at the nearby standing stones, watching the sun go down and then, miraculously, rise again before setting a second time. This is a time for celebration - for homebrew made in the bath tub, for flower garlands and dancing, for healing, for triumph over the dark things of the world. The Bad is never completely banished though, stealing through Foxlowe's defences wherever they are weakest. Everything from the outside is Bad; Outsiders are drenched in it. It must always be guarded against.
The Bad thrives on the dark and the cold; it is a winter force. So be careful when the sun is weak, and the air bites you. Stay off the moor, where the Bad is strong. If the Bad catches you there, run to the Standing Stones. Even in the winter the Stones hum with a thousand ancient blessings. If you are closer to Foxlowe, run so you are inside the Scattering Salt.
Green knows that "children are the easiest for the Bad to slip into. They must be watched." If the Bad gets into them it has to be purged with punishments. The Spike Walk - a line of nails driven into a wall at the perfect height for children to run their bare arms against - works, as do flames against soft young skin. If the Bad persists then they have to be Edged, excluded from the life of the house and from all human contact. They shouldn't be touched, spoken to, fed or even looked at.
Green isn't the only child at Foxlowe, although she has the distinction of being the only one born there. Toby - short for October - came with his mother Valentina as a young boy and learnt the rules of the place as he went. Blue arrived as a tiny baby, taken from god knows where and from whom, arriving in Freya's arms in the night. With a handful of years between them the three grow together on a diet of freedom and wilderness, with off-hand affection offset a regime of regular punishment. There is no electricity and no heat apart from what they can make themselves. All possessions are shared and the adults only go out irregularly to buy the food supplies that they can't grow themselves. Everyone takes it in turns to cook. The children are often hungry for food and for stimulation. Starved of possessions they hoard little bits of treasure, fragments of mirrors and shells, knowledge of a bird's nest.
The values of freedom, creativity and self-sufficiency that underpin the commune are barely glimpsed through Green's incomplete understanding of the Foxlowe enterprise. For her it isn't a social experiment or a dippy hippy ideal; nor is it the hell of deprivation and abuse that it seems to us as outsiders. It is her home, and the difficult, sometimes dangerous love of the adults that she grows up with is all she has ever known. Even as an adult in the wider world she yearns to return to the place where she was cherished, hurt and neglected in turn.
If I could speak to Freya, I'd tell her not to worry, because I hold my new name ever so lightly, ready to shrug it off, if ever Foxlowe could start up again.
Stories are important to Green. She grew up in an oral tradition without TV or books - she can barely read - and her desire to tell and retell her childhood memories are strong. You know that by the time she recounts them to us they have been polished as smooth as eggs. They are modeled on a narrative style that she learnt from Freya, weighted with ritual and moral significance and measured neatly out. There is Blue's arrival, the coming and going of Family members, the turn of the year from winter to summer solstice, the Crisis. Sometimes, she says, she can almost hear Freya's voice and Freya's words in her own. She is passing on something canonical and crafted, circling closer and closer to a terrible final story, a story about Blue and the end of Foxlowe.
Green's memories seem crystal clear, if tinged with a peculiar nostalgia. Although she was still only a child when the commune was disbanded she speaks with great authority and certainty about how things were and about why they were that way. It is only slowly that the gaps in her perception, the failure to understand what really happened to her, are revealed. Her continued love and affection for her old life becomes queasy. Gradually, craftily, Green emerges as an unreliable and disturbed narrator, whose sense of self is bound up with a narrative about the world that, in adulthood, is a kind of psychosis. She thinks she is telling us one story about the Family - how happy they were, how perfect - when actually she is telling us something entirely opposite. The founding element of her mythos, the Crisis of the Bad and how Freya overcame it by the power of the Solstice, is given to us baldly.
Freya hoped that the Bad would leave once the sun became stronger, but instead it screamed and howled and scratched at her, it gnawed at her breast, it made her bleed. No one wanted to hold it, no one wanted to touch it. It was shut away in the attic until we could decide what to do. Freya knew it was the Bad, but the others were too afraid to say it. We survived it by wrapping it tight so it couldn't rage too hard, and not looking it in the eye, or touching it too much.
That Green herself was the Bad of this story, that Freya was mentally unwell and that the Family were complicit in her abuse is barely conscious to her. She tells it to convince us, and perhaps herself, that Foxlowe was a Good place.
Wasserberg's novel is a careful study in how tenuous reality is, how easily warped we are by the perspectives that we inhabit and how fragile our sense of self is. The trick of the book is how rounded a view we get, not only of Green, but of Toby and Blue and of the adult members of the commune. In spite of the self-imposed limits of narration Foxlowe works, obliquely, to humanise even the most despicable of its actors: spineless Richard, feckless Valentina, even Freya. Its great strength in this is the time it gives to Green's adult life, a surprise in books like this and its point of difference from others of its kind. I appreciated that we got to know so much about what became of her, how her childhood translated into the adult she became. What a haunting and in comprehensible translation it proves to be, in spite of her namesake song lyrics.
Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You're sad and you're sorry but you're not ashamed
Little green have a happy ending