Service Announcement: This is post is written in a new way. That is: I have set myself a time limit - one hour - in which to write, finish and post it, no matter what happens. There are several reasons for this but the most pressing is that I have been having problems reviewing lately. I imagine this is a result of intellectual burnout after months of working full-time, teaching in the evenings, lecturing at weekends and completing an MSc in between. But I'm finding that even now all the major pressures have lifted - for a while at least - I still can't sit still long enough to finish writing anything. Meanwhile the pile of books to review grows and grows, and I become more and more frustrated with myself. This Cannot Go On. Thus I'm following the advice of one my distance-learning tutors, which is: Just write the damn thing. So here it is. No drafts, no edits, no fanciness. Just the way I wrote it first time. Eep.
The fledgling Desmond Elliott prize is off to an excellent start in my view. This year's winner, Blackmoor, is Edward Hogan's debut about post natal depression, bird-watching and the coal miner's strike of 1983; and it is fresh and dark and extroadinarily good. One of my best books of 2009 thus far? I should say so and then some. This is a novel with a lot of thematic bite, packing an emotional punch and written in a beguilingly different (if not entirely radical) style. What is there not to love?
It begins around 2005 with an act of violence born of pent-up frustration - an arbitrary attack on a group of cyclists - which sets the tone of the next 260 pages. George Cartwright, the man who throws the punch, is a widower with an awkward, dreamy teenage son named Vincent and a sad history. His life, such as it is, is devoted to repressing the nasty events of the past (including his wife's suicide) while also hiding them from his son. Feelings like love, sympathy or compssion have been avoided or excised at all costs, as symptoms of weakness and liability. It is a case of batten down the hatches. Shut the front door and turn out the light. It is George Cartwright against the world.
Not that you can blame him. His life began and was lived until the early 1990s in the pit village of Blackmoor, a shabby, shallow place, characterised by its narrow-minded claustrophobia. Since the untimely death of his young wife there, George has been battling to leave and while he has succeeded in one sense, having removed to a nearby town and cut all physical ties, he has failed miserably in another. When he stands in his suburban back garden at dusk, looking out at the horizon, he still sees something:
In the valley the lights blink behind the silhouettes of gently shivering trees. Sometimes as night falls, he believes he can see the other village, although this is impossible - Blackmoor is twelve miles away. Nevertheless, a thick black space the size of a postage stamp seems to appear against the pimply illuminations of the other towns and villages. He does not seek it out but sometimes it transfixes him, that tiny hole. Then he shuts it out and shakes the memories from his head, like a wet dog ridding itself of water.
Blackmoor is a haunting place. On the one hand it is a prototypical coal-mining village in the North of England, perfectly ordinary and familiar, at least to me. I grew up in Yorkshire, where my family have mined for generations, and know areas where there are still 'pit communities' just like it. Although the mines themselves closed down several decades ago, the atmosphere and the mentality are still perceptible in the older generation. The working man, with his 'pleasures' - the men's club, the footie, the dog races - and the wives, waging war against outsiders and eccentrics of any kind, shrieking at the gaggles of children running half wild in the street. There is something homely, if not kindly, about this side of Blackmoor; there is even a whiff of local history about it. (Which is ironically reflected when Vincent and his only friend unwittingly set about an English project on it.) But. On the other hand it is nowhere you could find on a map, in this world at least. It is grotesque; an Other, uncanny sort of place. Through the looking glass, under the fairy hill, you know the sort of thing. Edward Hogan signals this quite clearly in the early pages of the novel - he describes it with a disgusting, focused intensity:
Blackmoor is a tumour of grey roof tiles in the muscular hills of Derbyshire, its isolation exaggerated by the disused loop track that encircles it. The village consists of seven terraced rows, a pub, a church, a school, the Miners' Welfare Club, a recreational ground and a few slack heaps where the pit used to be... A simple plaque marks the capped shaft at the disused colliery. Dropping below ground, the tunnels remain, like one infinitely recurring mouth with herringboning for teeth, the tool-chipped ripples of the strata so similar to the veins and ridges of the human palate. These burrows are filling slowly with water and other, more sinister elements. No more the tock of hooves, or the shouting, or the gutteral rumble of machines. Just the hysterical emptiness of the flumed earth.
Reading Hogan's grandiose prose - which hugs close to a line he never quite crosses into verbosity - further alienates the place from us; forces the contrast between the beauty of the writing and the nastiness it describes. It is a world we know, and yet do not know. It reminds me most vividly of Nicola Barker's Ashford in Darkmans, the work-a-day town that harbours anarchic, dark spirits at its heart, where ordinarily men and women wear their own faces and horrible masks at once.
Of course, a place like Blackmoor, sinister as treacle, is not complete without an unspeakable evil. And sure enough, we have plenty of candidates to choose from. There is the earth and the mine itself, closed down in the 1980s, which lies quietly plotting a revenge against the men and women who have riped out its bowels. Gases and noxious water are gathering in its depths, leaking upwards to cause explosions and fires and deaths from suffocation. There is the mining corporation which has previously withdrawn leaving unemployment, desperation and poverty in its wake, only to return with bright, nauseous promises on the discovery of a new coal seam. There are the villagers , whose small-mindedness and petty jealousies create rifts and dispute in their community. And then there is Beth Cartwright, George's doomed wife. Early in the novel we learn how she died at Blackmoor after leaping from her bedroom window. We also learn that in George's opinion, the place killed her. Slowly.
Beth was an outcast in Blackmoor for many reasons. First, and strikingly, she is albino - a ghostly visitation, with long white hair and wandering eyes that won't settle. Second, she is married to George, who scorned work in the mine (when it was available) and made a way for himself in a white-collar job which brought a bigger house, a car and the withering envy of the village with it. Third, she is creative and sensitive. This last is perhaps the most disconcerting for the other inhabitants of Blackmoor. Beth makes her own clothes from bright fabrics. She acts strangely, interacts with her neighbours in unexpected ways. She sunbathes on her roof. She paints her fence in stripes. When she is pregnant, she eats dirt and coal; when her son, Vincent, is born she temporarily looses her mind. Her neighbours begins to wonder if she isn't unlucky, or worse, somehow unnatural. They begin to notice a confluence of disaster in her wake: a boiler explodes when she is passing in the street; a publican dies of monoxide poisoning after bad-mouthing her husband. And so begins a witch-hunt, analogous to the witch-hunts of 400 years ago. Hogan knows, as we know, that the human impulse to scapegoat is as strong today as it ever was. In flashbacks we see first hand the tragedy that George has fought so vigourously to hide unfold.
It has to be said that there are similarities between Blackmoor and Beth. Both have uncanny characteristics which can be explained away - Blackmoor is not malignant, it is an industrial wasteland; Beth is not a witch, she is clinically depressed - but which cannot quite be dismissed. Ironically it is this element of Beth's make-up which attracts George to her. He abhors what he perceives to be the monotonous cultural void of Blackmoor and relishes Beth's difference. He is drawn to her exocitism, which Hogan perfectly characterises as her 'scarcity'. He is faintly obsessed with the idea of loving her as an act of rebellion and, as the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that she is also a distraction from his manifold failures. If he can't leave Blackmoor behind, he can at least stick two fingers up at it all by marrying the half-blind albino witch.
I realise that is a very wooly, vague synopsis and commentary on a novel that is rich in symbolic complexity. It barely mentions the novel's real-time protagonist: Vincent Cartwright, George and Beth's son, who grows up without ever knowing his mother and with no memory of Blackmoor. But, bah, I'm running out of time and I want to stress other things. The most important is that Edward Hogan is a spirited new writer, by which I mean that he is playful with language. Not just the form of it on the page, but also the sound of it, the poetry of it. He turns puerperal (as in, psychosis) into 'pure peril'; microfiche into 'micro fish'. And he confounds our expectations with his similes - he knows how and when to puncture and drop a sentence like a stone. Like, for example, a bald man's head looking like a 'rubber-ended pencil'. But he also knows how to float them off, as when he describes the cool smell of coal as 'the warmth of the sun trapped in there somewhere, like a pearl.' There is an assuredness to his writing that surprises. True, there are moments when he feels like a beginner, with a clumsiness here and there where he overreaches or misses his mark. But for the most part the prose is delicious and invigorating. I couldn't repress the occasional yelp of delight.
I know that, like many other authors of his generation (which is also my generation), Hogan has been through an MA in Creative Writing and sure enough you can see the places where he has put what he has learned to good use. The narrative is tight and determined; the dialogue is sparse and realistic; the whole thing is closely observed; obviously revised, rewritten and rethought. Still, I don't believe that is the secret to Blackmoor's true success as a first novel. It is too alchemical for that. Dare I say that there is also a natural talent at work? A gift for writing that cannot be taught, but which can only be awakened. Hmmmm. Time will tell I suppose. When his next book comes out you will find me in the queue for a copy.
(Who spent 1 hour 10 minutes writing the above, in contravention of very clear rules. Still, at least it got written!)