Celeste's back was curved but, like the Nautilus, she had a core of steel. This building inspired by a spiral shell with a series of air-filled chambers was the fulfilment of a dream.
I read Shena Mackay's Orange Prize-shortlisted Heligoland (2003) quite a while ago - six months, give or take - but my inner completist has never quite let go of the urge to write about it, however distant many of its details now are. It was one of my reading failures this year, and so this brief post is intended as a gesture towards understanding and expressing my frustration with it. (The short answer, of course, is that it's Not For Me; but I want something more than that.) I also suspect more than one of my co-bloggers here at EA would like it rather more than I did, so perhaps they'll find this piques their interest. :-)
The story centres on Rowena Snow, a mixed-race woman (Indian/Scottish) whose life, we learn through flashbacks and reflections during the main narrative, has been more rootless than most: she grew up at a boarding school, a year-round resident of the sort of deconstructed, faintly hippy-ish establishment where children are encouraged to pursue 'projects', get in touch with their feelings, and talk to their teachers as equals. For Rowena, who has very little sense of who she is or where she belongs, it's all a bit of a disaster. After the closure of the school, she drifts into aimless, unassertive adulthood, and ends up working for an agency that provides home carers for the elderly and infirm. Being compassionate and well-meaning, it suits her, but proves an emotional trap for one so self-effacing and naive.
She can see Pipe-Cleaner Man lying in his curtained front room. It's a parallel universe, a world of hospice transport that doesn't turn up, meals on wheels, painful infirmities and indignities. Days lit by low-wattage light bulbs and warmed by one-bar electric fires and measured out in pills and dressings and patent remedies, at the mercy of a procession of strangers earning less than the minimum wage.
Passages like this had some resonance for me, having recently watched my late grandmother struggle against the dual tide of illness: physical suffering, and the slow, poisonous decline of autonomy that accompanies it. But it isn't what the book is about, except as a thematic parallel. As the novel begins, Rowena is shocked out of her life when she is falsely accused of stealing from one of her clients, and summarily fired.
Numb and half-broken, she makes the sort of dotty lifestyle change that people only really do in literary fiction: she packs up her stuff and invites herself to live in the Nautilus, a South London architectural folly (shaped like its underwater namesake) that was once home to a bohemian/utopian community. It was, we're told, "designed as a working community at the heart of the wider community", and Rowena imagines it as a sort of promised land of the self, the Heligoland of which she dreamed as a lonely child. But, left behind by the times, the Nautilus is a washed-up, crumbling shadow of its former self:
age was corroding its complex interior and, by the start of the new millennium, there were few visitors, the ultramarine piano in the Nautilus Bar was dumb and all the original residents but Celeste and Francis Campion were long gone, and ideas and ideologies were broken glass and crumpled paper
The remnants of its community, rattling around its many rooms, are matriarch Celeste Zylberstein, who designed the place with her late husband Arkady, somewhat flaky wide-boy Gus Crabbe, and ageing poet Francis Campion:
The covers of Francis' books, faded to the colour of dusty tea and embossed with the Nautilus Press colophon, enclosed experimental verse and political satire as well as lyric and pastoral poems, but now that the world had gone beyond satire, he saw how his youthful absurdism was but a product of his era, odd-shaped piece in a jigsaw puzzle.
Rowena soon installs herself as cook, cleaner and all-round low-key cheerleader for the Nautilus, finding a certain freedom in her eagerness to please others, if not yet - stop me if you've heard this one before - finding herself. It's an intriguing set-up, and Mackay's descriptions evoke the fading ambience very well; some of her imagery is quite lovely, helping ground the story in its vivid surroundings and its characters' moods (like this, from Rowena's childhood: "The child's response was shaken out of her in a shuddering lamb's bleat as home at last they came to the cottage friezed with icicles").
And yet, as I so often find with literary fiction of this type, the story told in this prose is... dishearteningly banal, and overly familiar. It's another story of mildly-unpleasant people being mildly unpleasant to each other, and eventually reaching mild emotional epiphanies in the "sullen south London rain". It has touches of humour, some mild frissons of peril, and Rowena was well drawn, but above all the narrative often feels smothered in that curious, dissatisfying mixture of voices - character and authorial - that reminds me of something like Arlington Park, by Rachel Cusk. Take this, Rowena's crisis when faced with a potential competitor for what she sees as her place at the Nautilus:
"You must leave at once. Now. Before it's too late."
"How melodramatic! You sound like some ghastly horror film," Izzie titters, but smooths the Elastoplast protectively over her grazes. "What on earth do you mean?"
Rowena can't say that this woman with her crazy radiant simper has hijacked her own initial responses to Celeste and the Nautilus, and poses a threat to the balance of the little family of Celeste and Francis, Gus and Rowena. It is imperative that she remove her netball player's knees from Rowena's territory before they become fixtures.
I love the creative snark of "crazy radiant simper" and the bathos of "netball player's knees" - both feel like Rowena's observations, and have an infectious ring to them besides. But "hijacked her own initial responses" and "poses a threat to the balance" sound too much (to me) like an author interpreting her character for us, leading us to conclusions we'd already reached. Already not really grabbed by the drifting, rather dreary story, I began to feel stifled by the ponderous over-analysis.
There are moments when the obsessive second-guessing works; I much preferred the reflexive but raw self-doubt of something like this (again from Rowena):
"I could tell, from the way she trusts you."
But I'm only pretending to be nice so everybody will like me.
But like I said, maybe it's just Not For Me.