Dennis Hamley has been writing for an unconscionably long time. His first book was published in 1962. Since then he has written more books than he can count, including The War and Freddy, Hare’s Choice, Spirit of the Place, Out of the Mouths of Babes, the six novels in the sequence of medieval mysteries The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay, Ellen’s People and Divided Loyalties. He now writes mainly as an independent author, with his own imprint, Joslin Books. The Joslin de Lay sequence is about to be republished in paperback.
He is at present writing, with painful slowness, a novel which has found a different publisher, The Second Person from Porlock, a sort of riff on the life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Writers in Oxford, of which I am a member, have an annual Not the Booker evening in which members of the panel each introduce a shortlisted novel, comment on, praise or traduce it, estimate its chances and then rush home to put on the TV and find out if they were right. I’ve been on the panel for the last three years. I’ve been wrong for all of them.
For this review I had intended to deal only with Elmet by Fiona Mozley, about which I spoke - enthusiastically favourably, to the evident annoyance of some among the audience – last year. This year I introduced Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under. However Elmet was still reverberating round my mind when I started to write this review. And this made me think back to 2016, when my book was Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. Suddenly all three seemed to mesh together.
The book choices panel members make are entirely arbitrary: it’s first come, first served so there was no suggestion that I was looking for a pattern. But suddenly, I was finding unexpected connections, common themes, similar relationships in these novels. God knows I’m not suggesting any form of plagiarism: here are three astonishingly original works offering experiences uniquely different from anything I have read before, written by authors who, I believe, can truly be called brilliant. I even began to wonder if I had accidentally hit upon a new genre.
First of all, Eileen. Eileen is the narrator and she tells us straight away what the novel is about. ‘This is the story about how I disappeared.’ She lives in New England, in a town so featureless that it is referred to throughout as ‘X-ville’. She has a deranged alcoholic ex-cop father who fears that even the slightest noise means a hoodlum is about to burst in. Eileen works days in a young boys’ prison and spends her nights driving aimlessly, except for shoplifting, round X-ville in her father’s old Dodge. She secretly lusts after a prison guard, a passion which eats her up but of which he is completely unaware. And she pulls no punches about herself: this is a novel about self-loathing.
The first part of this novel is set in 1964 when Eileen is in about as dreadful and repellent a situation as you could imagine. Yet this is superb writing: magnificently controlled and with a relieving level of black humour. And soon we gather that it is reminiscence, because as she writes she is now in her seventies and somehow has attained everything she could possibly dream of – wealth, a place in an elite society and a significant hint of personal history in that she never knew what good food was until she met her second husband. A disappearance indeed - and we are hustled on towards it with the knowledge that the main narrative takes place within one week.
So how does this peripeteia come about? A new counsellor, Rebecca, comes to the correctional facility. She is beautiful, confident, everything Eileen is not. Eileen is soon completely infatuated with her. This is not returned, but as a result, Eileen is drawn into a crime which compels her disappearance. An action which to say the least, is morally disputable leads to her abandoning the Dodge on the high road behind her with a compromising item left on board. She hitch-hikes to New York and whatever strange events she will undoubtedly meet there.
So the theme shows a horribly dysfunctional family situation between extremely disturbed people leading to an ambiguous escape.
Enter Elmet. Fiona Mozley’s first novel drew much praise but much criticism as well. I felt it undeservedly ended up as the ugly duckling of the 1917 shortlist. The setting is about as far removed from X-ville as you can get. Elmet was the last of the old Celtic kingdoms, finally conquered by the Angles in the 7th century. It stretched across Yorkshire, from the Calder Valley eastwards to Selby. Ted Hughes lived in it, at Lumb Bank, near Hebden Bridge, and wrote a cycle of poems about it in his Remains of Elmet. For centuries it had the reputation of being a refuge of lawlessness, crime and outrage, where normal rules did not apply. In Mozley’s Elmet it still has. A wild land which plays by its own rules.
Fiona Mozley’s unsettling, gothic and very noir novel is set in the present day. Yet it still seems to be acted out in the Middle Ages, even though Elmet’s eastern boundary is the East Coast main line, which becomes the symbol of escape (quick complaint – the Pendolino, the tilting train, only runs on the West Coast main line because of the curves round Shap, and never on the much straighter ex-LNER route. I do wish authors would get railway facts straight). Once again, a dysfunctional family tries to survive, by twisting reality to its own ends. Cathy and Daniel are brother and sister looking after their Daddy, cossetting him, cutting his hair and seeing he is comfortable, not out of fear but fierce caring love. ‘Daddy’ though, is entirely the wrong title for this fearful, strong law unto himself. He is a bare-knuckle boxer, part of an underground sport controlled by rapacious landowners. Because he is the best of all local fighters, they use him as a sort of gambling cash cow.
But Daddy and his family are playing a dangerous game hidden just beneath Elmet law – which is a sort of home-made shariah controlled by the landowners. The family lives in a house Daddy built with filched materials on ground which was not his. They live a primitive life very close to nature, of foraging and hunting. For the long periods when Daddy is away fighting, Cathy and Danny have to fend for themselves, which they do effectively. Cathy, the elder is a strong character who takes charge and Danny accepts her authority.
But this arrangement is frail. Daddy is not the fighting pawn that the landowners hope he is. He has broken the tyranny of their private legal system and the relationship must break as result. There is a conclusion of harsh, even appalling, certainly tragic, violence which, in retrospect, is inevitable from the outset of the novel. And as a result, the frail equilibrium on which the lives of Danny and Cathy has been based is broken irretrievably.
So, is the conclusion nihilistic or a sign of hope? Unlike as in Eileen, there is no suggestion of a more contented life as a result. Danny is making his escape from Elmet alone. He is looking for Cathy, who has disappeared. His only way out is the railway. Has she gone north or south? He makes a guess and starts the long trek along the tracks towards York. Another dysfunctional family, another unlooked for but inevitable crisis and another ambiguous escape.
And so to Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under. I have to say that in the end, although I found it the most challenging of the three to read, I also found it the most satisfying, although for a large part of the novel, especially at the beginning, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I had already picked up from the pre-publicity that it was a retelling of Oedipus Rex but for at least half of her novel I was thinking ‘well, you could have fooled me.’ But by about page 100 I was suddenly clear about it. It is a sort of transgender version and I realised what it was that had obscured it for me.
This novel is a stylistic tour-de-force. I love the word ‘liminal’ but I don’t think I completely knew what it meant until I read Everything Under. The setting, as it is with the other two novels, is more or less identifiable. It is near Oxford, partly on the Isis, partly on the canal. Everybody lives on boats and, as the main character is a lexicographer working on a dictionary, it must be somewhere within commuting distance of OUP. But there’s never going to be an Everything Under tour of the city and its surrounding waterways. Once again, we have a separate ‘other’ reality in which normal rules do not apply.
Even so, Everything Under is a brilliant title. To me the whole distillation of reality was somehow misty, elusive, as if all seen from ‘under water’. Actuality was, as it were, refracted. Meanings, events, and motivations were presented obliquely: the reader constantly has to work hard. Many might not have the patience. But those who have will get a really rewarding experience. The novel’s idiom is flowing and seductive and yet it is needle-sharp in transmitting the significance of actions and consequences and I found it almost mesmerising.
Gretel works as a lexicographer because her early life with her mother on board a houseboat was close, exclusive and led to the development of a private language, with words such as ‘harpiedoodle’ and ‘effing’. Is lexicography a connection with the ‘real’ world? Certainly it’s almost the only feature of the novel which is not liminal. But her mother disappears and Gretel spends years looking for her, until she receives information that she has been found and goes to check. Yes, this has been a dysfunctional relationship, but the full extent of this dysfunction only appears gradually and there is still a long way to go.
Meanwhile other characters not so much drift as materialise into the story, for example Margot, who later resurfaces as Marcus, Charlie, Fiona the transgender medium who, like Tiresias, ‘old man with wrinkled dugs’ in the play by Sophocles, gives a terrible warning. They seem to appear and disappear in a strange dance, into which the underlying Oedipus retelling – which in the end is complete and satisfying in the sense that we recognise how well, though strangely, it has worked – is fulfilled.
And below it all lurks the ‘bonak’, a mythical entity – spirit or monster? - which lurks under water and is responsible, so they say, for all the misfortunes which befall the river and canal folk. Although at the end it appears to have been caught, cooked and eaten and its gamey flesh seems to be rather enjoyed.
The salient Sophoclean features – the abandonment, the patricide and the incestuous sex – appear almost incidentally, almost, as in Horatio’s words, ‘casual slaughters’, and this is of a piece with the ruling liminality. But as I closed the book I felt that I had read something with a wonderful structure, a real sense of form, because, though the story could reach out beyond itself with further consequences, they were not part of it. There was no more to say. I had a real feeling of completeness.
I was pleased that, at the end of our Booker evening, the audience decided that Everything Under was the book they most wanted to read. Nothing to do with my presentation. It’s just that, of these three remarkable books which share strangely similar themes and structures, this was, to me, the best and I feel sad that it did not win the 2018 Man Booker prize.
Eileen is published by Vintage.
Elmet is published by John Murray.
Everything Under is published by Vintage.