How I missed this one when it was published a year ago I have no idea. it is exactly my sort of fiction read so when a paperback copy of Clay by Melissa Harrison arrived and I saw, from the cover puffs, that Robert Macfarlane thought it 'instantly beautiful,' that was all I needed to dive in.
I have to admit that I am prone to the cover puffs. I know the words may have been 'captured' out of the context of the original sentence because it has even happened to me; publishers have been known to snip a few lines from here and use them on a book cover. I read the sentence and think...well that wasn't quite what I meant, but still, even taking them with that pinch of salt, if Hilary Mantel likes a book the chances are that I will too, likewise I am not going to pass anything by that Robert Macfarlane has declared on.
Talking of Robert Macfarlane, my thanks to local author Tom Vowler (still claiming him as 'local' even though he has traitorously defected fifteen miles along the road to Plymouth) for linking to this 2005 article on writers and landscapes. Mention of paying more careful attention to nature will ring true for many of us who have been inspired by the books referenced in the article... Tarka the Otter, the Canadian Arctic writing of Barry Lopez in Arctic Dreams, J.A.Baker's The Peregrine, Saint-Exupery's Wind and Stars...
'Landscape cannot, on the whole, be mocked up; cannot be dreamed into descriptive being. Light, water, angles, textures of air, water and stone, the curves and straights of horizon and slope: these are the basic components of natural places, and they combine in ways too subtle and particular to be invented.
This - the dedication it demands - is one of the difficulties of writing about natural places. Another, contrasting difficulty is that landscapes have had too much written about them in the past. For centuries, they have provoked in their viewers an urge to communicate their magnificence. The result is that landscapes have become coated with thick layers of dead language...'
Arguing that British writers had all but abandoned the effort, how much has changed for the better since 2005, witness my shelves groaning under the weight of psycho-geography books, yet still I know I stick to rural rather than urban reading. Maybe I've had my share of city life in the past but there is no shortage of books finding as much nature to write about in cities as here in the countryside, so Melissa Harrison's book (we reach the point at last) Clay was a refreshing and welcome reminder that we don't have a monopoly on it all here in the Shire..
And lest I forget, I read the Caught by the River newsletter each week and often wish I was in London for some of their events.
Set on the inner city Plestor Esate, Melissa Harrison fights her way through those 'thick layers of dead language' paying gentle and meticulous attention to nature as she weaves her story around a small group of residents. Connections with the land and its social history are immediately evident with the chapter headings mirroring the ancient high days, festivals and seasons... St Bartholomew's Day, Michaelmas, Hallantide, Martinmas...and as a way of sensing the passage of time in the book. There is something about linking the lives of Sophia and her daughter Linda, and granddaughter Daisy, to that of immigrant Polish worker Josef and young TC, and his mother Kelly, that made deep-rooted connections with the unchanging traditional round, not only of time and seasons, but perhaps of human behaviour too.
Seventy-eight and a half-year-old Sophia's council flat looks out out onto the park, it is her 'garden' and her delight, her kitchen windowsill a sort of indoor resting place for all manner of 'untidiness' in the form of pine cones and conkers...
'The other flats in the block... may have descended into relative disorder, but Sophia's remained a haven of tranquillity...'
The little park a mini-arboretum in her eyes, the hornbeams and acacia and oaks alive with squirrels and jays and wood mice. Much that grows within her line of vision Sophia has discreetly sown in there herself, the purple flowered honesty most pleasing to her eyes. There is a wonderful moment when, spotting the council workers, with the aid of a JCB, planting bulbs six inches apart in regimented rows, Sophia sneaks out, illuminated by the moonlight, unearthing the bulbs with her bare hands and throwing them back into the hole randomly.
It is through the medium of the park... and the descriptions of it are vibrant with natural life, that Melissa Harrison connects her characters, allowing them to forge a bond with nature in the absence of more fulfilling relationships. When nine-year old TC, much-neglected and left to his own devices by his mother meets lonely immigrant work Josef, a friendship forms out of their mutual loneliness, and all under the watchful eye of Sophia.
Clay is a book that illustrates and reiterates what a sad and untrusting mess we now find ourselves in on the whole issue of adult-child friendships.
Who cannot fail to be sickened by the news at the moment. Here in the UK a recent child death in Edinburgh; over the last few months a succession of ageing celebs in court for historic sex offences, whilst on the worldwide stage, the exploitation of children in the Philippines for internet gratification. It all reinforces the impossibilities of adult-child friendships, and reading Clay I was horribly aware that my first thought, when TC and Jozef met was of predatory behaviour and grooming,
...or was Melissa Harrison portraying two lonely and vulnerable people, an innocent immigrant who felt betrayed by his homeland, and a young boy who felt equally betrayed by his mother, and who had both found some comfort in each other's company and friendship??
I haven't even mentioned the dog... or Linda and Daisy so there is much more to this novel but of course not another word.
Clay has worked on several levels for me, to trust or not to trust, and all to a backdrop of the changing seasons bound to the unchanging round of human nature, a really good read and one you will want to discuss with others I feel sure, so if anyone has read it I would love to know your thoughts...or did you miss this one too...