No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, March 26, 2006

#26: Finding Helen -- Colin Greenland

"The first mainstream novel from a master of the fantastic" claimed the back of this book. I suppose it might seem mainstream to someone who's not familiar with the fantasy genre; but I suspect that a reader who didn't recognise the fantastical elements would be left confused by this novel.

The tale is a simple one, on the face of it. Chris, the narrator, hears a song on the radio one morning, and it takes him back to his youth; to the years when he shared a house with the singer, Helen Leonard, a Seventies singer-songwriter with a small but enthusiastic following. Chris is married now, to sensible Grace, and he's left all that behind: but he gets in the car and begins to drive without any real idea of where he's going, or what he'll find when he gets there. Whatever became of Helen Leonard? What became of Peter, who drove her car (Chris couldn't drive back then) and seemed as much her servant as her companion?

Gradually, as he drives north, Chris remembers his time with Helen. It seems that they were never lovers; that he found her annoying and frustrating, but infinitely charismatic; that she was not like the other girls. He remembers her sitting in a stone circle (the Nine Maidens in Derbyshire) making up stories about children dancing and being turned to stones; making up stories so vivid that Chris can almost see the children in their cut-down clothes, their dirt, their bare feet.

He meets a man in a pub who gives him a gun. The man, Arthur, is someone he remembers from the old days, from a party that he and Helen attended: but Arthur is an old man now, horribly aged ...

Helen's nature is never really explained, but a reader familiar with fantasy or folklore will start to put together the pieces of the puzzle -- dispensed like teases at regular intervals -- fairly quickly. Chris is more of an enigma: I'm inclined to believe that his years with Helen shaped him more than he realises. I don't know what to make of Grace. I think Grace is the person who picked up the pieces.

Sometimes the novel feels too ordinary, too obsessed by the thoughts and assumptions of everyday life, though these are filtered through Chris's perceptions in a way that gradually exposes the extent of his damage. There are scenes, sentences, that are achingly precise: very little emotional shorthand in this novel. A very British fantasy, and a well-observed story.

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