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

Sunday, August 26, 2012

2012/35: Red Shift -- Alan Garner

Face was moving in a different time. He knew Macey, but talked to other people, things. He spoke, but in all the words of Rome and the tribes. He seemed to be happy, and for Macey it was the only shield.
"I am well I hope you are can fight now you I. Why come not on Mow Cop yet all please but every not worry. I want know now all see same sky now soon.
... Face's words closed without end. (p. 118)
When I first read Red Shift (I was probably about 14) I was far too young to understand most of it. There are certain sections I recall vividly -- Cross Tracks, the whisky, the fossil in the fireplace, Tom's a-cold -- and sections that I'd completely lost. I didn't remember the Civil War passages at all. I didn't recall that the Romans were the remnants of the Ninth. And I didn't make the connections between the three pairs of protagonists: Macey and the unnamed priestess/goddess, Thomas Rowley and Margery, Tom and Jan.

I did recognise, I think, that despite the different historical periods, the events of the book took place in the same place, and that certain perceptions were shared across time: Tom smashing the window, the blue-silver-red train. I think I knew that the link was connected with the votive axe -- a weapon of murder in Macey's hands, a protection against lightning for Thomas and Madge, a shared memory (and later a symbol of betrayal) for Tom and Jan. The axe is real in a way that few things are.

On rereading, I'm glad I didn't realise just how bleak and bitter a novel it is. Beautifully constructed, beautiful spare language, dialogue sharp enough to cut: but it's a grim tale of rape and murder, cruelty and betrayal, and the endings are more peaceful (as in the cessation of conflict) than actually happy. Each woman is pregnant; two of them (at least: I still can't parse the scene on the church roof) have been raped; all the protagonists find their sanctuaries violated. And yet they hold on.

Red Shift is more compelling than enjoyable: it's too deep and too layered for mere enjoyment. It's not all doom and gloom: I like the camaraderie of the Romans, holed up in enemy territory, and the way Garner writes Latin as American military-speak: "'He was a member of the Imperial Roman Army, engaged in putting down insurgents.' 'I don't care what he was doing in Latin...' (p. 86) I like the sense of the universe turning around a fixed point, and the priestess / goddess grinding her corn counter-clockwise. Tom's expositions on astronomical theory impressed me massively as a teenager, and now evoke a fondness for his brittle cleverness. And, at last, I think I understand Jan.

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