by Anna Mackmin
This is a strange tale told in a strange way, and I loved it. Sometimes a bit of originality is just what I hanker for.
It’s the tale of a commune in 1970s Norfolk. Beth owns a big farmhouse, which she has opened up to a raggedy crew of hippies from around the UK and the US. She and her partner are raising their two daughters in true New Age style: no school, treated like adults when it comes to chores and conversation topics, encouraged to be artistic in every way.
The novel is told from the perspective of the older daughter, but it is not narrated by her. The narration is in the 2nd person, addressing the older daughter. It’s also told in mostly incomplete sentences, a sort of stream of consciousness. It’s never quite clear if this is meant to be the 12-year-old girl addressing herself from the future or an unusual take on the omniscient narrator.
That description risks making the book sound a little tough to read, and it’s not at all. It was a delight reading this. I particularly love the recipes peppered through the narrative, mostly adaptations of Elizabeth David, perfectly reflecting Beth’s middle-class status while she and her friends play-act at being poor artists who scrimp and save.
“THE DAUBE – Mummy’s absolute favourite and will pave the way for slight dairy infringements in other areas of the menu. This comes from Elizabeth David. She’s a genius. Peasants have been eating like this for hundreds of years. Elizabeth David’s idea was to write it down. ‘Oh my goodness me. This is, um, yes, chew-chew, this is food as it is meant to be eaten…” Mummy. First time she made this… 3lbs beef. Not sure which cut. ‘The rounded one Mummy gets.’ You. To John the Butcher. Once, John the Butcher locked Mummy in his freezer room to talk about how short her skirts are. Mummy whacked his balls.”
“Your People”, as the narrator calls them, in some ways fulfil every hippy stereotype. They don’t clean, they publish poetry zines, the house is full of the remnants of old projects and parties, plus there is certainly some sexual fluidity going on. They are politically righteous and claim to be each other’s equals, which makes the flashes of misogyny and sexual harassment a little shocking, though completely believable. They are for the most part blind to the reality of their situation, which makes some parts of the novel funny, and others deeply sad.
This comes home at moments like that when our 12-year-old main character gets to know Orion, a teenage boy who lives in the same village and is being home-schooled. While she has heard the adults talk about french kissing, blow jobs and much more graphic sex acts, she doesn’t know what any of those things are. Orion knows the biological facts but has never heard adults discuss them casually. They both think their own upbringing is the more mature one, but it is quickly clear that in this case it is Orion who has been given the better tools to handle the world.
“It’s that beginning bit of autumn that’s June some days and October others. Plums covered in wasps, day. Two hot water bottles not enough, night. Poetry Reading for The House. No kids allowed. But the door’s open to Local Poets. There are massed heaps of Local Poets. Rod and Daddy apply rigour to the vetting procedure. So the door isn’t that far open.”
The younger sister, Star, is mute and has decided to become an Olympic gymnast, so she spends much of her time on her homemade beam in the garden. She trots around after her big sister, who communicates for her. We learn much of her future fate in narrative asides, which is another narrative quirk that takes a little getting used to.
The signposting means that it is clear from early on that this story is going to go to some dark places, despite the bright summery setting and the humour. But from the opening passage where a girl is letting her dog pull her along on her bike down country lanes, singing Jerusalem but replacing every other word with “doggy”, I was hooked.
“You’re through the village. Jet-speed past the last gargantuan oak. Oak bedecked in tatty ribbons and ancient bells. An avalanche of dream-catchers that have been there so long their tinkle’s all tinked out. And. Home…Swallow’s Farmhouse. On its defiant own in the middle of its acre of field. Clinging to the village by its flinty nails. A lush, abundant, tangle-weed field…No thatch. ‘Thank fuck. Can you imagine? The amount we all smoke.’ Mummy. When anyone’s chatting about thatch.”
This book comes from new small press Propolis, an imprint set up by The Book Hive, an independent bookshop in Norwich. Its founder, Henry Layte, previously co-founded Galley Beggar Press, which published A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride and We That Are Young by Preti Taneja, both of which are on my wishlist because numerous book bloggers I trust have highly recommended them. So I’d definitely say Propolis is one to watch.
Published 2018 by Propolis.
Source: I was kindly sent a copy by the publisher in return for an honest review.