Monday, 24 February 2014

Red Shift by Alan Garner: Simon Stirling pays tribute to a long-time favorite

You'll often hear me say that I don't read very much fiction.  And, even when I do, I tend to avoid fantasy fiction.  To which I might add that I hardly ever read fiction aimed at a younger audience.

So here's where I demonstrate my inconsistency by recommending the works of an English author who rose to fame writing fantasy fiction for children and young adults.  But we're talking favourites, here, and Alan Garner is the author I've learnt more from - as a writer myself - than any other.

I came across his short novel, Red Shift, when I was about twelve and on holiday.  I was already familiar with his previous books - The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor, The Owl Service - and so I thought I knew what I was letting myself in for.

I was only few pages into Red Shift when I gave up; I had no idea what was going on.  The book was like shifting sands and I couldn't make head or tail of it.

A few years later, in my mid-teens, I gave it another go.  And since then, it has unquestionably been my favourite book, my favourite piece of writing and - in many ways - the standard to which I aspire.  I even had an exchange of letters with Mr Garner, when I was something like seventeen, in which I begged the right to adapt his book into a screenplay.

Alan Garner tends to write about the landscape he knows best - his local part of the world in Cheshire, England.  His first two novels (Weirdstone and Gomrath) are set in those parts, and his genius is to turn familiar places into places of marvel and mystery and adventure.  So one of the first lessons I learnt from him is the importance of location: where something happens dictates, to a large extent, what happens.

Red Shift takes Garner's fascination with place to a new level.  The novel (and it's a very short one) follows three stories which all happen in the same places, but at different times.  So we start with Tom and Jan, teenage lovers in the second half of the 20th century; then we're suddenly plunged into 2nd-century Britain, with a detachment of soldiers on the run from the Roman army through tribal territory; and then we find ourselves in the 17th century, with a frightened village awaiting the arrival of hostile troops.  There are no chapters, just short breaks in the text which signal a shift from one time to another.  The stories play themselves out in counterpoint to each other, all occupying the same space but a different time.  The effect is like superimposition, or the strange feeling that a particular location would yield different accounts of its past if you could only 'tune in' to that period.

After the weird and wonderful creatures, the magic, witchcraft and high adventure of his earlier novels, Red Shift came as a profound shock to me; it was as if Garner had grown up with his audience and was now writing, not for kids, but for young adults.  Very intelligent young adults.  Young adults who were crashing into all the problems of their age-group.  In fairness, Garner had anticipated some of this in The Owl Service, a wonderfully spooky novel in which a Welsh myth plays on in a Welsh valley, affecting generation after generation and inducing sexual jealousies and class tensions.  It is a tribute to Garner's skill (I feel) that the older you are, the more aware you become of these undercurrents in novels which are, ostensibly, aimed at a younger readership.

With Red Shift, the undercurrents of The Owl Service burst out in an explosive mix of physical and emotional violence. Again, this is something I might not have been fully aware of when I first read through the book.  I've read it many times, and on each occasion some aspect of the novel stands out - the pain of teenage courtship, the true nature of violence, the way the past occupies the same spaces as we do, the lyricism of brilliant dialogue - but the simple fact is that Garner perfected his technique with his short, strange, disturbing novel.

It is almost entirely written in dialogue - snappy, crackly, dialogue from three different periods - with the barest minimum of description (Lesson Two: sketch, don't paint, the scenery).  There is violence a-plenty in the book - which I hadn't really expected when I first picked it up - but each act of violence just happens; there is no lingering over the deed, so that there is nothing pornographic about the brutality.  Indeed, I learnt from this book that a far more intriguing effect can be achieved if you establish an atmosphere of violence than if you obsessively describe each horrific act.  The same applies to sex.  Let the reader's imagination do the work for you.  Lesson Three: don't be indulgent.

Already, I feel as though I'm misrepresenting the book.  Yes, each of its three overlapping, interlocking stories is violent, with the sexual frustration and jealousy of the 'contemporary' story finding its echoes in the past, but Garner is far too clever to fob us off with anything so simple.  The book is also something of a puzzle, and at times the intelligence of the author challenges the reader to keep up.  Puzzles and mysteries form a major part of the narrative (there is even a word puzzle at the end which I have never yet managed to solve - but then, Garner enjoyed putting magical incantations into his earlier books, and the puzzles of Red Shift are a natural progression).  Even the title is a bit of a puzzle: it takes in the Doppler Effect in astronomy, the habit worn by a clergyman, a petticoat dyed with alder, the lights of the cars which whizz past on the M6 motorway ...

But what Red Shift taught me, more than anything, is the power of words.  Words used with laser precision, nothing spare or redundant or unnecessary.  Words mean a lot to Alan Garner.  They do to me, too.  And Red Shift indicates to me what can be achieved when an author masters those tricky little blighters, words.  The effect is magical, emotional, exciting, painful.  Pictures play in our heads, and we feel the pain and despair and confusion of the characters.  Life acquires a poetry, even in its darkest, basest moments, and that poetry sings out across time.  If we can learn how to listen to it, we can hear the voices of the past - the past which we ourselves are part of, for we tread the same turf and are made of the same atoms - and the place where we stand will come alive.

Simon Stirling is the author of Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murder, the Motive, the Means and The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero, both also available at Amazon UK. He can be found at his blog Art and Will.

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  1. I know nothing of this author Simon but your review has made me want to read more about him.

  2. I remember the BBC play The Owl Service when I was a teenager! Goodness that was many moons ago Simon. I can only remember buts and bobs but I remember it was fascinating and I remember loving it. I am inspired to go and read the book now, and read Red shift as well as the others you mentioned! A really well written and beguiling post!

  3. That's such an intriguing point about location. I had never really paid this much attention before but I can certainly see that real attention to this detail and its impact on events and plot could elevate writing to a new level! I used to love fantasy of this sort as a young adult and one of the most impactful books I read which was aimed much more at adults was Weaveworld by Clive Barker (of Hellraiser fame!). The principal location there is a carpet!