Tag Archives: Novel

The Overstory – a review

the overstory

The Overstory by Richard Powers

This ambitious, arborescent novel is a towering achievement – I haven’t read prose fiction with such reach, depth, and impact for a long time. Powers’ Booker-short-listed magnum opus attempts the maximalist grand narrative of the classic Victorian novel, as the title, The Overstory, suggests. Shattered by Modernism, and scattered by Post-Modernism, perhaps it is time for its rehabilitation and return in an atomised age when people are seeking stories that make sense of the world around us (hence the popularity of high concept books like Sapiens that create a meaningful narrative for humankind in a time of increasing meaninglessness). What is radically refreshing about Powers’ book is that the grand narrative it offers is not an anthropocentric one. It is a sylvan one – for trees are at the heart of this book. The provide a thematic structure (Roots; Trunk; Crown; Seeds), are intrinsic to the novel’s thesis (in a nutshell: trees as a species are far older than us, contribute collaboratively to the ecosystem, and will probably outlast, even as we denude the priceless woods of the world at an unprecedented rate). Powers has a cast of 8 main characters – an outsider artist; a Chinese-American engineer; a property lawyer (and his restless wife); a veteran drifter; a games designer guru; a bioscientist; and back-from-the-dead undergrad who hears voices. Each of these initially disconnected lives are associated with a tree through upbringing, serendipity, or temperament. We watch these fictional birth trees grow, mature, flower, and fall, over several decades. Different paradigms, aptitudes, and agendas all intersect through the growing environmental crisis in some way. As the Earth’s resources are depleted and climates change, some of these characters will become radicalised through the concern for what we are doing to our irreplaceable home: the rapacious devastation of the very biodiversity which may save us; the resources that will sustain us; the species that we share our home with and possible sentience. Thus far, the novel could have still existed within the tradition of mimetic ‘realism’, but Powers boldly imagines a non-anthropocentric perspective, and an even a post-human future – one that destabilises our (imagined) pole position in the ecosystem, the hubristic apex-predator, but does not estrange us from the interlacement of nature. Rather, it restores us to – babes in the wood, still to learn the art of being, of mutuality, and respectful co-existence. As in the Transcendentalist tradition of American nature mystics and thinkers like Whitman, Thoreau and Muir, Powers sees beyond the petty concerns of man, finding renewal of meaning and purpose in nature. Yet the vision it offers it not naïve – the complex problems of the world are ever-present, and no one here gets out alive – but profoundly subtle, sophisticated, and sustaining. The novel looks to the future continually, often sending messages back as it leaps into full omniscience. The Overstory dares to shift emphasis and empathy beyond the brief lives of its protagonists, and ‘the real world’ (i.e. the finite, flawed human world) of the here and now. Temporality and spaciality are recalibrated to a different scale. It is a Promethean project, and perhaps one destined to be consumed by the fire it seeks to seize. Powers acknowledges the challenge:

To be human is to confuse a satisfying story for a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is falling precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.

And yet Powers achieves just that. The fully-realised lives of its human protagonists unfold in an engaging way, but just as gripping is the great drama unfolding on a trans-human scale: Nature becoming conscious of itself, or waiting for us to realise it has been so all along. The novel brings that compassionate act of attention to the minutest and vastest miracle of the natural world. To read its 502 pages is akin to the ‘forest-bathing’ popular in Japan, it provides fictional shirin-yoku. The Overstory is of a novel of vaulting ambition – it makes the forests walk (and talk). It manages to achieve what few novels even dare, these days – it makes us look beyond ourselves (increasingly rare in an Age of Selfie and the enforced narcissism of social media). It makes us look up, look down at the earth beneath our feet, breathe, and wonder. The Overstory casts a long shadow, and its story may outlive ‘the novel’ itself (and perhaps even the people who read them).

Kevan Manwaring 2019-01-10

Step into Faerie

A Contemporary Fantasy based upon PhD research into Fairy Traditions and Folklore of the Scottish Borders  – coming soon…

 

New Version Knowing cover large.jpg

Cover by Tom Brown, photography by James Barke 2017

 

 

Janey McEttrick is a Scottish-American folksinger descended from a long line of female singers. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she plays in a jobbing rock band, The Jackalopes, and works part-time at a vintage record store. Thirty-something and spinning wheels, she seems doomed to smoke and drink herself into an early grave (since losing her daughter she’s been drowning her sorrows and more besides) until one day she receives a mysterious journal – apparently from a long-lost Scottish ancestor, the Reverend Robert Kirk, a 17th Century Presbyterian minister obsessed with fairy lore. Uncanny things start to happen… She and her loved ones are assailed by supernatural forces, until she is forced to act – to journey to Scotland to lie to rest the ghost of Robert Kirk. Until she accepts who she is, and the gift passed down to her by her ancestors, the gift of the knowing, Janey will never find peace.

Gripping, emotionally affecting, difficult to put down Nimue Brown

Contemporary Fantasy; Scotland; Appalachia; Second Sight; Fairy Tradition; Supernatural Ballads

 

Kevan Manwaring is a writer who lives in Gloucestershire, on the edge of the Cotswolds. The Knowing is the culmination of his Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester. To write it he has undertaken extensive research into the folklore of the Scottish lowlands, Robert Kirk, Fairy traditions, ballads, the Scottish diaspora in Southern Appalachia, Cecil Sharp, borders and the Fantasy genre. He has spent many hours in research libraries (The British Library, as an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellow in North American Studies; the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House; University of Edinburgh; National Library of Scotland; App. State library & others); he has done extensive fieldwork in the Scottish Lowlands and Highlands and in North Carolina; he has walked the West Highland Way and Hadrian’s Wall; he has co-created and performed a show, ‘The Bonnie Road: tales and ballads of the Borders’, with his partner, the folksinger Chantelle Smith; he has written a collection of poetry inspired by his field-trips, Lost Border (Chrysalis 2015); and he has taught himself guitar and ballad-singing. Other books include The Windsmith Elegy (5 volume Fantasy series), The Bardic Handbook, The Way of Awen, Desiring Dragons, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, and Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold (editor). He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic.

 A special preview copy of The Knowing will be released as an e-book on 20th March 2017. If you would like to order a copy or would like to review it, please contact the author: km364@le.ac.uk

 

 

Deep Time, Deep Love

Saturday 9th May: Deep Time launch, Stroud

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Saturday saw the culmination of a lifetime’s obsession – the publication of my friend Anthony Nanson’s first novel, Deep Time. This 300 thousand plus word magnum opus Nanson has been plotting and planning consciously since the mid-Eighties, but as a charming childhood booklet, The Lost World, revealed read out by Anthony’s father, the author had been haunted by dinosaurs and the depths of time for a long time (in human terms). Many friends and family gathered at the ‘British School’, behind the popular Star Anise Café at the bottom of town, to celebrate Anthony’s 50th birthday on – and what a way to celebrate: with the launch of the handsome trade paperback edition of Deep Time by innovative Stroud-based publisher, Hawthorn Press. The dress code was ‘tropical’ and some guests had made a real effort with the costumes. We were invited from 7pm although things didn’t really kick off officially until nearly 9pm – Anthony wanted people to have plenty of time to mingle and browse the book, or rather books, as it was a double book launch – the other title, Ecozoa, published by Permanent Publications, is the new collection by radical Frome-based eco-poet, Helen Moore (another dear friend from my Bath days). Anthony, in his typically gracious way, shared the limelight with Helen – their work was thematically simpatico, and she also celebrated her birthday – as well as with other bardic friends. David Metcalfe, long-time host of the Bath Storytelling Circle MC ed the evening with his usual gravitas, starting with the crowd-pleasing Big Yellow Taxi (setting the ecobardic tone of the evening). Local poet singer Jehanne Mehta – another birthday girl (on the actual day itself – Helen and Anthony’s straddle either side of it) recited a couple of stirring poems about Albion (another Blakean nod) and Wales. Poet and psychotherapist Jay Ramsay introduced Helen most eloquently and passionately. Helen performed 4 poems from the collection, one from each ‘zoa’ (the collection is structured on the 4 Zoas of Blake) with her trademark sincerity and clarity.

Some of the glamorous inhabitants of the Ecozoic - poet Helen Moore (centre) with friends. By Kevan Manwaring

Join the Party! Some of the glamorous inhabitants of the Ecozoic – poet Helen Moore (centre) with friends. By Kevan Manwaring

Then fellow Bath Spa lecturer Mimi Thebo introduced Anthony, singing his praises, before Anthony introduced the book and the long journey of its evolution. Jay was invited back up to recite his epigraphic poem, before Anthony regaled us with an extract recited, impressively, from memory. Holding the book like some peripatetic preacher wielding his bible for authority (as John Wesley probably did, preaching from a butcher’s block in the Shambles, when he used to pass through Stroud), Anthony conjured up his vision of deep time with conviction and storytelling brio. He held the audience spell-bound. Some earlier drumming by Jay and local artist Herewood Gabriel evoke some kind of tribal aesthetic, and Anthony’s word-sparks now conjured up the story fire of the rainforest, the textual simulacrum of such now brought to life with his living breath. Afterwards, glasses were charged for some heartfelt toasts – to his publishers and to his parents, most poignantly his mother, whose ill health prevented her from attending. Anthony’s father took to the stage to share the embryo text from Anthony’s childhood palaeome. Finally, David finished off with his stirring version of ‘She Moves Through the Fair’. And then the revels continued for a little while longer – dinosaur cupcakes were to be imbibed (raising money for a children’s’ cancer charity) and hearty Adnams ale from Southwold, courtesy of Kirsty’s generous stepfather, Dave. There was much clearing up but many hands made light work. The babies’ respective heads had been wetted, and guests departed heart-warmed by this double-birth spectacle, but more from the quality of love that poured towards the man at the heart of it all, enjoying the harvest of half a century.

Deep Time is available from Hawthorn Press: http://www.hawthornpress.com/books/art-and-science/deep-time/

Read Anthony’s blog (with guest poet from Helen) here: https://nansondeeptime.wordpress.com/

Ecozoa Cover

Ecozoa is available from Permanent Publications: http://permanentpublications.co.uk/port/ecozoa-by-helen-moore/

Dark Sister – a review

Dark Sister coverThis is a contemporary fantasy set in Joyce’s native Leicestershire – an East Midlands he has mythologized without losing any of its prosaicness. And it is this context of down-to-earth realism which anchors the uncanny elements that threaten to overwhelm the lives of the family at its heart. One day, when their chimney is being swept (a folklorically-rich activity) an old diary is found in the chimney breast. This inciting incident turns the world of archaeologist Alex, his wife Maggie and their children Amy and Sam, upside down – for the diary is that of a witch called Bella, whose ‘herbal remedies’ piques the curiousity of Maggie. At first she uses them to heal minor ailments, but in her experimentation she pushes the borders of safety, freedom and sanity. As she gets sucked into the supernatural her marriage suffers catastrophically. Meanwhile Alex is engrossed in a dig which unearths evidence of a ritual burial – his wife’s burgeoning ‘sixth sense’ locates the find. The couple simultaneously dig down into the dark stuff – and the book is very much about acknowledging the Shadow. Demons within both of them are unlocked. This psychological aspect is made explicit by the need to consult a Dr De Sang, who first examines Sam (who acts out the dysfunctionality of the marriage) and then Maggie (who starts to show signs of personality disorder/possession). As with many of Joyce’s books, the uncanny is always given a psychological ‘reading’, so we, the reader, can decide which paradigm to opt for. This creates a tension lacking in many fantasy novels where the incredible is a ‘given’. Joyce’s characterisation and dialogue is utterly convincing – well-observed, nuanced, complex. He makes his protagonists feel real and so we care for them. These are not superhero cut-outs. There is a deep humanity in his work, one that is life-affirming and celebratory of the daily miracles of existence. It gives voice to the fragility of our lives – how easily they are disrupted, are destroyed. As the ‘dark sister’ of the title invades first Maggie’s mind and the hearth the family unit is caught in a hex of buried hurt, a centuries old grievance narrative left to fester beneath the city centre until brought to light* both in the discovered diary and the dig. Maggie’s frustrated career becomes emblematic of the stifled voices of generations of women – controlled or silenced by fearful men – and yet it is the women who, as in many of Joyce’s books, provide the powerhouse of the narrative: Maggie; Bella; Liz, an old wise woman; Amy the daughter; ‘A’, a shadowy other controlling Bella; even the anagramic Anita (mistress) and Tania (archaeology student/’babysitter’). The male characters (Alex, De Sang, Sam, and Ash) are, with the exception of Ash, the owner of an occult shop, less appealing, less sympathetic. Both Alex and De Sang stand in the ‘rationalist’, scientific camp – facing the mysterious, depthless realm of the feminine with their ineffectual tools. A renegotiation between the genders needs to occur, addressing ancient inequalities – like an intercenine conflict destroying a country, Alex and Maggie’s ‘civil war’ is destroying their home and family. The power of the female must be acknowledged, but also the power of the unknown, the other. Reality is not ruled by what is on the surface.

The use of the diary is of particular interest – as Maggie reads it more is revealed, as though the act of reading is in itself a magical act. It is interwoven with the narrative. At first only obscure lists of herbs and coded inscriptions can be deciphered, but slowly a voice emerges. The past is translated. This embedded book of magic acts as an agent of change within the narrative – disruptive and disturbing, reminding us that words have power and consequences.

As with all of Joyce’s oeuvre, Dark Sister is effortlessly readable and utterly gripping. You know you are in the hands of a warlock of words, one who casts a spell which you do not want to break. The catharsis that comes with this walk on the wild side is powerful and lingering for both the protagonists and reader. Literary flying ointment, this novel is one visceral ride from start to finish.

Kevan Manwaring

20 February 2015

*It’s amazing what you can discover beneath a city centre. This feels like a timely book to read in the year of Richard the Third’s burial – the ‘king under the car-park’, another maligned, ‘shadow’ figure brought out into the light. 

The Fascination of the Worm

Dracophilia...  My latest book - due from Compass Books soon!

Dracophilia…
My latest book – due from Compass Books soon!

Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm.’ JRR Tolkien6

 

Twentieth Century Professor of English and novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, who perhaps more than any other single author has brought alive worlds of Fantasy in his vast Middle Earth sequence of stories, as a child ‘desired dragons with a profound desire’:

 

Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in my neighbourhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.’7

 

If we read this as a yearning for Fantasy, (that is, the experience of such, as opposed to the genre – although we will dignify both with the capital in the hope that one will encourage the other) then I do not think he is alone in this, as the huge popularity of Fantasy in books, films and computer games prove. There seems to be an endless appetite for it: The Lord of the Rings, Dr Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, TheTwilight Saga, Avengers Assemble, and no doubt more ‘franchises’ await to hit the big or little screen. Despite a distinctive post-9/11 trend for ‘real life stories’, gritty realism, and tales of hard luck and ‘winning through adversity’ (spawning shelves of ‘misery lit’; or ‘trauma memoir’) the world, it seems, is hungry for Story, especially of the fantastical kind.

Why is it so many seem to ‘desire dragons’, as Tolkien did? What purpose, if any, is there to Fantasy? Is it just make-believe for grown ups, or does it serve a more profound function? This brief excursion into Fantasyland endeavours to explore, if not answer, these questions, and perhaps the very act of asking questions – curiosity, or the quest for knowledge – is at the root of all this ultimately. The desire to know has led humankind from the cave to the moon. Wishing to know what lay over the next hill, and the next, beyond the borders of the familiar, over the sea, over the horizon – following the journey of the sun, our constant companion of consciousness, throughout the day, into the unconscious of night – this has driven humanity on, and fuelled most of its fantasies. The unknown provides a vacuum for the subconscious, for the Shadow, the Id, the other. We populate the night with our own.

And we probe the shadows with a thrill of fear and a desire to know.

Tolkien, in a witty reply to a letter in The Observer (16 January, 1938) signed by someone calling themselves ‘Habit’, requesting more background about ‘the name and inception of the intriguing hero of his book’, (The Hobbit, published 21 September1937) responded thus:

 

Sir, – I need no persuasion: I am as susceptible as a dragon to flattery, and would gladly show off my diamond waistcoat, and even discuss its sources, since the Habit (more inquisitive than the Hobbit) has not only professed to admire it, but has also asked where I got it from. But would not that be unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.’8

 

Despite Tolkien’s claiming not to ‘remember anything about the name and inception of the hero’, he gave a typically conscientious and erudite reply. His letters show the fathomless quality of his learning (his scholar’s mind akin to the Mines of Moria) and provide a plethora of portals to explore – enough for a lifetime, and thus he has not robbed research students of their existence, but thrown a gauntlet down to ‘curious Hobbits’, who are intrigued by the mysterious origins of such wonders, in what smithies were they forged, and whether the alchemical secrets of the wordsmiths trade can be gleaned, used, and passed on.

I must disclose my own interest in this realm of the imagination – with my five-volume epic, The Windsmith Elegy9, I could be categorised as an author of Fantasy, although I prefer the term ‘Mythic Reality’ (for that is how it feels to me – more of which we will discuss later). As a writer of ‘Fantastical Fiction’ (as it once used to called) the genre, as a whole, holds an obvious appeal to me, but more so the mysterious impulse that drives us to write and read it, and beyond that, the act of creation itself.

The central thesis I would like to forward here is that the roots of Fantasy go deeper than sometimes the genre suggest – that there is more to it than mere ‘Sword and Sorcery’, and the endless rehashing of Tolkienesque tropes. What if Fantasy is not merely a form of escapism (although that in itself is not ‘wrong’), but a way of exploring imaginative possibilities?

In the purest expression of Fantasy, something more fundamental is at work. Could Imagination serve as a gateway to other realms, other possibilities – a kind of ‘Quantum TV’ – with different bandwidths showing glimpses of ‘that which does not exist, but could’, and sometimes does, in our imagination?

Many beginner writers who attempt to write Fantasy do not seem to understand the genre. They copy the shadows on the cave wall; without having a full gnosis of what drives their creation (as someone who has taught and assessed creative writing since 2003 I can wearily attest to this – although I am occasionally astounded by what my students produce). There is often a gulf between idea and execution, which is frustrating. It feels as though I am receiving a poor signal from a distant land.

The craft provides the Transatlantic cable, but I do not wish to lay it down here – many others have done that. Rather than simply provide a list of techniques, I believe it would be more useful (and better for the writer) to explore the ‘biology’ of Fantasy, and our motives for writing it.

  • Where does the impulse to write Fantasy come from?
  • What takes place in the act of writing, i.e. the creative process – specifically in the creation of works of Fantasy?
  • What benefits are there, if any, for the writer, as well as the reader?

And so I begin this essay with these questions in mind – and a sense of unknowing.

A quester, armed with his question, is a good place to start.

 

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring, 2013

[Extract from Desiring Dragons: Fantasy and the Writer’s Quest, published by Compass Books – contact them and order an advance copy now]