I nearly read this book again today, trying to find a suitably wonderful bit of it to quote here, before finally giving up. There are passages that are gorgeous, but more than most books everything requires the context of everything else to really work.
It’s been a few years since I last read Red Shift, but I had read it as an adult. Which is why I was surprised by how much more it meant to me this time – and I’ve always found it heartbreaking. Certainly far more than last week’s (650 word) column had space for.
The big literary event of this year, for me, has been the release of Alan Garner’s new book, Boneland, a sequel to his first two books (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath) written almost half a century after they were published. Garner is not as well-known outside the UK as he should be. This may in part be because of his intense focus on his own country – the geography and dialect of his own particular part of England. But this makes for a sense of absolute ownership and belonging to a place that is one of the finest things about his work.
As with any new book that really matters to me, I’ve been doing everything I can to stave off reading Boneland. I’m not sure if this is a natural desire to draw out the pleasure or an act of sheer cowardice. But it has given me an excuse to reread Garner’s earlier work, and I stayed up all night recently reading Red Shift.
Garner’s earliest books were for children, but with Red Shift it’s hard to be sure. The book is composed of three parallel plots that are centuries apart in time – Roman Britain, the English Civil War, and the present (it was published in 1973). All three plots take place in the same part of Cheshire, however, and to all of them the hill of Mow Cop is important.
The primary plot is the modern day romance of Tom and Jan. Tom is brilliant and poor, trying to study for a university scholarship in the small caravan where he lives with his parents. Jan has moved to London to become a nurse. The couple meet when they can and find refuge in a building on top of the nearby Mow Cop. It is here that they find an axe-head, which Jan adopts as a symbol of their relationship. Yet both the relationship and Tom himself become less stable as Tom sells the valuable axe-head to a museum and learns that Jan had an affair with an older man.
A group of Roman soldiers from the lost Ninth Legion attacks a village, killing all its inhabitants except a priestess, before settling on Mow Cop. Macey, one member of the group and the owner of a stone axe-head, is subject to strange fits during which he fights and kills. During his fits he claims to be someone else, and sees flashes of blue-silver. Macey is the only one of the group not to injure or rape the priestess, and when she poisons the others he is the only one to survive.
In seventeenth century England a man named Thomas Rowley, along with his wife Margery, survives an attack by Irish Royalists upon his village due to the charity of another of Margery’s former suitors. Thomas has found the axe-head and he and Margery decide to build it into their new home on Mow Cop. Like Macey, Thomas is subject to visions, most of them featuring a man in pain. It becomes clear that both Thomas and Macey are experiencing flashes of Tom’s anguish, passed back through time as Jan leaves on the blue-silver train.
Garner has always been an economical writer, but in Red Shift the narrative is pared down to the point that there is hardly anything but dialogue. In the case of Tom and Jan’s relationship in particular this dialogue is wide-ranging and allusive; a frequent refrain is the plaintive “Poor Tom’s a-cold” borrowed from King Lear. It’s hard work, and it’s obvious we’re expected to work at it; Garner even ends the book with an encrypted letter for the reader to decode. Sometimes it’s almost poetry.
In the three stories here, twice unstable men are rescued by the women who hold onto them. For Tom and Jan, this is inadequate. There’s a lot to say about Red Shift (its relationship to the Tam Lin ballad, its overlooked place as a Modernist classic) but more than anything it’s a beautiful, bitter story that breaks me every time.