I read this novel firstly with a varied pace. Then I read it a second time, unhurried and savouring the rich writing, wry language and insights, as well as literary references and nods that are entwined within the characters of this wild narrative. I will probably read it a third time.
Chris Hill has delivered a masterly first novel, one that is crafted and measured yet shining through with the intensity and passion that comes from deep inspiration. The story takes place on an isolated, depressed Island noted most for its use as a rubbish tip and its possession of an ugly statue by a lesser known sculpture. Into the stale but stoic lives of desperation, pub flirtations and surface emotions comes John Love, a charismatic shamanic medium washed up from the sea. The name, like many of the names in the novel, is significant.
Love’s presence is not simply a catalyst though – he is far more active than that and seeks to transform the dull community he finds, profiting along the way of course. The result is a high and feral ride that takes the reader into the depths of human experience, desperation and vulnerability. For this to be managed effectively, there needs to be authentic and crafted character development, and Hill produces this remarkably. Further though, Hill also develops and opens for display the character of the island community itself, its interactions, flirtations, group mind and herd-mob instincts. These are all on show, exposed and commented on by the narrator, a mute dwarf who is in many ways the silent eye of the storm developing upon Love’s arrival. In doing so, Hill reveals the underlying nature of many small towns’ heart and soul. It is for this reason much of the narrative takes place in pubs, where pain-dulled, surface actions merge with the liquor’s pull towards intimacy and need.
Hill’s writing is superb and moving, sardonic to the point of painful acceptance. His ability to use elements of the normal to open and lay bare the unnoticed and the real is astonishing. It shows the mark of a major writer indeed. Take this description by the narrator of how our youth and beauty fade:
You lose it though. It drifts. People swell like potatoes.
A few words, an anchoring to a reality and experience we all know. This is so very good, and the same crafting is used throughout. Some of the narration is nothing less than glorious in its rich and earthy embrace of the squalid lives we sometimes live:
All speed and flurry, going nowhere. That’s how we feel Barbara. Used and once was.
She has one of those careers which does for a life, thriving in the gap left by nothing better, like the peculiar scraps of existence which live on the deep ocean bed.
Yet this is not a depressing novel, not even a harsh expression of flash-light realism; it is novel full of magic. And even if the magic of the main character, John Love, is questionable, even if the energy of the town is that of the mob, the ultimate message and gift is one of transformation and revelation. The reader comes out of the book better off, more connected and deepened. One way Hill does this is through the inclusion of lines and paraphrasing of other great literary works. At one point John Love is rallying his people, drawing them close and finishes with lines from that greatest of poetic sequences, Eliot’s The Four Quartets:
The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Yet this is not simply about the character Love; another minor character also carries Eliot in paraphrase:
I don’t know much about gods,” said Glazier. “But I know the sea.”
Chris has done his research and crafting well, and all the magical and spiritual aspects of the novel ring true and accurate. There is much of interest here for the esoterically and magically inclined, particularly concerning the egregore or group mind of a locale or a people. And there are also small, subtle inclusions such as this poem/chant about the narrator:
There’s the dwarf.
The little man…”
Bes is an ancient Egyptian god, often depicted as a dwarf and here Chris is stretching words and meanings with humour and skill as he does throughout the book.
Overall this is a wonderful novel and one I am very happy to have read. Its symbolism, crafted language and deep themes will stay with you long after the reading is done. It is highly recommended.
MOTO: Chris, your novel is set on an Island. Why did you choose this setting? Does this choice have any personal significance for you, or deeper meaning?
Chris: Thanks for interviewing me Peregrin – and for such a kind review. I had a range of reasons for using the island I suppose. For one thing I was born and grew up on Walney Island off the coast of Cumbria in North West England – and that was the geographical template for the island in the book – its easier to write convincingly about a place you know I think.
On another level I suppose you could say the island was a metaphor in the book – for the individual human being say or for life and crossing the bridge to death. It was also very useful to have somewhere isolated and cut off for the action to take place – it made it more conceivable such things could happen in the modern world.
MOTO: Your novel explores the concepts of identity to a marked degree…as a magician I noticed particuarly your exploration of group identity and the group mind. What made you focus on this?
Chris: It was something I was drawn to when I was working through ideas for the book. When you start thinking about religion you obviously consider what people believe as a group. I did some research on magicians and the process of making people think a certain way – cold reading and so on. But it’s important for the book I think that it’s not entirely clear how much of what John Love does is magic tricks and how much might be deeper and harder to explain than that.
MOTO: Peppered throughout the novel are lines and references to other works of literature and poetry – as well as lines from indie rock groups – what function do these serve?
Chris: I value richness in things I read, and in things I write. I want the experience of reading my work to be rewarding and for there to be layers to explore. There would be individual reasons for using all the different references of course but overall I think that’s why I do it. There are also other things in there such as curious facts, most of which are true, but one or two of which I think I remember I just made up. I sometimes think of those student editions of Shakespeare where there are half a dozen lines of text from the play per page and the rest of the page crammed with notes about how each phrase or concept evolved – what it alluded to. In some ways one could do that with mine too.
MOTO: There’s a fair bit of overt and more subtle esoteric or spiritual themes in the novel, as well as a some direct references from one of the main characters. Did you do much research on these themes when writing the novel?
Chris: Yes I did some research on that. I’m certainly no expert on these themes but I read round the subject a little – books about ancient religion, myth and so on. A key text of course was The Golden Bough, which Love refers to throughout the book. As I’m sure you know that’s an anthropological collection of beliefs and myths from around the world. It struck me it could be read as a ‘how to become a god’ manual – which is what Love uses it for. One of the main themes of Golden Bough is the way different religions follow a similar trajectory and the ‘religion’ in my book follows a similar path.
MOTO: Finally, can you tell us a little about your future writing projects…Tip Island and Bes seem too good a locale and character to just leave…will they return in the future?
Chris: No – they’re preserved in amber in Sea God and they won’t be seen again. I look forward to writing other novels about other things. I have one done I’m happy with which is lighter – more of a comedy – so maybe that will come out next if I can find a suitable publisher whose list it will suit. And I’ll be starting a new book as soon as I can find an idea which interests me enough to want to do it.
Thanks so much for interviewing me – it’s been a real pleasure to answer such fascinating questions!