Once all England was a forest of thick boles and dappled glades of the greenwood. Now you are lucky to find a wood that hasn’t been encroached upon in some way by officialdom. Robert MacFarlane wrote about this loss recently in The Wild Places, and Laura Beatty’s enchanting debut, Pollard, is a perfect companion to it. Beatty is a writer of extraordinary power, able to paint, in subtle colours of green and gold, the journey of our heroine, Anne, from her noisy, wasteful family into the depths of the wildwood where she returns to nature; then through the painful destruction of her idyll by outside forces, and her final incarnation as a bag-lady in an alien urban landscape. The other characters are shown in exquisite and shifting layers: the slow, kindly owner of the dump; the brash, beautiful city boy; the pedantic, suspicious Ranger. They all first dismiss what they see as craziness, then grow to admire and even love the wild, wise woman of the woods – but they are helpless against the might of bureaucracy.
Beatty is alive to every nuance of behaviour, and makes her simple heroine into an endlessly fascinating character whose affinity with the world around her is an example to us all. Anne survives on her wits, makes her shelter out of what she finds; she can snare a rabbit and weave a basket; she sits under her pollard, watching a fox, on which the whole symbolic structure of the novel is pinned. The fox is wily, crafty: a killer, but alive, and in harmony, eventually destroyed not by the joyous hunt but by acres of concrete and pebbledash.
A return to nature of a different kind is experienced in Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork. He is concerned with anthropology, and the question of how much one needs to immerse oneself in a culture in order to understand it. He does this through Martiya, a feisty, intelligent woman who sets herself up to study the (fictional) tribe of the Dyalo, who believe that the world vibrates with spirits; and through the Walker family, who have been missionaries for generations. The two clash, with violent consequences. Berlinski describes wryly Martiya’s boredom and subsequent growing involvement with the tribe. Just as in Pollard, the idyll must be destroyed; here, however, it is the approach of Christianity that is the agent, and the possible unhingeing of Martiya’s mind by the furious spirits of the Dyalo.
Berlinski is also playing a game: the book is written as if it were non-fiction, with footnotes and a list of sources, and the third-person narrator is called Mischa Berlinski. Sometimes he gives us too much extraneous material, which distracts from the engaging main plot. But his evocation of landscape and ritual is note-perfect, and one can forgive the occasional over-explanations for the humour and the deep understanding of what motivates people: love, anger, hatred and envy are the same everywhere, he concludes.
Peter Ferry’s Travel Writing: A Story doesn’t have any demons in it, or anthropologists for that matter, but it does play the same postmodern game as Fieldwork, mingling fact and fiction. Our narrator is called Peter Ferry, and his point, I think, is that one can play with narratives and still tell a rattling good yarn. Ferry becomes obsessed with a woman who dies in a drink-driving accident, and gradually uncovers more about her, leading him to believe that foul play was afoot. His investigation turns him into a recluse, sitting in a room surrounded by timelines and index cards. The text is interspersed with his travel-writing (which does little to throw light on the main plot); the narrative is framed by Peter telling the novel to his creative-writing class (yawn), so we get occasional clunky class discussions about, like, the nature of stories and stuff. However the main plot is genuinely thrilling and leads to a powerful and troubling climax, so that it’s worth getting past all the self-indulgent metatextual fripperies to get to the meat.
There isn’t any love in the life of George Davies, the protagonist of Justin Evans’s A Good and Happy Child. His father, a religious nut who saw visions and disappeared off to convert the heathens, is dead in mysterious circumstances; his mother, a liberal-lefty academic, lets her house rot whilst she busily scratches away at tedious articles. So what is George to do? He plays the trombone, it’s true; but the other boys at school don’t like him. So when a playmate arrives, in the form of a sooty urchin, George is all too happy to hang out. It doesn’t bother him that the boy takes him into another universe, and shows him the earth shining out with souls like beacons; this boy is a Friend.
This is a startling, innovative and eerily frightening novel, so vivid that it takes a hold on the mind just as the Friend takes a hold on the boy’s – for, of course, the Friend is a demon, hellbent (literally) on George’s soul. There is nobody around to help him, and those who do try end up doing the exact opposite. Evans has written a ghost story that is also a work of literary exactness, structurally perfect and dealing resonantly with the horrors that families inflict on each other. The ending may smack a little of Harry Potter (love conquers all and keeps us from evil), but it hardly matters when the rest of the book is so brilliant.