Red Shift by Alan Garner

In this read-through of Alan Garner’s novels I’ve been doing recently, Red Shift is the first I hadn’t read before. It’s his 5th novel, published in 1973. Reading it for the first time had a powerful effect, but I had no idea how to say anything about it, so after a gap of a week, I read it again. It’s a quick read, but a difficult book. The initial difficulty is in the understanding of it, because here Garner’s style is at its most cut back and interwoven, and it’s a book that works so much by contrasts and echoes between the three strands of its plot. After that, it’s a difficult book because the story’s so harsh. To move from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, with its innocent young heroes, its clearly demarcated good and evil, and its happy resolution, straight to Red Shift would be a shock; as it is, the gradual move from the fight against an external, caricature evil (the svart-alfar and Morrigan of Brisingamen) to a steadily stronger depiction of difficulty, danger and turmoil within the characters (Susan’s almost being lost to the Old Magic in The Moon of Gomrath, the squabbles and doubts of the children in Elidor, the tragic mythic tangle of The Owl Service) does its best to prepare you for Red Shift, which presents us with characters whose problems lie as much within themselves as without. If Elidor was about a magical land that could only be reached via “wasteland and borderlands”, Red Shift is about the wasteland itself: adolescent (particularly male adolescent) turmoil.

Red Shift‘s narrative cuts between three strands, unified by place, separated by time. In the main story, set in contemporary (early 70s) Cheshire, Tom and Jan work to overcome the obstacles to their burgeoning relationship caused by Jan’s having to move to London to train as a nurse (alongside lack of money, and parental suspicion), only to be faced by the far more divisive problem of Tom’s emotional difficulties, and revelations of betrayal on both sides. Most of their story is recounted through their regular meetings at the mid-point of Crewe, where they find a refuge in the nearby village of Barthomley, and in a ruined folly and cottage on the hill of Mow Cop. In A.D. 120, meanwhile, Mow Cop is the hideout for a group of deserters from the Roman Army, native recruits who’ve “gone tribal” to escape the notice of both the Roman Army and the local Celts. Among their number is Macey, a trusting young man the deserters’ leader, Logan, knows how to goad into berserk fits, making him their most ferocious weapon, though afterwards Macey is helpless with guilt and horror at what he’s done. These deserters attack the village of Barthomley, massacring its inhabitants, then raping and kidnapping a young priestess, before decamping to the nearby sacred hill of Mow Cop. There the priestess, pregnant by one of the deserters, is kept as a cook. She alone understands what young Macey goes through when the “god is in him”. The third story-strand is set in Barthomley on Christmas Eve, 1643, where a group of King’s men — mostly thugs and mercenaries — come seeking one John Fowler. In the village is Thomas Rowley, a young man given to fits in which he sees a face “scared… caught”, as well as other visions (which the Roman-times Macey also has) of what appears to be Mow Cop in the 1970s, complete with its empty Victorian folly. Perhaps the face he sees is Tom’s?

These three troubled young men, Tom, Thomas and Macey, are linked by their fits and visions (though Tom’s inner troubles aren’t as explicit; he babbles nonsense and gets into incontinent rages Jan has to talk him down from). All three are in relationships with young women who calm them and try to heal their turmoil (while dealing with issues of their own). The three stories are also bound together by a physical link, a sacred stone axehead. Roman-times Macey, though he knows it is sacred, has used the axehead to kill, and knows he’s done something wrong. Civil War-times Thomas, finding it, thinks it is a thunderstone, a lucky talisman against being struck by lightning, and at first wants to break it up, to spread the luck around the village, though his young wife, Margery, talks him out of it. And in the modern story, Tom and Jan find the axehead hidden in the ruined cottage on Mow Cop (where it was, presumably, stowed by Thomas and Margery). Prior to this, Tom had suggested looking at a star on Orion’s belt at ten o’clock each night as a way of remaining connected while apart (a remote way of remaining close, but typical for the analytical Tom), but Jan wants something she can hold, and fixes on the axehead, which they swap each time they meet. But this just becomes the focus for Tom’s difficulties in dealing with the relationship — realising the axehead’s value, archaeologically speaking, he sells it to a museum because “The responsibility’s too great”; then tries to distance himself from what he’s done through intellect and analysis: “The axe was only a chunk of diorite.” He can deal with the relationship as a star-like distant thing, but not as a close, precious, unique reality, fragile, but at least capable of being held.

With its contrasting/echoing plot strands and its tightly compressed use of language, Red Shift almost seems to be a book written in code. But as it’s partly about the dangers of intellectualisation and analysis, the divorce between head and heart, and the trap of thinking without feeling, to treat it as such would be to take the wrong approach. At one point, Tom and his mother sit down to put together a jigsaw which combines three scenes of “Romantic Cheshire”, and these turn out to come from the three different time periods of the novel’s strands. But the book isn’t a jigsaw. It’s more a collage. You can draw parallels between the story strands, but don’t expect a neat fit. The novel as a whole is best understood by standing back and simply feeling a response.

Red Shift, written in an often dislocated, disorienting style, pictures a world of threat, suspicion, cruelty (both to others and self), division between people and within people, and of emotional turmoil to the point of mental instability. Set against this are three attempts at finding a refuge in a loving relationship, though none of these attempts emerge unscathed, and not all succeed. It’s a very different book from Garner’s earlier novels, but, although his most difficult so far, it’s also his most affecting and haunting. It still hasn’t resolved itself in my head, but I think that’s probably part of its power.

Comments (5)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    It’s years since I read this book, but I really felt it marked an important step forward in Garner’s development as a writer. To me, ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ was very much in a recognisable tradition, and perhaps a tad over-written. ‘Red Shift’ is one of those original, uncategorisable novels that is wholly itself.

  2. Murray says:

    I think you’re right, Aonghus. I wish I’d read it earlier, but I wonder if I’d have had the patience with it as a teen.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I think I was in my twenties. I read your assessment of ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ after posting my comment and my experience pretty much tallies with yours – loved it as a teenager, more ambivalent about it when I re-read it years later and for much the same reasons. The last thing I remember reading by Garner was the Stonehouse Quartet (not sure if that’s the correct title). Four short books/stories. Michael Foreman did the illustrations. They were pretty good.

  4. Aonghus Fallon says:

    The stories AND the illustrations….

  5. Murray says:

    The Stone Book Quartet. I’m reading it now. Not illustrated though! Damn.

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