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Salt Publishing, 15 June 2016
Source: Review copy from publisher
Timothy Buchannan buys an abandoned house on the edge of an isolated village on the coast, sight unseen. When he sees the state of it he questions the wisdom of his move, but starts to renovate the house for his wife, Lauren to join him there.
When the villagers see smoke rising from the chimney of the neglected house they are disturbed and intrigued by the presence of the incomer, intrigue that begins to verge on obsession. And the longer Timothy stays, the more deeply he becomes entangled in the unsettling experience of life in the small village.
This book is powerfully written and haunting. Always teetering on the edge of the gothic, Menmuir describes a coastal community that is dreamlike, slightly out of focus, with its own rules that Timothy never grasps. At the same time, it is rooted in the real world: remote bureaucracy, plummeting fish stocks and maritime pollution have blighted the lives of the fishermen.
What are the mysterious ships moored out at sea, setting a limit to how far the village fishermen may go? Why are the fish absent, or when caught, strange, malformed and suffering? Who are the smartly dressed business types with the new van who buy up all of the catch (but who must have every last fish)? What is the source of the contaminants that make the seawater unsafe for swimming?
Many questions, few answers. The most central mystery: - who was Perran, owner of the house Timothy has bought? He had a mysterious background but seems to have been a dominating presence in village life, judging by the villagers' reactions when Timothy begins to ask questions. With more than a whiff of the Wicker Man, and hints of strange rituals up on the headland, one feels this village (never named) is the sort of place it's best to get out of quickly. But Timothy seems to have a reason for staying. We never learn much about him either but there's no sense, for example, that he's keen to get back to his wife Lauren (nor her to join him).
He does, though, seem fixated on the dead Perran. And in turn, the villagers seem fixated on him, something Menmuir conveys in uneasy prose:
"Timothy's car disappears sometimes for days at a time and the village counts the hours until it returns, usually late at night. sometimes with lengths of wood strapped to the roof, with boxes in the boot, and always fuller than when it left."
Can't you sense the curtains twitching, the pub gossip? "He's got a trailer this time. Brought himself a table, wardrobes, a bookcase, the lot."
There's a tension here, a feeling of inevitable confrontation with the village. In some ways it's not a new thing. In a flashback, we gather that Lauren did in fact visit the village with Timothy ten years earlier: they came for a holiday but, even then, ran into the mystery of the place when the owner of the local pub only let them have a room on condition they would sneak in - nobody must know they are staying. Why, or what might happen if they did, is never explained. "They are trespassers in a strange place".
It went through my mind at one point that all of this was somehow Timothy's dream, but we do also see things from the point of view of Ethan, one of the fishermen (only 4 boats still work out of the village). He, too, seems to have had some affinity with Perran and recalls the latter's death, but Ethan also remains mysterious - at the start of the book he has quarrelled with his "wheelman": we never learn why, or much else.
In fact, we don't "learn" a great deal. Much is left unsaid, scarcely even implied. Yet as the prose flows in like a rising tide, it has its effect, gently, but increasingly, disturbing things, shifting them around, reaching places you thought were going to be safe and dry, leaving the reader, like Timothy and Lauren, wondering just how far the water will come.
While a short book, this is not one to be read in a hurry. The prose is twisty and rich and it needs to be savoured and thought about. There are secrets here, and perhaps answers, but they don't come easily and you - perhaps - need to break the rules to find them.
A deeply satisfying read and strongly recommended (though not, perhaps, one to take on a visit to a remote fishing village...)
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