1 January 2022

#Review - Three Nightjars on the First: English Heritage by M John Harrison, Middleton Sands by Claire Dean and A Visit to the Bonesetter by Christopher Burns

Happy New Year and welcome back to Blue Book Balloon! 

I hope that the holiday period was all that you would have wished it to be, and that 2022 will be a good year for us all. 

I took an (unplanned) break from reviewing and blogging over most of December - not for any particular reason but just general stuff happening. So, no retrospective on 2021, and no looking forward to the coming year, which I'd like to start with something a little different - reviews of three Nightjar Press chapbooks. 

I received several of these in December as part of my yearly subscription. This is something I'd strongly recommend for anyone who likes a good supply of well-written short stories in beautifully presented editions (it would also make a great present for a reader, it's not too late for that - liturgically, we are still in the Christmas period until Epiphany on 6 January). You can buy them as one-offs, but as a bonus, the subscription editions are numbered and signed.

I have more Nightjars waiting to be read and reviewed, but to start the year off well, here are my thoughts on English Heritage by M John Harrison, Middleton Sands by Claire Dean and A Visit to the Bonesetter by Christopher Burns.

Cover for "English Heritage" by 
M John Harrison. A field of
wildflowers, seen in closeup
(photo by Nicholas Royle)
English Heritage
M John Harrison
Nightjar Press, December 2021
Available as: PB, 16pp
Source: Subscription
ISBN: 9781907341632

English Heritage is a story freighted with allusion and mystery. At some point during the Covid epidemic, Amory, Owen and Max visit her aunt's holiday home near Padstow for a few days away. While we're told that the aunt is ninety three years old ('and still going strong') and a barrister, we are told little about Amory, Owen's or Max's lives beyond that. Amory and Owen seem to be together - we are told what happened when they first visited Max in Shropshire, and they (not the three) have arguments. Amory is the most prominent on the three, although that might just be because it's her aunt's house they are in. 

The story is fearfully intense, often light on detail except for small incidents - flying a kite, making a visit to a nearby stately home. I came away from it thinking I knew a great deal more than was actually said, especially about Amory, but also considering what wasn't said. 

Who the nocturnal and troubling visitor was who opened the garage and used the loo (or didn't). Why Amory thought she lost her car. What was going on between Amory and Max - we get only hints of this but there's a sense of the whole stay being orchestrated around some problem in their relationship with Max there either to witness events or to prevent an explosion. Or just to wake at 3am as he seems to each night.

It's unclear what the 'English Heritage ' of the title refers to. Country houses such as the one the three visits? Their legacy of 'sugar and slavery'? A way of dealing with emotional crises off the page, as it were, as Amory and Owen seem to do here?

All in all, a tantalising story that feels much bigger inside than it looks from without.

Cover for "Middleton Sands"
by Claire Dean. A purple lilac 
tree in closeup (photo by
Nicholas Royle).
Middleton Sands
Claire Dean
Nightjar Press, November 2021
Available as: PB, 12pp
Source: Subscription
ISBN: 9781907341649

If English Heritage has notes of the weird but is placed firmly in our present, Middleton Sands steps a little further away into a near future with some differences. There have clearly been ecological losses to this world in which Ted and his band of enthusiasts set out every Thursday morning onto the sands. Dean is cryptic at first about what they are doing - metal detecting? Digging out lugworms? - and I won't say exactly what it is, but it is linked to that loss. (A clue about what has happened may, or may not, be the terror one of the group feels when the nearby power station sirens sound).

What is clear though is that there have been personal losses, and wider ones, and that the group are trying to recover something. Dean touches on the dynamics of the group and I wondered if that was part of it - one young man assumes he has inherited the 'leadership' of the group from his father, something Ted quietly disagrees with.

I really liked the understand nature of what's happening here, the way that a rather dark reality is hidden by masculine fuss around a hobby and the group and views over what equipment to carry and the best way to proceed, with the presence of a stranger - an unnamed woman - being the catalyst for progress that Ted seems never to have expected. Perhaps.

Cover for "A Visit to the Bonesetter"
by Christopher Burns. Two passport
style photographs of a woman with
shoulder length brown hair. Cover by
Nicholas Royle (found photographs).
A Visit to the Bonesetter
Christopher Burns
Nightjar Press, November 2021
Available as: PB, 16pp
Source: Subscription
ISBN: 9781907341625

A Visit to the Bonesetter is also set in an alternate future, or present, albeit one that is perhaps troublingly close. In what begins as a seemingly farcical, not to say Kafkaesque, bit of theatre, Martin's wife Lisa is served with an order (and he with a copy) to 'present yourself' to 'our official bonesetter'. This is an event that everybody dreads, but, like Lisa and Martin, is unclear about the detail of. 

At one level it is a highly staged event, the summons deliberately public and delivered by uniformed officials following a standard operating procedure and with a flavour of jobsworthism about it. All meant to support a hierarchy, to reinforce who is on top. At another it is very intimate, very private, something that must not be discussed outside the home, this mystique oddly serving to bolster that public. 

It is described as an 'examination', the participant as a 'patient' but when Lisa returns, it's clear that what went on was not medical and not consensual - and that a part of her has been broken and can never be fixed.

The book builds up a creeping tension, based around the contrast between the mundanity of the event, the bureaucracy, its routine nature, and the extreme impact. Also crushing is the sense that all are or were complicit - 'People voted for social control. It was in the manifesto'  - even though they may individually resent or object to what is taking place. The story is very clever in the way that it denies its protagonists a way out, even a way to dissent internally. I wondered if their surname - Smith - might be a deliberate nod to Nineteen Eighty Four, or whether the coincidence might simply be what you get when you make your protagonist as representative as can be. 

Either way, a simple incident sets up very uneasy resonances, portraying an authoritarian State in its very essence.

For more information about English HeritageMiddleton Sands and A Visit to the Bonesetter and to buy the books or take out a subscription, see the Nightjar Press website at https://nightjarpress.weebly.com

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