I read this book many months ago when publishers Sceptre opened up the opportunity to write the blurb to anyone who wanted to have a go. I'd never done that before but thought I'd have a pop and blow me if I didn't go and 'win' the competition. So that makes me a published writer now (rather tenuously) but also raises the ethical question of whether I should write up a review of the book in question. This isn't you understand because I would write an unfairly positive review, almost the opposite in fact. I hope Sceptre won't mind if I'm honest about my experience reading the book, it turns out all right in the end. My initial reaction to the opening pages of this début novel were actually incredibly negative, it was not a pleasant read and I could very easily have given up early. Which would have been a mistake.
Nevis Gow lives with his father, Marshall, in a van. Not 'one of those hippy, brightly coloured things' but a Transit with a single curtain to separate driving space from sleeping space. Marshall is a writer, the van littered with his labours, 'thousands of notebooks and journals and illegible paper-clipped scribbles', but not a word of it published. It is a traveller's life they lead, free from the standard constraints of schooling, utility bills, or bath night and Mackie creates their environment well, the enclosed space of the Transit van over the last eleven years has created an isolated world where even the most basic touchstones of life have been allowed to warp slightly.
'You have to start with a bang,' his father had said and Nevis certainly does that, telling us on page one that he kissed his father once, not as a son might his father but as one might with a lover, for Nevis is in love with his father. Starting with a bang is all well and good but the risk is always going to be that you send some readers running for cover. I'll admit that Mackie's sensual description of that kiss had me wrinkling my nose and asking myself whether I really wanted to read a book with such a central theme. Mackie has issued a challenge of sorts and as someone who doesn't think of themselves as a prude I felt compelled to continue, putting that initial disgust behind me.
Nevis and Marshall's isolation is shattered when the latter crashes their van. A farm nearby, owned by the Kerr's, becomes their new home, the van replaced by a caravan parked in the yard, continuing the now uncomfortable proximity. Propelled back into contact with others, the tensions and strains on their relationship begin to tell, the pressure fed by the weight of an undiscussed history, the family-life of the past. This would be the case with anyone they met but the extraordinary characters they encounter on the farm only heighten the drama and the Kerr's have their own problems to contend with. Mirroring the mother missing from Nevis' life, the Kerr's are grieving from the recent loss of matriarch Catherine. The livestock sold and the farm up for sale, the family are existing in a state of limbo until the arrival of the Gow's and each family could be said to be the catalyst to the other.
If the enclosed spaces are a recurring environment then they help Mackie to develop her major theme of escape. Nevis counts off the days of their stay there like a prisoner marking his cell wall without the consolation enjoyed by the prisoner of knowing when the ordeal will end. When it becomes clear that a return to life as it was will be impossible he feels himself being reprogrammed for life amongst others - 'you need to be clean' his father says and we sense that this isn't simply about hygiene. Marshall too has a need for escape, not only from his now suffocating responsibilities but also from the failure of his relationship with Nevis' mother. Amongst the Kerr's it is son Colin, known as Duckman, who also yearns for a way out, away from the repressive atmosphere and the burden of his now suicidal father.
Whilst love in its various forms is of course another major theme, an examination of narrative encompasses the novel as a whole and provides one of its largest successes. Marshall influences narrative in two ways: firstly through what he has and hasn't said about the past, playing a role in the creation of their personal narrative. And Nevis' writing style is of course influenced by the rules set out by his father's own writing. In the early stages of the novel this framework makes it feel a little like a creative writing exercise but that theme of escape comes to the fore again and the creation of the book we are reading becomes the means by which Nevis demonstrates his creative independence.
So the book actually has a lot to recommend it but that initial hurdle may be quite a leap for some. At the end of it all I was glad to have shelved my initial, knee-jerk reaction. A book as much about storytelling as it is storytelling is an intriguing prospect, reminding me of one of the early books I reviewed on this blog, Tell Me Everything by Sarah Salway. Both books play with truth and narrative and both feature memorable characters. Only this one has a blurb written by me though!
Once upon a time there was a boy whose home was a van and whose world was his father.
Be warned: this is not a fairytale.
Although it does contain love,
and most important of all, a kiss.
But you have to be ready for an unpredictable journey
through a realm where nothing is black or white.
That, of course, is why you should take the first step.
A startling new voice shows us a painful truth:
You can’t help who you fall in love with.