Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Drowning of Arthur Braxton by Caroline Smailes - A Review

I don’t take to much in the way of contemporary writing. It is often bland (even if full of pretty sentences), pre-occupied with middle-class, first world concerns, and largely a waste of even the tiny amount of intellect required to read it. This book had none of that. It was captivating from the first and clearly had things to say and ideas to explore. What is more, it was evident that it was going to say and explore those things in an interesting way.

Arthur Braxton is one of those kids that feral packs feed on. Consequently, he is one of those kids found lurking in out of the way places, exploring (whether willingly or not) the borderlands – between sanity and insanity, the upward climb and the downward fall, the outside world and the strange places inside their heads. Mostly, life grinds the poor sods down. Sometimes they shine. On rare occasions they escape into places we can barely dream of. Where Arthur goes you will have to find out for yourself, because his journey is the story and to start talking about that would be to give things away; save to say, one of the places in which the borders exist is where water meets the land. It is along that strand that Arthur’s journey proceeds.

So far I have perhaps made this sound like a YA fantasy book of some kind. Well, there are elements of that and it could, no doubt, be read on that level. You’d be missing 99% of the book if you tried it that way. Because there are many other such elements running through the book, nods to this and that. Yet it never becomes any one of those because it is unique. It is its own story acknowledging popular culture along the way (it would take someone who hadn’t been near a television in the last few years not to hear the echoes of the final words) without ever being trapped by any of it. That is down to two things, in the end. The first is a strong story. The second is a strong writer.

It is not just popular culture that feeds the book. Indeed, much more important is myth. Certain myths featuring water. They are common to all myth cycles. Water is such a fundamental part of our existence, and clean water so fundamental to our survival and the fertility of the land, that it is no wonder every tribe and every nation has stories about the origins of streams, wells, springs, and pools; has stories about the guardians of such places, of the beings that inhabit them, of the curative qualities, of the terrible consequences of misusing them. Our native mythology is replete with such references, none more so than the Arthurian stories. Ladies in the Lake, swords appearing from and disappearing into water, battles fought at the water’s edge, water as a source of healing and wisdom, and key to the Arthurian stories, the rape of the guardians of the wells that led to the wasteland and the quest to restore fertility to the land. As someone who has studied these tales for decades, it was a genuine thrill to see them explored so thoroughly in such a vibrant way that whilst paying all due respect to the source of such tales, made its own statement.

It should not be taken from this that we have some kind of dull thesis, some rewriting of ancient myths. They are the source and the story drinks deeply of them in a way that displays a deep understanding of the archetypes. But what emerges as a result is a new story, a new myth for today, sung with a voice every bit as mesmerising as the bards of old. And if you still can’t quite figure what kind of book this is, the film should be made by Terry Gilliam or by Jeunet and Caro.

You can probably gather I like this book. I have a jaded opinion of modern writing, but this has restored my faith. Because for all that stuff about mythology, for all the fact that author here is doing for myth what Angela Carter did for fairy tales, at the heart of it all is a solid and heartbreaking story about ordinary folk and the truly shitty lives some of them lead. A story told with eloquence and sympathy. Buy it. The author deserves your support.