Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

"Death and the Seaside" by Alison Moore (Salt, 2016)

164 pages. In chapter 1 (third person) we meet Susan who left home on a motorbike and lives above a seaside pub in Seatown where she's a barmaid. In chapter 2 (third person) we meet Bonnie, who's nearly 30 and is moving out of her parents' house into a flat in Slash Lane. She didn't complete her lit degree. She went through a phase of jumping off piers. For a while, lit-crit habits affected her appreciation of novels and affected Real Life too. Bonnie is rather suggestible, has a record of failure, and has trouble distinguishing between reality and fancy. She has 2 cleaning jobs, one in a drug research lab. While watching the Director's Cut of Blade Runner she thinks "How disturbing it would be ... to discover, just like that, that you were not what you thought you were, that you were not real" (p.120). She's writing a story about Susan, who lives above a pub. Her landlady, Sylvia, visits her, asks her about her life and her writing. Her father provides comic relief.

In chapter 5 (first person), we read that "All of Bonnie's unfinished stories have been printed out and kept together in the same place: in the drawer of my grandmother's old Mission desk ... I was told, when I was little: 'Sylvia, you must not touch this desk'". Sylvia thinks that Bonnie uses the Sea as a metaphor for Death. There are a few pages of notes that Bonnie wrote for her never-completed thesis.

Sylvia's interested in psychology, especially experiments and hypnosis. She had to leave university because her experiments weren't ethical. We learn that years before she had run an experiment about subliminal messages (about failing and jumping through upstairs windows) on unsuspecting members of the public, including the 7 year-old Bonnie. She tries to track down the source for Seatown, comparing pubs of towns with similar names, etc. She takes Bonnie on holiday to the town (driving past where a nightclub used to be, called "The Sea Around Us"). Sylvia claims that the holiday will help Bonnie finish her short story about Susan. "It was the strangest thing, to walk inside the Hook. It was like walking into a story, although, at the same time, it wasn't" (p.138). Bonnie's room above the pub is strangely similar to Susan's, similar mysterious events unfolding, plus other unsettling details - "there were three doors in the walls, like one of those riddles in which you have to make the right choice because one of the doors had something really terrible behind it. One of the doors was in the the corner diagonally across from the bed, and the other two were facing that one. She did not know which of them led to the outside world, and which just led into a cupboard" (p.143). "Facing the window, she found that her reflection was missing, as if somehow she did not exist, but then she saw that the window was wide open" (p.154)

We're led to think that Bonnie jumps from her window in the night. Actually though, what we've read is the final section of Bonnie's story, that she's just written down. Wandering into the next room she discovers notes and CCTV system. She realises that it's all a set-up, an elaborate experiment. She finds her missing phone, phones her mother and is told that an Animal Lib group has released animals from the lab where she works. She finds Sylvia dead on the pavement under her window. She'd been trying to etch something on the outside of the window. Finally there's a neat symbolic ending - "Bonnie released the handbrake and pulled unsteadily away from the kerb, away from the beach, away from the encroaching sea."

The writing's dense with detail and nice touches - e.g.

  • Bonnie's morning cleaning job was at an amusement arcade on the high street. She walked there past an old house that had the ghost of an advert painted on its side wall, clinging faintly to the brickwork: EAT ... She passed a chip shop and high-rise buildings and a car park from which a man had jumped, the son of someone her mother knew. She passed a church, with posters stapled to a board outside, saying 'GOD WILL SAVE YOU'. She passed the community centre on Waterside Close, with scalloped stone edging around the doorway, and happy cartoon characters stuck to the windows, or starting to come away. She might once have gone to the playground there; she had the vaguest sense of having been abandoned in that building. There was graffiti on the exterior walls that said things like 'HOPE' and 'BOOM!' (p.18)
  • the sea was the open side, where structure ceased. The barrier, depending on how you looked at it, both was and was not there, like a theatre's fourth wall (p.50)
  • 'Have you ever held a conch shell to your ear to hear the sound of the sea? ... 'Your teacup ... would work just as well, or your hand cupped over your ear' (p.67)
  • She lit a cigarette. When she inhaled, the tip of her cigarette glowed orange like a dashboard warning light. She leaned over the sill to blow out smoke rings, which floated up, dispersing. They looked like cartoon wailing or surprise: o O O. She took a final puff, dropped the butt and watched it spark on the slabs. A cyclist on the pavement steered around it (p.100)
  • The woman behind the counter said, 'You have to watch this programme they're showing at nine o'clock tonight on the BBC.'
    'Oh,' said Bonnie. 'All right.'
    The woman glanced up, and Bonnie realised that the woman was using a hands-free device; she was talking to somebody else.
    'Sorry,' said Bonnie. 'You were talking to somebody else, weren't you?'
    'Yes,' said the woman, but she had already looked away again and her reply might have been meant for the person on the other end of the phone.
    (p.123)

It's neat and impressive.

Other reviews

  • Sarah Crown (Meditations on mortality are deftly transposed to a banal English holiday resort in a strikingly ambitious novel that never gives itself airs ... Dense, complex, thought-provoking, it manages to be at once a fairytale and a philosophical treatise, high-octane thriller and literary interrogation)
  • storgy (While the subject matter of a frustrated writer echoing her character and the motif of life-imitating-art-imitating-life may sound as if the novel is an exercise in metafiction or fictocriticism, Death and the Seaside only ever flirts with elements of those genres. ... in its intermittent preoccupation with critical theory and psychoanalysis, as well as the muted, detached quality of its prose, the novel often recalls the French nouveau roman, though again in its stylistic flourishes rather than in any spirit of experimentalism. ... Moore can be heavy-handed occasionally. Her depictions of Bonnie’s parents are fairly two-dimensional, particularly Bonnie’s father, who is never any further fleshed out than the bare minimum required for him to perform his dramatic function. Narrative threads are dropped and either not revisited at all or only very cursorily resolved. Early in the novel, some space is devoted to the development of the relationship between Bonnie and her co-worker, Chi, who is subsequently written out without much explanation, only to be replaced with another character, Fiona, who performs a substantially similar role in the story. I am at a loss to see what was the point of that exercise. ... At other times, however,there are clever, subtle pleasures to be found. ... This is not a work of great ambition. Moore may well be capable of a major artistic statement, but this is not it. Death and the Seaside is brief, focused, and (for the most part) tightly constructed.)
  • Isabel Berwick (While she is both gifted stylist and talented creator of a new English grotesque, Moore’s technique left me admiring, but also uninvolved. The oddness of it all, and the shifts in narrative, gives a remote feeling, leaving the reader adrift at times. And that, in turn, may be Moore’s intention all along. )
  • Nina Allan (Alison Moore is one of the most gifted and interesting writers of weird fiction in Britain today. ... There is an atmosphere of threat around Bonnie that is made all the more discomfiting by the fact that Bonnie herself seems utterly impervious to it. ... I’ve read all three of Moore’s novels to date, plus a good number of her short stories, and in all of them I find this unifying feeling of unspecified threat. Not ghosts exactly, nothing so concrete, so predictable – yet ghosts nonetheless, the ghosts we create ourselves, simply by living our lives, by having pasts and making mistakes and feeling regret. ... Moore’s landscapes – her insistence on lived, inhabited reality – are achingly familiar: seventies housing estates, seaside promenades, motorway service stations, bits of waste ground in permanent danger of being tarmacked over. They are made strange by the heightened perceptions of her protagonists, and by the intimate personal knowledge of these same landscapes, these situations that we ourselves bring into the narrative by the act of reading it.)
  • Maryom (In another writer's hands, this would easily have turned into a high drama psychological thriller, Moore takes an altogether subtler approach, letting the menace slowly ooze out)

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