Review: Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley

pobrane

Hold the front page. I actually finished this one in under 24 hours! And given the fact that I’m a tortoise when it reading, that says something about Andrew Michael Hurley’s ability to captivate a reader.

Starve Acre combines some of the best elements of Hurley’s other books The Loney https://katecudahy.wordpress.com/2016/08/10/review-the-loney-andrew-michael-hurley/ and Devil’s Day https://katecudahy.wordpress.com/category/devils-day/, although I’d have to say that nothing ever really comes close to the drip feed of terror that infuses The Loney. It’s probably the best horror I’ve ever read.

However, what features in  Hurley’s writing at all times is the way landscape operates as another character in the book: often evil, certainly unwelcoming. Another character that mocks all human attempts to inhabit it and call it home. Whether it’s the bleak Lancastrian coastline in The Loney, the hillsides of the North West in Devil’s Day or the Yorkshire Dales in the case of Starve Acre, Hurley is intent on impressing how cruel, unknowable and dangerous nature is. And how it’s best left well alone.

Starve Acre incorporates all the staple ingredients of classic gothic. An old, ruined house; Folk tales of evil spirits; a dead child. And as Hurley racks up the pressure, you just know things are not going to end well. It’s true that, as Guardian reviewer Nina Allen observes, Hurley’s female characters could do with being a bit more nuanced: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/nov/23/starve-acre-andrew-michael-hurley-review. And I frequently found myself screaming at Richard, the main character ‘to just get out of there, you idiot!’ but I still reckon that there are very few writers around now capable of creating the same chilling sense of sinister atmosphere; of incipient evil as Andrew Michael Hurley.

Review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

51a-+JjGQVL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

Review – Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

The one thing I kept asking myself while reading this book was, ‘how did I miss this?’ And ‘why haven’t I read anything by Bernardine Evaristo before’? I mean Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker in 2019 for God’s sake. But it probably says everything that Evaristo was then forced to share the prize – a rule-breaking decision on the part of the judges – with Margaret Atwood. And that she was later referred to by Shaun Ley of the BBC, reporting on the award, as just ‘another author’:

https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-50658750 .

Another author who just happened to have won the most prestigious literary prize the UK has to offer. No disrespect to Atwood – I love her work and I have yet to read The Testaments. But if this shameful incident proves anything, it’s that we need more books like Girl, Woman, Other. Because it’s a novel which brings to the fore the stories – and in some cases the hidden histories – of women of colour. It forces the reader to rethink over a century of British history; it challenges the very notion that there was no space for black women in post-war England, or that their stories are in some way not valid or of interest.

There’s no obvious underlying plot to Girl, Woman, Other. Instead, we encounter a chorus of voices; it’s fundamentally more polyphony than melody. But what rises out of that complex web of harmonies is a refusal to be silenced. A refusal to accept the kind of cultural erasure which has seen British history white-washed for so long. There are, for example, the lesbian political activists Amma and Dominique – their fight against establishment England ironically ending up in Amma’s  dramatic production for the National Theatre. There is trans activist Morgan, discovering their identity in their lack of  gender, and Hattie – Morgan’s great grandmother – Yorkshire farmer and proud of her mixed race identity. It is a glorious revelling in the lives of people who never get their stories told, and Evaristo has the ability to get so deep inside each of her character’s conscious that you almost feel as if you were journeying with them. Ultimately, it’s a book which demands a new way of looking at the world; of acknowledging the people around us, about thinking of them in a new way. It’s probably one of the most important novels ever to have won the Booker.

So, yeah, BBC. Well done.

Review: Middle England by Jonathan Coe

517LsZA8FFL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

This is the first novel that I’ve read by Jonathan Coe. He’s frequently mentioned on The Guardian Books podcast as the kind of writer who always seems to just miss out on winning the top literary prizes – and indeed, Middle England was nominated for the 2019 Costa prize. I thought, therefore, that it was high time I gave his work a go.

Middle England picks up on the lives of characters from some of Coe’s earlier works, but it’s not necessary to have read these – as I discovered. In fact, they inhabit a world which is all too familiar, since Coe’s novel spans the years between 2011 and 2018 when what we thought we knew about Britain and the British all started to unravel. Middle England revisits events such as the riots of  2011, the build up to the 2016 referendum and the divisive fallout from Brexit. It’s a brave subject given the complexity of issues that feed into it, and Coe has (perhaps inevitably) had to opt for a broad canvas on which to set his narrative.  Ranging geographically from London to the Midlands and occasionally beyond, the narrative portrays a cross-section of English society and the issues which both divide and unite it. The main characters are Sophie – an academic specialising in fine art who finds herself at the sharp end of woke call-out culture – and her uncle Benjamin who is struggling to put a novel together.  Accompanying them as they try to navigate their way through a Britain so ill at ease with itself that members of parliament are attacked and killed in the street, are friends, enemies and family members representing all ends of the political spectrum – from Helena (Sophie’s bigoted mother-in-law) to the scowling Corbynista, Corrie.

I have this feeling that we Brits are at our best when we’re laughing at ourselves, and perhaps that’s one of the many things Brexit has stolen from us. It’s certainly one of the points I feel that Coe makes very well in this book: that what we once took for granted  as British values – tolerance, fair play, the capacity for inclusive dialogue, the ability to take everything with a substantial pinch of salt – have all been called into question or even trampled on by a constant toxic stream of abuse and mud-flinging both in the press and social media. If anything characterises the Brexit ‘debate’ it is, in my opinion, a failure to truly engage with or understand other’s fears or arguments.

I felt there were a couple of places where Coe’s characters became a bit too caricature, or where the analysis felt a bit flat (I happen to believe, for example, that the 2011 riots were about more than the issue of race relations)* But I applaud any attempt to take a measured look at what has become one of the most complex and divisive issues of our time. Coe dives deep into the sense of deep-seated frustration and anger which channelled the leave vote, while his novel is equally sympathetic to those who felt loss and anxiety over the country’s decision to leave the EU. And to be honest, at a time when the country seems to have become so polarised that one wonders if it will ever be possible to unite it, Coe’s approach is exactly what is needed.

 

*In ‘“Shoplifters of the World Unite” – Slavoj Žižek on the Meaning of the Riots’ London Review of Books 19th August 2011,  Žižek points to the fact that the rioters might be best described as ‘disaffected consumers’. Fed with images of luxury and wealth which they were unable to obtain, he argues that the riots were fuelled by decades of pent-up frustration. And how else to explain one young rioter’s claim: “Having the nicest clothes … the updated things, the big tellies, the fancy phones … People with the Ralph, the Gucci, the Nike, the trainers, the Air Forces … it’s all the style, just everyone wants it. If you don’t have it you’re just going to look like an idiot. Like, that’s how we see it, you just look like an idiot. It’s a fashion thing.” http://www.guardian.co.uk./uk/2011/dec/05/summer-riots-consumerist-feasts-looters

 

 

Review and Updates – The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Well, it’s been a while! Over six months since my last post, in fact. I kind of underestimated how much time certain changes in my working life might consume. And to be honest much of my reading has also been work related – I think the ship’s probably sailed  for reviews of Paradise Lost.  So all in all, while 2019 was a productive year it wasn’t all that successful so far as reviewing was concerned – not to mention my own creative writing.

On that front, I’ve been struggling with the final chapter of my latest novel – The Fresco and the Fountain  – for what seems like months. However, I can say that it would take sudden death/apocalypse/loss of limb/act of God to stop me from publishing it this year. So expect preview material from that soon.

On to the review, then. As my last post on here concerned Madeleine Miller’s beautiful Odyssey rewrite Circe, I thought I’d pick up where I left off by examining another mythic rewrite  – Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.

pobrane

It’s not generally the case that I feel the need to read one book in order to prepare for reading the next. But I felt that I perhaps wouldn’t understand where Barker was coming from if I hadn’t first taken a look at The Iliad. Obviously, it’s not necessary to do this as The Silence of the Girls is very much its own story. But it does become apparent, having read that first great instalment in the history of European literature, that every narrative breeds new stories. Reading the Iliad, one can’t fail to wonder about all those characters who don’t get a voice – who only come alive in order to fall victim to Achilles’ sword, or to be enslaved by the Greeks. And so this is how Barker, like Miller, approaches the issue of myth. The unsung, repressed or forgotten – those elements of minor narrative obscured by the major narrative – suddenly take centre stage.

If I were being flippant, I’d suggest a good subtitle for Barker’s novel might be “…or how toxic masculinity has always f*cked things up for women.” But that would be doing a massive disservice to this very complex book. Yes, Achilles is initially regarded by Briseis (the book’s chief narrator) as a monster – a man who has slaughtered her brothers and husband and who regards her as mere spoils of war. But then Achilles is, as Briseis comes to realise, far more of a liminal figure than he initially appears: a man trapped by his own legend as the ultimate warrior, who never quite fits into the testosterone-saturated world of the Greek camp. And in that respect, such liminality is also evident in the Iliad itself – in Achilles’ all-consuming passion for Patroclus, and his childish penchant for a good sulk “…furious (690) over fair-cheeked Briseis, the girl he had won from Lyrnessus by the sweat of his brow when he sacked Lyrnessus itself…” (The Iliad Penguin loc. 1794).

Paradoxically, the Briseis of Barker’s  novel attains a form of autonomy through acknowledging herself a slave: “A slave isn’t a person who’s being treated as a thing. A slave is a thing, as much in her own estimation as in anybody else’s.” (38) While the Briseis of the Iliad is never fully heard, here she articulates her situation at every turn: no longer a status symbol to be passed between Agamemnon and Achilles. And if The Silence of the Girls says anything, it is of how women’s bodies are constantly appropriated to serve a purpose – be it Agamemnon’s justification for war in the figure of Helen, or Briseis as symbol of  rivalry amongst the leaders of the Greek army. As she asserts: “Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men. In Achilles’ compound, the message had been: Look at her. My prize awarded by the army, proof that I am what I’ve always claimed to be: the greatest of the Greeks. Here, in Agamemnon’s compound, it was: Look at her, Achilles’ prize. I took her away from him just as I can take your prize away from you. I can take everything you have.” (120)

The Silence of the Girls is a novel which is not trying to right any historical (or mythic) wrongs. Effectively, it is a meditation on the way in which people’s lives are used to tell a story in a given way. The Iliad, it turns out, is not just about the destruction of Troy. It is more than Hector defending the city’s gates; Priam’s grief or Agamemnon’s wrath. It is an infinite number of other tales waiting to be told.

Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

It’s been a while! Mostly because of work commitments this semester. Teaching literature often requires a reacquaintance with some of the classics and I don’t really see much point in writing reviews of Oliver Twist or Mrs Dalloway since those ships have kind of sailed. Having said that, I might post some of my teaching materials in the near future in case they’re of use to anyone else lucky enough to be teaching British and Irish literature.

Anyway, having revisited a few old favourites, I’m now back into uncharted territory so far as my reading is concerned, and this week’s review is for a book which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for fiction this year (https://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk). It’s a novel which succeeds in merging the old and the new; the ancient and the contemporary, since the whole point of myth is that it never goes away. It feeds into the historical and cultural contexts it encounters, and is affected by them in turn.

The great current shift in myth-telling has seen many women writers reclaim ancient stories from a gendered perspective. There’s been – to name but a few – Ali Smiths’ rewriting of Ovid in Girl meets Boy (katecudahy.wordpress.com/2016/02/12/review-ali-smith-girl-meets-boy); Daisy Johnson’s incredible rendition of Oedipus Rex in Everything Under  (katecudahy.wordpress.com/2018/09/16/review-everything-under-by-daisy-johnson); Pat Barker giving voice to the women of Troy in The Silence of the Girls (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Silence-Girls-Pat-Barker/dp/0241338077) which was also shortlisted for the Women’s Prize this year, and Circe by Madeline Miller.

Circe  is a book to be devoured and revelled in. While the titular character is limited to her role as witch and deceiver of men in The Odyssey the sorceress/goddess/nymph who transforms sailors into pigs – and to a few brief mentions in other areas of Greek myth, Miller spins a complex tale of growth, maturity and self awareness. It’s a book which fleshes out the bones of its main character to give us a full-bodied woman who errs and stumbles, but who ultimately finds her way. She stands up to both gods and men, ultimately refuting her fate to forge her own path.

“I find in myself no taste for fighting Trojans or building empires. I seek different days’ (p. 304) Though these lines are not uttered by Circe herself, for me they spell out the message of the book. Its characters live of fall not through the enacting of heroic deeds, but in self-acceptance and self-awareness. And ultimately  – without throwing too many spoilers in readers’ direction – the characters that ultimately fail are those like Odysseus, so caught up in his own legend that he never truly sees himself.

The novel reads like a who’s who of Greek mythology – with Titans, Olympians and famed mortals such as Daedalus or Medea all putting in appearances. And yet, while the book could so easily have swung into mere Hellenic name-dropping or soap opera, it never does. These characters are here for a reason, and it’s more than clear that Miller has put in the hours as far as research is concerned. The story is captured in a lush prose which conjures and transforms just as Circe herself gives shape  to the world around her.

This is  a book which reveals why we still need myth, and why, if myths are to survive, they need rewriting – with one eye on the past and the other on the present. A literary marvel and a great start to my summer reading.

Review: Spring by Ali Smith

51kdY3k91AL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_

I’m tempted to think of the third instalment of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet as a literary sucker punch. But that does the book a disservice, as it’s so much more than a simple wake up call to the damage and division caused by hate speech and our failure to genuinely connect in the age of social media.

Surely, however, this is the angriest and most bitter of Smith’s works to date, with its attack on the dehumanising apparatus of Britain’s immigration service: the UK Immigration Removal Centres, in which detainees are reduced to ‘deets’ – stripped of all rights and dignity. And, importantly, Spring is also an exercise in how that process  transforms the people who work in such places into machines. And how, in fact, we are all in some way contaminated by that system; by the fact that we live in a society which allows it to happen and engage with media that condone it.

Spring is littered with sections in which the author hurls that sense of social atrophy in our faces: condensing, for example, the hate speech of trolls (together with punctuation issues and typos) to frightening effect:

SHUT UP just shut the fUck Up can someone tape her mouth shut she deserve to be relentlesly abused what a Cunt go and die hang yourself you ugly Cunt we are all having a laugh at you You are a shit show nobody couldn’t play fuck marry kill with you its just Kill you are a Tampon you are odios you deseve to be raped left for dead your Daughter deserves to be raped and stabed to death with a Kitchen KNnife your like a broken record bleeding heart liberal fuck WE know where you Live

Smith, Ali. Spring (Seasonal Quartet) (p. 223). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Painful to  read, these are moments which prove just how normalised such discourse has become. Smith picks apart facile claims to freedom of speech. Language is no longer a system of communication, but a signifier of difference. And while the language of division comes cheaply, our failure to engage in genuine dialogue costs us dearly.

Language, then, is both barrier and bridge, depending on where you stand, as IRC officer Britt discovers, on hearing her fellow worker speak in Gaelic:

For some reason just hearing it made her angry. It made her near tears. It felt like being bullied did, back when she was at school and had to pretend she wasn’t clever. Then Torq made it worse by smiling at her like he really liked her while he made the impossible sounding sounds. Her throat started to hurt like it does when you try to stop yourself crying. It was the language that was making it hurt.

Smith, Ali. Spring (Seasonal Quartet) (p. 326). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Spring also picks up on Smith’s preoccupation with the act of storytelling. “All my work is about books,” she tells Christina Patterson in an interview for The Independent. “It’s all circular and it all comes back to books and what they do.” www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/ali-smith-the-power-and-the-story-226080.   Thus Spring zings along with the intertextual mastery so characteristic of her other work, intertwining its own stories with those of other narratives – such as the (almost) encounter between Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke in 1921, or tales of Scottish history. All of this reinforces the sense that it is narratives which make and break us. But that stories also feed in and off each other – and that in this respect, it is impossible to ever truly end a story. Continually surpassing their boundaries, stories spill into our lives and offer points of resistance and change. And that, at the end of the book, is what perhaps  Spring offers by way of hope.

While Spring can be read by itself, I would recommend reading it alongside Autumn https://wordpress.com/post/katecudahy.wordpress.com/1358 and Winter https://wordpress.com/post/katecudahy.wordpress.com/1292 as this reveals the way in which Smith is pulling a yet larger narrative together in startling and beautiful ways as she works through the seasons. It is also a novel which requires a second reading in order to allow all the hidden quirks and twists to fall into place.

Yet another masterpiece which reinforces Ali Smith’s status as perhaps the greatest writer of her generation.

 

 

Review: Hotel World by Ali Smith

pobrane

In America, Jean Baudrillard maps out the Bonaventure hotel in Los Angeles as one of the ultimate sites of postmodernity. The building, he claims, is a “box of spatio-temporal tricks” (1988: 59). Decentralised and detached from the world outside, it creates and orders its own utopic reality; its guests and visitors seemingly stranded in a dislocated, sanitised hyper-reality.

This is surely the same environment into which Smith plunges the reader in her 2000 novel Hotel World – territory which is disturbing in its familiarity. Seen from a variety of vantage points, the hotel is a place of work, of life and – in one case – of death, a symbol of social inequality and a site of grief and memory. This is in spite of the hotel chain’s claims to uniformity – the obliteration of difference which extends to the people who work there: “…it is important, behind Reception, to wear hair tied back and to wear ‘subtle’ make-up. There Lise is, there she can see it, her subtly made-up face above her Name Badge, sleek and smiling, emptied of self, very good at what she does.” (112)

Yet, despite every attempt to erase the personal or the temporal, bits somehow get left behind. There are the physical reminders – “…the Left Behind Room; this is where all the things guests leave behind are stored…alarm clocks; batteries; books…” (105) or the dust “made of human skin,” (191). And there are the grieving friends and relatives left behind in the wake of a death. And no amount of regulation – no artificial measure of control – can, it seems, prevent the random accidents and encounters which live on in people’s minds and memories, in spite of the transience of hotel life.

There are few writers, I believe, who quite succeed in occupying the minds of their characters to the extent that Ali Smith does. She renders them instantly recognisable, their traumas, dilemmas and joys our own. And they also offer a point of resistance to the apparent pessimism of Hotel World and its inhuman territory of pressed, starched sheets; numbered doors and static. They break down barriers, and refuse to submit to the sterility and quiet tyranny of postmodern existence.

This is another book which proves that Smith is one of the most outstanding authors of her generation.

Thoughts on Pride and Prejudice

350px-Jane_Austen,_from_A_Memoir_of_Jane_Austen_(1870)

Thoughts on Pride and Prejudice

So here’s confession of the day – I had never read Pride and Prejudice until about a month ago. I think I picked it up at the age of ten, decided it was probably beyond me and never returned to it.

As I got older, I also harboured the sense that Austen just wasn’t for me, with her formalities and her social hierarchies and her neat, well-maintained romantic arrangements. I’ve always been more into the freak show masochism of Wuthering Heights, or the quiet probing of inequalities that is Middlemarch. And even though it’s really not possible to fault Pride and Prejudice for its well-tempered romanticism, there’s something that irks about Austen’s refusal to question or interrogate her subject matter. Why, I want to ask her, is Lydia so incapable of self-restraint? Doesn’t Lizzy’s marriage to Darcy reinforce rather than critique the prevailing materialism of the time? And it’s no use telling me that she was just reflecting the attitudes of her age. Clearly, she was astute enough to recognise the infantile behaviour of some women; to hold Lizzy up as a paragon of just what a good girl should really be like. But if she could see all of that, why didn’t she – as Mary Wollstonecraft had done some 21 years previously – suggest that there might be something lacking in women’s education? Or that there was something deeply unjust about depriving women of a means of supporting themselves if – heaven forbid – they found themselves without a single man in possession of a good fortune?

There’s so much to love here – I don’t deny it. The zinging wit and repartee – the observational humour and awareness of human failure and foibles. But there’s also so much I have trouble digesting. And I don’t just put that down to twenty-first century sensibilities. I want my great writers to ask questions; not to reinforce the status quo.

Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

41RL9jBuvHL._AC_US218_

“Whatever you say, say nothing,” Seamus Heaney famously wrote. That, surely, is also part of the message of Anna Burn’s Booker winning novel Milkman, in which nameless people constantly talk around everything but the truth. Told from the perspective of eighteen year-old “middle-daughter”, Milkman recreates the world in which the unmentionable troubles of 1970s Northern Ireland took place. This is a world in which a single misplaced word or misunderstanding can result in a whole level of community conspiracy: a kind of fantasy shared by people whose every thought and action seems to be governed by a specific set of sectarian values.

Thus, the narrator is assumed to be the lover of a high-ranking ‘renouncer’ or republican paramilitary known locally as Milkman, when in fact she is being stalked and intimidated by him. As local narratives do not appear to authorise any alternative to the idea that she might be his lover, she is both hounded and feared, becoming as much a part of local political mythology as Milkman himself.

What I think is really important about this book is the way it suggests that, amid the very public horrors of events like The Troubles, more private horrors are ignored or even denied. And that merging of the private with the public or political is part of this problem. Women’s lives are policed, and anything which appears to violate borders or the unwritten code of sectarianism proves threatening.

The other surprising aspect of this book, given what I’ve just written is how funny it is. Written with more than a few nods to the digressive style of earlier Irish writers such as Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift, this is a novel which seethes with inventive language. And which proves how  language can be used to obfuscate or even annihilate truth.

I will admit to not actually wanting to like this book, purely because I really thought Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under deserved to win the Booker in 2018. And part of me still feels that. But I have never really read a book which is so relentlessly obsessed with its own linguistic medium, and which uses that self-referentiality to interrogate how we use language for political ends. A hard read but a mind-blowing one.

Work in Progress: The Fresco and the Fountain

hunt_in_the_forest_by_paolo_uccello

Work in progress: The Fresco and the Fountain

So my work in progress is Part Two of The Artist Enchanters Series – The Fresco and the Fountain. This book picks up the story a few months after the devastation and destruction wreaked at the end of The Firefarer, and is told from the perspectives of the three main characters as well as arch villain Lino Ampelio Ol Terenzo. I’m hoping that The Fresco and the Fountain will be ready for release by April this year.

Below is part of a sample chapter from the new book, in which Vito is trying to put the past behind him and learn something of Pagi arts.

***

“You will observe how the artist draws our attention to the hunters’ chase.” Avala Ol Hauriro circled the central motif of the painting with a jewelled finger.

Vito craned forward. “Yes. I see.”

The artwork was small in scale, framed in dark, resinous walnut and balanced on an easel in the centre of his study. To its fore, a tight knot of Pagi hunters pursued a wounded hart through dense woodland. The forest itself resembled an exercise in geometry rather than a depiction of nature, its trees a sprouting series of matchsticks.

“Look carefully, Vito. The artist was cunning. The hunters themselves are a mere distraction.”

“They are?” He peered into the painting once more. Nothing changed. One grand Pagi Lord charged, suspended in paint, his spear raised high above his shoulder. Behind him rode his band of followers pointing, crying out as the deer sprang away into the distance. Vito shook his head, frustrated. “What am I looking for?”

“Vito…” Avala’s eyes were grave and grey. It was hard to guess her age. And the Pagi were nothing if not arch dissemblers. But she seemed of middle years; a cascade of thick, chestnut curls framing the sharp, even contours of her face. “Vito,” she sighed, “as I have already explained, the painting itself is an assembly of ochre and lead, of malachite, copper and carmine. Its enchantment is released when you truly see it, Vito. It all depends on your act of sight. Look at it again. Look beyond the hunters and into the forest. Look at it and see what the painter is really telling you.”

He shifted his gaze from hunters to trees as instructed: at the mustard brown of their bark and the emerald shreds of their leaves. At the quaint parakeets and owls which nestled in their branches. The lightest breath of wind brushed his cheek, like a woman’s kiss. Vito shivered. This was unwise; he should tear himself from the painting now. He was too old to learn of Pagi art without falling into its net. It would ensnare him: a poor, lapsed monk who knew nothing of its dangers. But without this knowledge, he would never hope to prove a match for his brother. And so he forced himself to look.

The forest parted. Boughs bent to his sight, the wind sifting the leaves. The hart bounded past, having evaded the Pagi. And there, lying amid a grove of fir trees lay a naked man and woman, their clothes strewn across the grass. They clung to each other, rising together in their love making. And then the woman raised her head and looked directly at Vito, her grey eyes meeting his over her lover’s shoulder. Her hair was a wild shock of brown curls.

Sucking in his breath, sweating, his heart dancing wildly, Vito stepped away…and back into the studio, into the waning light of an autumn afternoon. He stared at Avala. “You!”

“So you saw us.” She played idly with a ring of sapphire set upon her right index finger.

“And he…he was…”

“Vito!” Her eyes betrayed amusement. “He was the artist. And the Pagi Lord…”

“Your husband!”

“Yes. My husband. Philo Ol Hauriro. But we’re not here to talk about my infidelity, are we? We’re here to talk about art.”

“Does he know?” Vito gasped, breathless.

“He would do if he’d looked at that painting in the way you just had, Vito. The irony is that it hangs on my bedroom wall and yet he’s never really seen it. Vito,” she grasped his wrist, shaking him out of shock. “You invited me here to teach you about art. For what purposes I neither know nor care. But let this be our first lesson. Every Pagi painting is a lock. And your eyes are the key to that lock.”

A lock and its key. The words threaded through his memory, stirring and disturbing. “And all art acts in this way…music, sculpture, architecture…they are all locks to which my eyes…my mind is a key?”

Avala nodded. “Without your sight, your way of perceiving them or hearing them, they are nothing. Imagination is alchemy, Vito.”

“And what…what about words. Could my own thoughts work upon them in the same way…as a key?”

“Indubitably.”

“Wait here.” He held up a hand and dashed from the study, tearing down corridor after winding corridor until he’d reached his own chamber. Breathless, he crouched beside the bed and dragged a battered old satchel out from under it. The leather of the bag was faded, scratched and in places pocked with scorch marks. Vito slung it across his shoulder and raced back to the study where Avala stood with her back to him, gazing out of the window. He felt inside the satchel for the book, tracing his fingers over its torn cover; over the title engraved across its spine. Then, without further hesitation he tipped it out onto the desk, embarrassed when two tawny plaits of hair fell out beside it. Hastily, he brushed them back into the bag and opened the book, flicking through its pages, trying to ignore the stories it had weaved all that hot summer as he had wandered grief-ridden along the parched paths of the Pagi and into an arena of mass slaughter.

The words were still there, written by an unknown hand, scrawled across the base of the final page. Death is but a locked door. And I am the key. And now he was certain that Avala, with all her knowledge of Pagi ways, with her insights into magic and art, would help him to unlock that door. A strange coldness pricked the hairs on the back of his neck. She was behind him, he realised: peering over his shoulder at the book. He sensed her fear.

“Where did you get that?” she whispered.

“Is it true, Avala?” He turned to her. Her lips had thinned to pale lines; her eyes worked with fear.

“Is it true?” he repeated. “If I read these words in the right way; if I set my imagination to work on them, will I unlock the door of death?”

“Vito,” her voice seemed to echo up from cavernous depths. “Vito, I am going to leave now.”

“But you said…you said you could teach me all there was to know about art!”

“Vito, I have given my life to art. But I won’t give up my soul for it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Burn that book, Vito. For all our sakes. Don’t let it tempt you. Don’t read it, don’t look at it. I’m…I must go. I can’t stay here.” She was gathering up the painting, wrapping it in a swathe of linen.

“Avala, please!”

“I’m sorry, Vito.”

She didn’t look back. She was gone, out the door, her footsteps echoing to light clips as she fled from the palace. He sank down in his chair, brooding on the book. It was all he had…that, the seal and the hair. Avala didn’t understand; how could she? She hadn’t seen the things he’d seen, and for all her knowledge of art, she wouldn’t ever come close to the powers, the forces which had laid waste to entire armies, which had wrought such suffering, pain and death. Avala, he decided, was a novice. And so, for that matter, was his brother. If he unlocked the door of death itself, if he could right the wrongs of the past, then he would be greater than all of them. And Andre would come back, fleet of foot, tearing through the fabric of time with brightness and grace. Immortal.

***

Part One of The Artist Enchanters Series, The Firefarer is available here: