by Alan Garner (1973)
NYRB Classics (2011)
At the start of the year I put together a list of ten NYRB Classics I had been neglecting but that I would read in 2021. To kick off the list, I chose Alan Garner’s Red Shift. It is quite short, and is classified in some circles as a young adult book. Yes, that should be a gradual dip into that list of ten. Oh how wrong I was. Red Shift was not a chore, but it was hard work. It took me as long as a book four times as long would take. I may have jumped off the deep end, but I’m okay with that.
I’m still not quite sure what to make of Red Shift. I just know I really enjoyed it, that my close attention (and periodic re-reads) were rewarded. The book is a braid of three stories from centuries apart: the oldest in the waning days of Roman Britain (so maybe sometime in the late fourth century), another in the short period of the Commonwealth Interregnum (1649 – 1660), and the most recent in the modern day (or England fifty years ago). Other than thematic elements, share only two things: first, a reminder of violence in the form of a Bronze Age stone axe-head and, second, the north-western British landscape, including an ancient rocky hill called Mow Cop. The characters also share some strange vision, but we won’t be getting to that here since it’s a larger revelation in the book. Suffice it to say that it is a vision that suggests history is past as well as future.
The book begins in the the modern day. There we meet an adolescent couple, Tom and Jan. Tom lives with his parents, who also show up frequently, antagonizing the young couple more than helping them. Jan is planning to move to London to become a student nurse soon, and they both hope they can still be connected somehow. At the very least, they are going to spent the time they have left together. Tom’s mental health is unstable, and as the novel goes on he becomes worse.
In Roman Britain, a group, or tribe, of soldiers who have essentially deserted any larger group. I still don’t fully know who all of the soldiers are — there are around ten of them — but the one who emerges in the spotlight is Macey, who, like Tom, sometimes goes berserk. This is good for the fighting — they say he can fight like all ten of the soldiers together — but clearly he is not entirely stable either. These soldiers are trying to survive in a rough world (they’re part of why it’s rough; they do some terrible things).
In the English Civil War, we meet a couple named Thomas and Madge Rowley. Thomas is linked to Macey and Tom as he also has fits or visions. He also lives in a violent time. As we go through the book, we meet a civic leader, John Fowler, who will be hunted by the Royalists in another of the book’s rather horrific moments.
Beyond the shifts in time, to characters who seem connected only through random objects or enigmatic visions, the book is also difficult because it is told primarily through dialogue, with few indicators of who is speaking. More than a little bit of my re-reading was due to finding myself in the middle of a long conversation and realizing I didn’t know which person was speaking when. While this sometimes frustrated me, I wouldn’t change it. It made the characters’ boundaries fluid, which, I think, is part of why the book overall is as successful as it is.
Is it one of my favorite books now? No, but I can see a pathway for it to become so. I finally feel somewhat grounded in the locations and in the characters, and I find myself thinking about them often enough I wouldn’t mind dipping back in to learn new things about them as they each connect in their own time and across time, amidst all of the violence.