Monday, August 6, 2012

Reading Notes: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Communion Town

I have now read two of the twelve Booker Prize long list titles, Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Sam Thompson's Communion Town.

As it transpired, these were a good pair to start with - both by debut novellists, both excellent reads, entirely dissimilar in style, ostensible theme, and voice, but both, it seemed to me, reaching at communicating some kind of life truth, some kind of meaning-of-it-all. Perhaps all good literature does this, really, but I found the resonances in these two books much closer than a generalised sigh of existence. Both, in their own modes, had things to say about the gap between perception and reality, the essential isolation of the human mind, and the profundity of the hunger to connect, to know, to be more than oneself.

Joyce's book is one of the most gentle, meandering, yet incredibly well crafted and emotionally punchy stories in the "ordinary person living life of quiet desperation having life transforming awakening experience" genre. Harold Fry, the protagonist, is beautifully realised, as is his wife, Maureen. His decision to walk the length of England - in his yacht shoes - to bring hope to an old friend dying of cancer, is a deceptively simple plot device, but Joyce makes it work hard, mining the landscape, journeying narratology and unlikely-hero trope for all they're worth (and, at times, more - there's no doubt some of the symbolism is heavy handed in places).

Overall, I wouldn't describe this as a perfect book. I thought it lost its way a little in the middle section; the side plot regarding the hangers-on who form the survivor-like pilgrim posse around Harold after he attains fleeting fame seemed forced, disjointed, to me, as if it was making a different point entirely from the main thread of Harold's inner and outer journey. The "reveal" wasn't remotely a surprise to me (perhaps this is a function of having read entirely too many mystery novels in my life), so the catharsis that might have accompanied the shock-value of it wasn't there. I found several of the minor characters unconvincing and irritating in ways that I'm pretty sure they weren't intended to be.

That said, it is a very good book - the prose is lovely, the main characters are fully drawn, the description, while artful, is spare enough not to irk me (I hate hate HATE books that tell instead of showing), and the grand truths it communicates are well done and persuasive. It is a fairly "straight" narrative - it doesn't demand a lot of cognitive flipflopping or stepping through any looking-glasses. I liked it, a lot, and I'd recommend it to others without hesitation.

Now, Communion Town - that is a cat of another colour entirely. Self-described, in its subtitle, as "a city in ten chapters", this book is dazzlingly clever, achingly beautifully written, menacing, uplifting, tragic and bizarre. I found it spine-tinglingly good, and I know I'll read it many times over; it has depths I've only just started to plumb in one read through.

Each chapter / story is told from a different perspective and, moreover, in a different style; Thompson shows off a bit in some of them, really, displaying a virtuoso command of genres like thrillers, hardboiled noir, puzzle-detection, and (to my mind, anyway) speculative fantasy. The locus for all the stories, the heart-river into which all the streams feed, is the city, unnamed, imagined, dreamlike, fantastical; never fully unfolded, never fully understood, but glimpsed in half-light and shadows, by happy people, lovelorn people, shy and brash people, aliens, ghosts, lovers, killers, detectives, workers, shut-ins.

Communion Town is being marketed rather hopefully as a mainstream novel, probably because calling it what I think it is - essentially, a linked set of fantasy short stories - would be likely to decrease its marketability. In a way that's a shame, because there are many readers of speculative and fantasy fiction who might not come across this one and they are its core audience, to my mind. Let me put it this way - if you enjoy Neil Gaiman, I'd back that you'll really, really like this book. (NB: I'm not contending this book is Gaiman-esque, per se; just that the overall kaleidescopic, fractured, often dark, brilliance of it reminded me of Gaiman quite a bit).

That said, Communion Town isn't for everyone. It requires a jump through the real into the half-real, an acceptance of strangeness, that won't appeal to all readers. There are many people I'd not give this book to, knowing they'd dislike it quite a bit, either for its muffled savagery or its flitting around between narrators, themes and styles. I think it is a wonderful, incredible, first book, and I'm eager to see what Thompson comes up with next, but vanilla fiction it ain't and that's for sure.

Overall verdict for shortlist?
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will be shortlisted, even though, if I were voting, it wouldn't be.
Communion Town won't be shortlisted, even though it deserves to be.

(*I reserve the right to change these votes after I read more books, in case the rest are either wonderful beyond belief or really weak :-)


  1. On my way to get me a copy of Communion Town!! That's a great recommendation.

    1. Oh, I will be fascinated to hear what you make of it ... A coffee date for book dissection is in order, I think :-)