Thursday, 11 February 2010

Alice Fell - Emma Tennant

On the face of it, there is nothing to this book. It recounts the birth and early life of Alice Paxton, born to the housekeepers of a large house owned by the Old Man. And that’s it. Yet this is the most astonishing, magical, work. Surreal in content and written in a poetic style, it draws the reader into a bizarre yet internally consistent world. Nothing is explained in the way a conventional narrative might attempt. Rather, we are presented with a series of images – some still, some moving, all shot through a symbolist lens – that accumulate to create a gorgeous, rich tapestry.

As well as the life of Alice, the book portrays the fragmentation of worlds; the chaos of a collapsing old order from which is born the screaming infant of the new. Those who lived through world wars find themselves at a loss when trying to cope with the social revolution of the ‘60s. The quiet of the countryside with its old and long-established rhythms is eroded by the noise and bustle of new development, new ideas, and new attitudes.

Through all this, Alice grows and Alice falls; moving across a dreamlike landscape. The characters interact in a formal, dance-like way, caught in golden moments as they try to pick sense and meaning from the fast-whirling world about them.

Although this is a short work (like many of Tennant’s earlier work) it is dense, lyrical, and hypnotic, making use of simple language in a way that unlocks the most complex of ideas. Delicate like the decaying tapestries and books in the house, it leaves one with the sense that if not nurtured, the very words will fade into the mist that rolls off the downs around the Old Man’s house.

It is difficult to say more about this book. Its uniqueness makes normal modes of description redundant. All I can say is look out for a copy and read it. See just how good writing can be. Wonder why Tennant and writers like her are not lauded in preference to the turgid, self-obsessed drone of today’s literati.