Book review: Crocodile, by Daniel Shand

Daniel Shand
Daniel Shand
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A kind critic would describe Daniel Shand’s second novel as “something of a curate’s egg”; another might say “a dog’s dinner”. It is a novel which is ethically interesting and aesthetically all over the place. The central character is usually referred to as “the girl” but we learn, at four points, that her name is Chloe. That is an interesting choice, since Chloe was one of the epithets of the Greek goddess Demeter when she was “verdant” or “blossoming”. Chloe is about to go to the big school; is discovering boys and alcohol and pornography for the first time; and has been sent to stay with her grandparents because of her mother’s chaotic life, which involves men and alcohol and sexual violence.

During her summer holidays, she falls in with a trio of lads, plays truth or dare, makes bonfires on the beach, and things, inevitably, get darker. She also has vivid memories of what bad men do, taken from a television programme. Maybe something is wrong about her grandfather? Maybe her mum’s problems have a cause? Maybe, maybe.

By far the most interesting character is actually Ally, the self-proclaimed leader of the gang. He has to use crutches, and compensates by being more devious than his sidekicks. He is not a very good liar and his friends can’t quite bear to pity him, since he hits back verbally in ways he cannot physically. His relationship with “the girl” is certainly the most moving part, since it is clear from the outset that it is not going to happen. There is a lot else in the novel, but a review is not a summary. Indeed, there is far too much going on, but not at the level of a standard bildungsroman with eerie overtones, a genre which has already been almost exhausted.

The explorations of young adolescence, growing up in a dysfunctional family and the decision to be, not become, yourself are all themes that are worth exploring, even though in Crocodile there is a note of impersonation about it all. The problem is technical rather than moral.

Imagine a three-course dinner: smoked salmon, venison casserole, rhubarb crumble. They are all nice things, but put it all in a blender and pour it out, and you wouldn’t want to swallow it, even if Ally and his gang dared you. At the outset we learn that “the girl” used to play a “war” game, with wasps and slugs and bees and snails. This might be a homage to Iain Banks or might be a pale imitation. Later, when the novel seems more realist in tone, we get “the girl” getting messages from “the room”. Is this magical realism, or is it the psychological disconnect caused by trauma, or is it just a chance to show off a different style?

“The girl” has a habit of counting to calm herself, and this drops in and out of the narrative in a peculiar fashion. The susurrations of abuse are straight from Anne Enright. The post-industrial gothic has a soupçon of John Burnside; the brittle resilience has a hint of Jenni Fagan. There are Carver-esque moments of poignant desolation, and Carter-esque moments of manic illumination.

There is a kind of cadenza with a refrain – “She is one word” – that is out of kilter with the rest of the book’s style. Although the significance of the title is flagged early on, it is only made explicit at the end and in such a way that the word “symbol” ought to have been written in capitals throughout the margin.

The prose itself is the problem. A character being “sewed to the couch” in a “statue of horror” makes one wonder about the miraculous efficacy of needles in the anonymous town. I admire extravagant prose and pared prose, but preening prose is something else. For example we have “a seam of milky dawn”, “the crack of a baby’s laugh”, “furry heads of dandelions”, a “smear of trees”, a “wheelbarrow screeching like a bag of mice”, and the “inky aquarium of this memory”, in which I presume there was an octopus. Other words and phrases occur with an odd regularity: cans are crumpled, hair is pleated, saucers serve as ashtrays.

In some ways this reads less like a novel than a series of creative writing exercises stitched together. It is, regrettably, less than the sum of its parts. For an author so acclaimed for his debut, one can’t ignore the niggling idea that this is a mishmash of off-cuts and earlier drafts. It would seem that the artistically brave choice of never naming Chloe was dropped (there is little significance to when she is called by her name), and instead we get perhaps at least three novels in one, with “the girl” as a kind of composite of different characters.

I don’t doubt that Shand has the capacity to become a very interesting novelist, but this sophomore offering is too much of a smirk and not enough of a punch. If he leaves behind the writerly writing and concentrates on his evident skills at empathy and character, I will be interested in reading his third novel.

Crocodile, by Daniel Shand, Sandstone Press, £8.99