Fray is a first novel, unusual, awkward, imaginative, difficult. It will appeal to some readers. The actor Alan Cumming calls it “beautiful, amazing, completely mesmeric” and the author Vikki Patis says it is “a dark and atmospheric masterpiece.” If on the other hand you read a novel for the story, characters, wit, humour, a picture or criticism of society, or simply what is called a good read (nothing wrong in that), Fray isn’t for you.
There is admittedly a story of sorts. A young man comes to a cottage in a remote, wild and sometimes dangerous part of the Highlands. His mother is dead and has, he believes, been cremated. He is now in search of his father who may, he fears, have been driven mad by grief. The cottage floor and the few pieces of furniture are covered in scraps of paper in what he takes to be his father’s handwriting. The content, hard to understand, is wild. At times it seems that the father believes his wife is still alive. At other times he speaks of the Devil. There is much description of foul and dangerous weather and of the forest and hills. These writings read like the wanderings of a mind deranged. Oddly, however, each scrap of paper ends with a note of the time, though not of the day or date.
The father’s messages are presented to us in italics. They alternate with the narrator’s words in a normal newspaper font. This is helpful, otherwise it would sometimes be difficult to know who was writing what, for the narrator himself, with a history of poor mental health, is also – understandably – confused, disturbed, at a loss. He collects and tries to collate the papers he has found, and describes his own ventures into the wild in search of his father, though at times he convinces himself that the search is in vain, his father being dead.
The search is sometimes clearly described. So, for instance, “I’m tracking invisible steps, but no longer thinking too hard about it. I’m trying not to get caught on the breathlessness of a suggestion, the agitation and excitement of that single page, that tiny clue that may mean nothing. I can’t know what he was thinking then, what he might be thinking now.”
There is one day a strange development. New scraps of paper have appeared in the cottage. Does this mean the father is alive, or that some other person or strange being is at hand, playing a nasty and frightening trick on the narrator? Is his mental health being attacked as perhaps his father’s was?
So, yes, there is a story if you have the stamina and interest to pursue it, and it is one which you may find rewarding, for in this respect the argument of the novel may be taken as an attempt to distinguish between reality as perceived by the senses and reality as understood by the mind, especially the perplexed mind.
Fray, then, is a serious piece of work. Somewhere I have read a piece by the author saying he wrote it in a succession of 20-minute bursts. That might be the best way of reading this strange and interesting book. There is, after all, always a story if you can dig it out. Addressing an Edinburgh Writers Conference, Anthony Burgess once said “I’m going to tell you the story of Finnegans Wake” – and did so quite compellingly.
Fray, by Chris Carse Wilson, Harper North, 237pp, £14.99