A LONG-LOST sister is a disturbing presence in this atmospheric debut, writes Allan Massie
By Wayne Price
Freight Books, 199pp, £8.99
First novels are usually interesting. Nevertheless, a first novel from a university lecturer in creative writing, published by a small press is not necessarily an enticing prospect. The back cover is also disingenuous: “Shortlisted for Saltire First Book Of The Year Award”, it proclaims. In fact it was Wayne Price’s collection of short stories, Furnace, which made the Saltire shortlist a couple of years ago, not this novel. Publishers often play this game; it’s a shabby one.
Happily, Mercy Seat is free of the self-admiring over-elaboration characteristic of the creative writing school of fiction. Indeed, it is decidedly good, and the only irritating tricksiness is to be found in the decision to dispense with inverted commas for dialogue.
It begins arrestingly: “I think now, nearly thirty years too late, that Christine came to us that summer not meaning to shipwreck our lives, at least not to begin with, but just to save herself somehow … For a long time I‘d assumed that if there’d been any meaning at all in what happened that August, then it was something to do with control and revenge.”
“Shipwreck … Control … Revenge”: these are words that set up expectation, set the tone of the novel and promise much. Moreover, the reader is likely to be caught in two minds. Is the narrator’s disclaimer, 30 years on, the right interpretation of what happened?
The answer to these questions is left open; one wonders how reliable the narrator will prove to be. How much does he understand, even in retrospect? At the time he says, “I was staring out at the world as if I’d woken in a small room that wasn’t my own, in a strange land, and I understood so little of what I was seeing. Maybe nothing at all.” Nevertheless, the narrative will be concerned mostly with what he saw, felt and thought at the time; and this is persuasive.
The setting is west Wales. The narrator, Luke, having dropped out of further education, is working on a farm, for the sort of peasant farmer whom the poet RS Thomas wrote about, when he meets Jenny, a young teacher. They become lovers, have a child, marry, and live in the basement flat of a boarding house called Bethesda. Both are survivors of a Welsh fundamentalist religious upbringing of the kind never perhaps fully escaped – Satan will be more real to Luke than God. Both are also children of broken marriages.
Then Christine, Jenny’s sister, comes on a visit. They don’t know each other well, because when their parents split up, Jenny stayed with her mother, Christine chose to remain with her father, who was generally believed to be in the grip of religious mania. At first, Jenny is delighted to have the chance to get to know her lost sister again, but it is soon clear to the reader before it is clear to Jenny and Luke that there is something disturbed and disturbing about Christine. She seems keen to fit in, but the attention she pays to the baby Michael is unsettling, and it seems that she hopes to detach Luke from Jenny.
The course of the relationship is developed with a fine eye to detail, shifting perceptions and atmosphere. Little that is remarkable happens, and yet gradually, with deft skill, the tension is cranked up.
The credibility of the novel depends on Price’s ability to render daily life in this confined basement in drab small-town Wales so convincingly. He has a fine feel for the texture of everyday life against which the drama of jealousy, suspicion and resentment is played out. If the novel comes to no firm conclusion, there is always properly a mystery about why other people speak and act as they do, while their thoughts and motivations can only be surmised.
This is an accomplished novel. Price recognises that if you have a first-person narrator other characters can’t be fully known. They exist for us as seen and understood by the narrator, and as they present themselves to him. Then he is happily free from the imperative “show, don’t tell”. Good novels do both, and good authors are aware that the act of narrative is the telling of a story.
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