Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Red Shift - Under the Guest Microscope


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A review by Maine Character

Red Shift

I wish everyone could discover this novel the way I did: finding it completely by chance in a used book store and going to it with no expectations other than the quote from Ursula Le Guin on the cover: “A bitter, complex, brilliant book.” But since the purpose of a review is to connect books with their best readers, here’s all you need to know to see if it’s for you.

There’s three interwoven stories, each in the same location. The first and central story is a romance between two teenagers in 1973 England, with one going off to college. The kids are wistful, honest, confused, very intelligent, and trying to hold onto the one thing they know is sure in the world.



They stood in the shelter of the tower, holding each other, rocking with gentleness.

“I love you,” said Jan.

“I’m coming to terms with it.”

“ – love you.”

“But there’s a gap.”

“Where?”

“I know things, and feeling things, but the wrong way round. That’s me: all the right answers at none of the right times. I see and can’t understand. I need to adjust my spectrum, pull myself away from the blue end. I could do with a red shift.”


The second story focuses on a small band of the lost Roman Ninth Legion trying to blend in with the first century tribes of Britain. Religion, subversion, and revelation rise among the brutality of war. One of them, Macey, is prone to berserker-like fits. Anyone who likes military fiction, or gritty fantasy, will appreciate the realistic depictions of their battles, all laced in Vietnam-like delirium.


“You and Magoo stand sentry,” said Logan, “but listen. All of you get this, and get it good. The guards have been taken out, maybe not by Cats. The Mothers have come south. They’ll raid the Cats wherever they find them, and both sides will whip our ass if we let them. Solutions.”

“The usual,” said Face. “Divide and rule. Hit the infrastructure.”

“Correct. All right? We retreat until we’re clear of the Mothers, then we go tribal.”


The third story takes us to St. Bertoline’s church, in Barthomley, 1643, when the Irish are invading the countryside. It’s much like “The Crucible” in terms of a love triangle mixed with religious fervor, and it ties in with the other stories with a stone artifact that appears throughout the novel.


A single bell began to ring over the parish.

“Is it church time already?” said Margery.

“No. My father. He thinks we’ll be up against reasonable men.”

“Have you seen them?”

“Nearly. I rode down through Crewe by Oak Farm. They’d not left any alive. I must go and stop that bell. They’ll find us soon enough.”


There’s profound connections between these characters I won’t reveal here, but the novel weaves questions of identity, time, and the bond between the three couples to the point where the book doesn’t always mark where one scene ends and another begins. And important events might pass between two lines of dialogue. Early editions were marketed young adult, and yet it’s as adult and dense as a Salinger story or Shakespeare.

The novel ends on a heartbreaking note, leaving you in wonder as to what exactly happened, and yet that’s exactly the charm and strength of the work – like rich poetry, you need to read it more than once to get all the meaning, and even then there’s much beyond your reach. It’s a challenging work, and yet completely involving, and at a scant 120 pages, maintains the tension all the way through.

On first reading it, I wished there were footnotes explaining the British slang and history, but the web helped with much of that. For some pointers, a caravan is a military trailer, nesh is being very sensitive to cold weather or simply lacking courage, a folly is a castle built for decoration, cans are headphones, and M6 can be both a highway and a star cluster. “Tom’s a-cold” is a line from “King Lear,” M33 is a spiral galaxy, and the song “Cross Track” must’ve been made up by the author, but it sounds like he’s describing Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic.” (Garner is said to write to Hendrix.)

Image searches of Crewe, Barthlomey, and Mow Cop would give an idea of the setting, but don’t read the history of the church or the meaning of the coded message until you’ve finished the book. Also, the New York Review Books Classics edition, just released, has an introduction in which Garner explains how he came to write it, but don’t read that until afterwards, either, for it gives too much away.

To sum up, captivating and cryptic, with realistic, unique characters and situations, all presented with a masterful use of mystery and suspense. Add to that spell-binding dialogue, rich with layer on layer, and it’s a work that resonates with you long after.

154 comments:

Matthew MacNish said...

Sounds like a strange, but fascinating, mix of tales.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Sounds interesting, although it's not my type of read.

maine character said...

Definitely strange and fascinating. And Garner’s an interesting character in himself, once dropping out of Oxford to live on nettles and hedgehogs.

And for those of us who feel like slow writers, this book took six years, his second to last book took ten years, and his last book took twelve. As he put it, “That is half a word per hour.”

Bryan Russell said...

And it's a NYRB book. Did you all notice that? Life is good.

D.G. Hudson said...

@maine character - thanks for sharing the uniqueness of a book we might have missed.

I'm intrigued as to how the stories are tied together.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Not at all my usual read, but fascinating. Especially so, since they market it YA, which seems to be open to this kind of experimentation. #coolness

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