Photo: ‘Heaton Park, April 2016’ by AN Stuart
After loving Melissa Harrison’s second novel, ‘At Hawthorn Time’ so much, I rushed out to get a copy of her first, ‘Clay’.
Instead of the countryside of her second novel, ‘Clay’ sets itself around the natural world within our towns and cities, in this instance a stretch of park land visited by TC, a young boy neglected by his mother, a loner in search of a life which he finds within the natural world and in the friendship of Jozef, a Polish immigrant who works in a local takeaway but yearns for the farmland he left behind. Unlike TC, Daisy has never known neglect. Indeed, her grandmother Sophia, who has lived by the park since Daisy’s mother was a child, sometimes wishes that Daisy could have more freedom, to explore and live and make new friends…
‘Clay’ is structured around traditional, and often forgotten, seasonal celebrations from St Bartholomews’ Day through Shrovetide and Pag Rag day to Lammas and beautifully describes the changing patterns of time and nature as the year turns, placing nature at the heart of man’s domain and man within nature’s expansive realm
‘The rain faded away. As the darkness deepened, Daisy’s house, and the rows of houses stretching out around it, became bright boxes of human concern, leaving the gardens, the little park, the wooded common and the silent, faraway hills to their own mysterious imbroglios of fight, flight and survival. Wheeling over the furthest hills came Venus, while Orion hunted the sky to the south.
In the hawthorn hedge at the end of Daisy’s garden the sparrows were finally still among the blossom, and deep in the motionless pampas a hedgehog scratched and sighed as it slept.’
As we move through the familiar change in the seasons, the story – never dull, never depressing – skips to its equally inevitable conclusion. There are no surprises here but Harrison doesn’t need this – by making her characters real and modern and aware of the possible consequences of their actions she makes the denouement, when it comes, all the more heartbreaking: a sad and only too believable tragedy.
I loved this book – Melissa Harrison is able to write about nature and the human condition with equal power and beauty, showing what unites us as human beings and how quickly, easily that can shatter: a lesson reflected in the vile racist incidents which have followed, like carrion, the shocking ‘Brexit’ vote and which make this novel timely and prescient and necessary.