Time between novels escalates. I was married just short of nine years, starting four years after Strandloper appeared, and only one Alan Garner book came out during my marriage. I mention this because it was a Xmas present from my wife and I remember starting to read it, sat at the computer desk, whilst the kids carried on opening their presents. Selfish of me, yes, but this was the new Alan Garner.
Just as in Red Shift, physical place in this novel is of far more importance than physical time. Thursbitch, like Mow Cop, is a real place in Cheshire, a narrow, enclosed valley in the Pennines, above the village of Saltersford. It appears to have an evil reputation in real life that persists to this day.
Whilst I don’t normally rely on external material when writing about anything, Alan Garner has lectured upon the series of events and research, stretching back almost fifty years before publication, that began with his discovery, whilst out running, of a memorial stone to a John Turner, jagger, or packman, who supposedly died of hypothermia a half mile from home, which should never have happened. As if the memorial stone was not usual in itself, Garner accidentally discovered that it’s reverse, set into the hillside and invisible possibly since it was set, two hundred years before, was not left rough but was worked and lettered, to say, “The print of a woman’s shoe was found by his side in the snow where he lay dead.”
Now you don’t have to be a writer to recognise that a book is calling out to be written. The full lecture, which sets out what went into discovering what that book was going to be can be read at http://alangarner.atspace.org/votd.html. I suggest reading it, after you’ve read the novel.
Thursbitch exists in two eras. One is that of John Turner, or Jack as is the name Garner and everyone else in the period calls him. Given that this is a time where most folk never travelled more than a few miles from their home in all their lives, and that Jagger Turner is a peddler working between Chester in the west and Derby in the south-east, he can quickly be seen as a forerunner to William Buckley, a strandloper, a boundary-tester.
Garner begins with Turner’s death before rewinding to show us deeper and deeper aspects of his life, a life that, of all the Turner family in and around this area, his is the one with the least actual record. He lives with this father, Richard (Rutchert) and Mother Mary, though later we are told he is a foundling, an abandoned baby who receives greater favour than his ‘brother’ Edward, the Turner’s own.
He has a sweetheart, Nan Sarah, who lives with the family. The two are very much in love, and once Sarah confirms she is with child they marry according to the lights of a paganistic, non-Christian ritual that has more force for them, here in the North, now and for later, than anything the Church can offer. Like Tom and Janet their love is bound about a piece of bluejohn, a hollowed out cup, that is a real thing for them, though Jack, who is to some extent epileptic as Tom or William Buckley before him, is not crippled and does not betray the significance of the cup to them.
For Jack is the man chosen to interpret the mysteries of the natural religion, worshipping a mythical Bull that walks the high ridges, that governs the fates of the villagers.
Instead, though, whilst close to term, Nan Sarah is afflicted by the plague and is driven out by Rutchert. Jack takes her to Thursbitch, for shelter, brings her water from the valley. She dies, in a rush, giving birth to twins. Jack interprets this as the Bull forsaking him, turning the water into poison. He becomes a Christian, roaring God’s wrath down on the sinners, God’s eternal, unassuageable wrath, in rants that only reinforced my own opinions about religion, and especially the Catholic religion, with its emphasis on guilt.
But he comes to his senses, shortly before, at the end of the book, we repeat the night of his death.
Jack Turner is, however, only one part of this book, if the greater, enjoying two-thirds of the pages and more. There is a parallel strand taking place in the present. Garner doesn’t speak of this side of the story in his lecture, and his research does not appear to encompass any contemporary. As in Red Shift, this part of the novel is primarily in dialogue, with only occasional and very limited paragraphs delineating actions. The dialogue is between Ian and Sally, who accompany each other on walks in the Pennines, centring increasingly upon the valley of Thursbitch. It’s clear from their conversation that they have known each other a long time, and are very close to each other, and at a very early age we learn that Sally is a geologist, and holds a docorate: Doctor Massey.
We also learn that Sally is suffering from an incurable and debilitating disease, never specified, that is slowly but inexorably destroying her from the inside it, both her body and her mind.
There is much more to learn, though not enough that we don’t have to construct a large part of the story, and their relationship, and how it has changed, for ourselves, from what they say to one another. And, like real people, not people in novels whose authors are incapable of rising above some form of the words, “As you know,” they don’t go around telling each other what they already know. Inference and deduction is the rule.
But Sally’s last physical freedom, which is slowly being taken away from her, is to walk in the hills and valleys, and Ian, who is some kind of therapist as well as a Priest, is facilitating this for her for as long as possible. He takes her where she needs to go, and this becomes Saltersford and Thursbitch, because here for no explicable reason other than that in a way that depends on the valley being what it is, Sally’s short-term memory works. She remembers here. She is the valley and it is her, just as once it was for Jack Turner.
In a way, the ending is predictable: we can foresee it from Jack’s death and the discovery of the woman’s footprint by his body, and then from Sally’s first arrival. Garner lets us make that our own conclusion however and doesn’t create an impossible to believe meeting that would require logic to justify it. Instead, when the time finally comes when Sally can no longer be brought to the one place in which she is most really herself, she persuades Ian to leave her, to let her choose her own time and method of dying, instead of her body forcing it on her. There’s been enough, fleeting moments when it seems that Jack and Sally are aware of each other, across the centuries, but Garner allows us our own decisions as to the conclusion.
Both our central characters die of hypothermia. Whether they in truth meet, or whether time momentarily double-tracks itself, is for us to decide.
I remember at the time of publication some pathetic criticism about the use of Cheshire dialect, speech and phrasing, which was described as tiresome, OTT and as ‘Ooh-arhh!’ language. Which just goes to show how cloth-eared such reviewers were, that they not only rejected any thought of the variation of language but could not hear that this was authentic, real language, as vivid and alive as any foreign language: they thought it was fake stuff, written by know-nowts. It isn’t. I don’t need to be Cestrian to hear that for myself.
Read the book if you have not already done so, then follow the link to Alan Garner’s own explanation of how he came to write it, at last. Visit Thursbitch itself, if you will. I haven’t, and I have no means of getting to it to do so, without the intervention of an Ian of sorts. But based on the novel, and what Alan Garner learned to write it, I would suggest that you not go there after dark. This power does not seem to so easily deflect into flowers.