A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I’m a big fan of Alice Thompson’s writing, so I was excited by the release of The Falconer earlier this year. Her novels are always small but perfectly formed… and mind-bendingly surreal. Justine is a tale of sexual obsession, Pharos a ghost story – Pandora’s Box I have yet to read – and The Falconer is a little bit of both.
Instead of writing my own summary, I’m lazily going to copy the one on the cover, as I don’t think I could put it all so succinctly:
‘It is 1936. Iris Tennant has applied, under a pseudonym, to become personal assistant to Lord Melfort, the Under-Secretary of War, at his private estate in the Scottish Highlands. Her plan is to find out why her younger sister Daphne committed suicide there a year previously. As Iris gradually falls under the spell of Glen Almain, she starts to see the apparition of Daphne haunting its glades and begins to wonder about the manner of her death. Is there really a beast that inhabits the woods? Who is the mysterious falconer? What actually happened to Daphne, and is Iris destined for the same fate?’
That’s it in a nutshell. But any ‘plot’ description will be misleading, for although the novel (or novella) is constructed like a Gothic mystery, it’s a mystery with ever-receding answers. This can be infuriating, though it’s doubtless intentional. Which one is the bigger threat: the mysterious, blood-thirsty woodland beast, or Nazi Germany? The supposed witchcraft practised by Lady Melfort’s agoraphobic sister, or the biological weapons developed on Gruinard? The Gothic world of horror and romance gets mixed up with reality. All characters are obsessed: Melfort’s sons Edward and Louis with the memory of Daphne; Lady Melfort’s sister Agnes and daughter Muriel with the mysterious falconer; Lord Melfort with appeasement, and Lady Melfort with her heritage. (‘Everything on the estate was about blood – blood spilt and blood related.’) Iris, in her turn, is obsessed with all of them. There are secret trysts and hidden pregnancies, and in other hands the web of relationships would have turned into a soap opera, but Thompson keeps things cool and remote. Sometimes I felt that the narrator explains too much, and Iris overhears too much – but this may well have been part of the author’s distancing strategy.
The best thing about The Falconer is undoubtedly the writing itself. Though the novel is very short, it’s impossible to read fast: Alice Thompson says so much so simply. What I remember best about her previous novels are not the surreal plots or characters, but the luxuriant descriptive passages – here, they are lush descriptions of nature, with some eerie twists:
The now-tranquil waterfall was falling into the large pool below. It hadn’t rained for days and all trace of the waterfall’s power had gone. Smooth cream and brown stones nestled at the bottom of the amber pool like speckled eggs. At the deepest part of the pool, big sharp-edged rocks were mounted in a surround of golden pebbles.
Branches of an oak tree hung over the edge of the pool, trailing their leaves in the water. Grass reeds clustered around the water, their blades sharp and resonant. Iris looked into the pool again. For a moment, she saw her sister lying on her back in the pool, her golden hair splayed out around her. She was naked, her eyes wide open, looking through the water into the wide expanse of sky above. Then the image dissolved.
In Thompson’s novels, beauty – especially feminine beauty – is something rich and strange… and usually disturbing.
Despite its disturbing beauty, I was a little disappointed in this book, possibly because my expectations were so high. The problem (and, admittedly, the point of the novel as I see it) is that nothing really leads anywhere. The Gothic world of Glen Almain is irrational and threatening, the ordinary world outside is more rational but still threatening, and Iris gets involved in an elaborate game between the imagination and reality, the strangeness of the natural world and the strangeness of the human psyche. It’s all thematically fascinating, but nothing seems to matter overmuch. The characters are quite interesting and do interesting things, but they feel so remote that they don’t matter. The Gothic horror both pales in comparison and is related to the very real horror of war: the possibility of war looms out there, but it doesn’t really seem to matter. A certain disjointedness and stubbornly opaque mystery wasn’t infuriating in the earlier novels because they felt self-sufficient (for want of a better word). In this case, Thompson alludes to so many external realities, there are so many themes from feudalism to biological warfare to sibling rivalry to shell-shocked soldiers – in short, so much material in a short space – that I kept wishing she’d made this particular novel longer and fleshed out the many different threads more.
Final Verdict: Mysterious and beautiful; but perhaps – and I never thought this would be possible! – a little too mysterious and beautiful. A theme of petrified beauty, of statues and petrified trees, runs through the book, and the novel itself partakes of the same icy hardness.
Two Ravens Press 2008 paperback 132 pp. ISBN: 9781906120238