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It is New Year’s Eve, a time for fresh beginnings – but for each member of the fragmenting Haywood family, this night could mark the end. With mother Stella battling depression and father Philip determined to escape, eleven-year-old Zachary and his teenage sister Nicola have nowhere to turn when confronted by their own worst fears. Set against a backdrop of wintry beauty on the edge of a Peak District town, The Dawning explores the danger than can arise even at the heart of a family, over the course of one dark night.
I have to say I’m a great fan of Megan Taylor’s dark, poetic fiction, so it was a pleasure to pick up this, her latest offering. I knew it would be good. And, as you’ll see below, it was. But I really do have to warn you that the packaging of her novel doesn’t do it justice. Much like finding Marilyn Monroe wrapped head to toe in bin liners. The cover doesn’t suit the text as it makes the story appear to be a 1950s’ kitchen sink drama, which it most distinctly isn’t. Moreover, the size of the book is so small that you can scarcely make out the cover at all. If publishers are going to produce this quality of work, then may I make a plea to them to give it the packaging it deserves? To be honest, these days, I’ve seen better-bound self-published offerings – surely commercial publishers, even small ones, should at least be able to match that?
Yes, as you can tell, in this case I was cross on behalf of the author – so please don’t let the book’s poor format and cover put you off. Inside is good stuff. Very good stuff.
Taylor writes like a modern DH Lawrence. The quality of her rich and poetic prose wraps you round like a fur coat on a winter’s night and you have to read slowly to savour it. And to catch the nuances of the gripping tale she tells:
But though the snow goes on dancing and glimmering, turning to a golden glitter in the firelight ahead, Nicola’s shivers are changing; they’re melting, becoming sweat, a slimy casing hemming her in. Then she is no longer seeing stars but yellow moons and empty planets, inching like small seeking hands across a wall.
Though, to be fair, as can be seen in the above quotation, it’s more a case of savouring the gripping characters in the family that Taylor slowly unfolds. Here, character and the characters’ choices are most distinctly the story and the way it is told.
As someone who dislikes children, it utterly surprised me how much I loved eleven-year-old Zac’s voice in this book. He’s great – deeply confused about his difficult family circumstances, but not baby-ish at all, and battling in an appropriately thoughtful way with the local bully. Really I could have done with a whole lot more from him, and I was sorry when we seemed to lose touch with him rather in the middle of the book, due to other family voices. Here he is at the beginning:
The back door opens, releasing more gold light. Zac stands against it on the step, a small, shadowed figure in a hood. The door clicks shut behind him, but he doesn’t move. He feels as if he is gazing through a portal. He is caught between two worlds.
I also enjoyed the drug-induced and spaced-out journey that Zac’s sister, Nicola, takes throughout this difficult night. The hopes and anxieties, and the tiny shifts of perspective and emotion of a teenage girl are masterfully portrayed – my heart went out to poor Nicola during the twists and turns she faces with her difficult best friend and her potential boyfriend:
She concentrates on the simple things instead, on the cold with its thin glimmering edges and the way her scalp tightens as she reaches for the bottle, the long, brown burn against her tongue. She focuses on the bourbon, dissolving her as it slides towards her stomach, emptying her inside.
The teenagers’ party in the wood and the events that spring from that have a distinctly tense Hitchcockian (if that is a word at all …) feel. The reader, like the unfortunate Nicola, feels trapped and oppressed by the scenes and the way Taylor describes them.
In some ways, the two children are indeed the most vibrant characters in the story, and in this way Taylor shows herself to be a talented purveyor of the troubled child – a gift that she showed in equal measure in her first novel, How We Were Lost, which incidentally has a far more suitable cover for what it contains. That said, I wasn’t quite sure about the wisdom here of having a couple of sections with the voice of Callum, Zac’s bullying fellow-pupil, but I do understand why the author felt it necessary, particularly in view of the ending. Still, a part of me would have preferred to focus on the family alone. It’s a minor point however.
The adults in the novel are in the middle of marital crisis, and the shifts and shadows of marital disconnection are expertly shown. Stella, interestingly, was the character that least appealed to me – perhaps this is partly due to the effect of her depression which makes her a somewhat stagnant figure, around whom the rest of the family attempts to flow. I didn’t entirely relate to the initial description of Stella’s plight and it did not in fact bear much relation to my own experiences of depression – though to be fair I’ve obviously never suffered from post-natal depression, and accept that the circumstances are very different:
It isn’t just the light that Stella hides from in this room. It’s what’s outside too; it is this place, especially after dark, when the black hills and rocks and trees all merge. Sometimes Stella imagines that she can actually feel the land around the house sneaking stealthily closer, as if it might be alive somehow. Watching.
Still, I admit that later instances of the effects of her depression – such as the attempt to be logical and fill the washing machine without panicking do ring true; it is when depressed that simple tasks become deeply impossible. I also felt that Stella gained narrative weight as the story progressed and it is indeed she whose decisions bring this book to its gripping, subtle and oh so clever finish.
But before we get there, I thoroughly enjoyed the difficulties, hopes and fears portrayed in the man of the family, Philip. He spends a lot of time attempting to make connections with his disintegrating brood and only just missing them as they dart by. It is Philip in whose company we travel fully into the adult world outside the home:
Coward, he thinks as the darkness gusts around him and into him, the strong, pine-smelling wind making him shudder and blink and rock backwards on his heels. Buffeted from every side, he pushes on towards the car with his head bowed and his shoulders hunched, his feet skidding in the stones … He is deliberately focusing on the little things, things that are easier to think about than Stella, and than that ache, this blot, inside him.
We see how the world juts up against him as he attempts to appear normal, even when everything in his domestic life is splintering away. The description of the car accident and his attendance at the obligatory New Years’ Eve party is an exercise in how even simple social events can take on an unsettling power of their own and lead people where they do not necessarily want to go. Equally and in equal balance to this, Philip’s return home with the dawning of the next day brings a welcome hint of hoped-for resolution to the traumas that have happened overnight.
Or does it?… Because the glory of this novel is that something is offered to the reader but never quite resolved. And it is in the final coming together of Zac and his mother Stella that the true force of that rich and nuanced ending is seen. So I’d say this about The Dawning: ignore the look of the book, but instead enjoy the rich and stirring poetic prose that awaits you and relish that ending. Oh yes.
The Dawning by Megan Taylor (Weathervane Press, 2010), ISBN: 978 0 956 219 343)
[Anne always writes about split families, dark love and trauma herself, so is equally pleased to read it. For more information on her work, please click here.]