The Ravenglass Eye by Tom Fletcher, Jo Fletcher Books, 308 pages, £7.99 paperback, 2012
Some stories are rawer than others. Tom Fletcher’s The Ravenglass Eye is one such story that’s rawer than most: here we have people who are damaged in some way, damaged by nature, event or circumstance. And yet, for all that, these are ordinary people, living lives that aren’t in any way different to those of others in other places. However, in some senses it’s where these people have their existence that makes them who and what they are, as well the events depicted here.
So, what’s the story? Ravenglass is a village near the Sellafield Nuclear Reprocessing Plant in Cumbria (North West England, just below the border with Scotland). Edie Grace is the dreadlocked chef at the local pub called The Tup and she occasionally has visions which have turned out to be true. On a visit with a friend to a stone circle tucked away in the hills near the Sellafield plant, a minor earthquake strikes as she touches one of the stones and subsequently the visions intensify as well as bringing with it something not altogether pleasant. From that point on the world changes and not just for her but for everybody else too, in ways that no one could have ever have thought possible. These changes are anything but benign: death and decay follow in their wake, the agent a malignancy that is as old as time.
Fletcher uses landscape and incident well – in just the opening chapter one is made aware of the isolation of the fells and hills in which the village of Ravenglass finds itself, and that this place holds secrets from the long ago. Every sentence practically breathes eerie mystery: right from the very beginning it’s apparent that the location of the story is entwined with strangeness and a subsurface disquiet, an ever-present feeling that amidst the beauty of the place’s environs there’s a disturbing presence that has seeped into the very bones of the land. It is an old landscape, after all. That acute sense of isolation and oddity is reflected in the characters that people this almost untouched landscape: Edie has always been set apart not just by the fact of her living alone in her caravan behind the pub where she works but also by her talent (though she was not quite aware of the extent of it); Maria, the Polish pub landlord, and her son Gabe, a heavy-metal loving teenager in a dull village where nothing exciting ever happens and so is an easy target; Don, whose wife Mags is in the thrall of dementia, who waters the pub’s plants daily and eats his supper there, apparently preferring the company of anyone other than his lost wife; John Platt senior and junior, who are both seemingly adrift, the older one because he’s lost his wife to cancer and his son unsure of where he fits into the world; and Phillip the curmudgeonly cynic, unable or unwilling to see anything but darkness in others, a man who harbours insalubrious secrets of his own and is a thoroughly unpleasant and bigoted man into the bargain. The latter is aided and abetted by an equally filthy specimen of humanity, Keith, a reporter.
At base, this story isn’t merely about the shade of a long-dead king of an ancient tribe (whom Edie refers to as The Candle) being resurrected and reclaiming the land he once ruled. It raises questions about what the terms ‘land’ and ‘country’ actually mean, and the kind of people who dwell within it. Phillip sees his ‘country’ as being sundered by incoming hordes of foreigners, and by youth who dress strangely and listen to ‘satanic’ music. It’s the typical strategy of scapegoating the vulnerable and the ‘other’, the ones who don’t fit into their standards of normal. The Candle sees the land around the stone circle at Greycoft as his by right, so he’s merely taking what’s his – killing or subverting those who now inhabit it is a secondary consideration. The point is, I feel, that land remains whatever it’s meant to be, regardless of whose feet walk upon it, and that the idea of ‘country’ being a certain thing and nothing else is vacuous and empty at its core. It is mere concept, forced upon something which is at once beyond unforgiving solidity and simultaneously malleable, a quality which can be bent to purpose. In other words, meaning is in the mind of the beholder – the land itself is a static quality and cannot articulate meaning, so it has to be imposed from the outside.
All the characters, barring those of Phillip, Keith and The Candle, are likeable enough; even so, there’s a strong ambiguity pervading their personalities. It’s difficult to pin down, but at the same time making them essentially very human. This is particularly true of Edie: ignoring the fact that she has visions, she is very much detached from the majority of humanity, refusing to live by perceived norms. This detachment manifests itself quite strongly in the middle third of the book, the point where the scenario begins to play out. On the other hand, Phillip (and people like him) feels quite strongly in his convictions, despite his limited experience of anything outside Ravenglass allied to a very narrow worldview. Fletcher’s ability to draw characters so sharply stems not so much from physical description, but from their actions – this gives them all a heightened solidity and believability. These are real people, with real lives and real concerns.
Ravenglass and its surrounding environs exist within a timeless neverwhere, a place where the old ways were never quite suppressed and are merely hibernating, waiting for a chance to re-emerge. Even the familiar things of the everyday sit uncomfortably within the landscape: the land merely tolerates our presence and allows us to live within its embrace, while simultaneously allowing our illusion of conquering it. Fletcher is a dab hand at creating that disturbing and unsettling atmosphere of a place not quite belonging, even if the elements of that place are of the everyday variety. It’s the seamless juxtaposition of the ordinary with hints of the extraordinary that particularly works well in The Ravenglass Eye: nothing is as it seems, and the very essence of the landscape itself gives one the unshakeable feeling that reality is plastic, or that the nature of its solidity is fleeting from moment to moment. See that standing stone? Walk behind it and meet a creature from dream. Cross that boundary and gaze upon alien vistas of marvellous beauty. That’s the kind of place Fletcher has written about here.
Indeed, for the time I was reading this I felt almost adrift, that I was floating in some dimension other than this one. The temporal and spatial dislocation was quite unnerving at times: one parallel reality bleeding into another. Very few books I have read have managed this: Tom Fletcher’s fluid handling of his subject and the atmosphere he’s imbued it with is magnificent. I can only end this review by saying that he is to be commended for this, and that you should go out and add this to your collection. Thoroughly recommended.