Kate Long is the bestselling writer of three novels, The Bad Mother's Handbook, Swallowing Grandma and Queen Mum. Her first book was serialized on Radio 4 and has been adapted for television as an ITV drama, to be screened next month. She's also a contributor to The Sunday Night Book Club anthology in aid of Breast Cancer Care. Outside of writing, Kate's passion is wildlife and she runs a blog - About a Brook - about her local water vole colony. Here she gives seven reasons why she loves Alan Garner's Red Shift.
Kate Long on Red Shift by Alan Garner
1. Alan Garner's Red Shift is a love story, and I first read it at a time when I was desperate to be in love. It's a novella supposedly aimed at teenagers - I was given the book when I was fourteen - but for various reasons I don't believe it is a children's book, not least on account of the language and sexual themes. Because the book is short, or because Garner's previous novels had been for children, or because the protagonists were young, the publisher decided to put it out as teen fiction. This meant that on my first encounter with the text I barely understood half of it. I got that there was a love story between a modern day couple that went wrong, that there were two other love stories going on in the past, and that they were all connected by a stone that might have been magical. So what I assimilated when I was fourteen was a powerful, tragic romance that got into my system the same way as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights or Flambards did the same year, and I adored it because of that.
2. There's something special about a novel that's set in a real place, and no one does place quite like Garner. He doesn't just describe a setting, he gets the dialect, and the feel, and the sense of history and the emotional pull of a landscape. The first time I saw Mow Cop, the Cheshire folly where Jan and Tom play out their courtship, I felt as though I was standing on a ley line. That hill vibrates with power. I walked round the stone building where Tom confronts Jan about her affair, and then turned and looked out over the plain and remembered the Roman soldier, Macey, and his strange connection with the Celtic woman who saves his life. The wind thundered in my ears, the sky darkened. I really thought if I stood there long enough, I'd meet one of them.
3. Garner's dialogue is unique. Spare and punchy, sometimes tricky to follow, it slices through the narrative, jumping the reader ahead to new developments and plot twists without preamble. His use of dialect, historical and contemporary, is spot-on. The voices are completely true. You don't know what the term 'dialogue-driven' means till you've experienced Red Shift.
4. The structure of Red Shift is clever and, at the time it was published in 1973, felt unusual and daring. We chop between three gritty romances, one set in Roman Britain, one during the English Civil War, and one contemporary. In each case we're given just the tip of each story and left to fill in for ourselves what happens off the page. Initially Jan and Tom's world looks the most settled and optimistic; the other two periods are in political and military turmoil. But a different kind of conflict creeps into the modern-day relationship that connects all the characters in their sense of confusion and fear. So it's possible to approach this book in two different ways: as Garner sets it out, with different time zones juxtaposed, or taking each tale and picking out its sections to read one after the other. If you try the second approach after the first, you get a different effect that alters your understanding of the individual stories and how they connect. In fact, whenever I read this novel I have the sense of a kaleidoscope shifting round, the same elements producing a different pattern. It's never the same novel twice.
5. That feeling of shifting elements, coupled with the extreme spareness of the style, results in moments of ambiguity. Do Thomas and Macey see into the future? What exactly is the power of the axe head? What does it mean for Tom when he sells it to a museum instead of keeping it? Nowhere is the ambiguity more evident than at the end when the stories come together and it's hard to know who's speaking each line, from which time zone. What will happen to Macey and the girl when they leave the mountain? Does Thomas survive his wounds and live happily ever after, or is it his widow who places the axe head in the chimney for Tom and Jan to find four hundred years later? And what of Tom and Jan? Sometimes I read it as a happy ending; more often that they're parting forever. The inclusion of a letter written by Tom in code held the key, I assumed for years, but when I eventually worked out what he was saying I was no nearer. Instead of being annoying, though, the ambiguity is fascinating, a challenge. Each time I begin I think: This time I'll see it all. I never do. It doesn't matter.
6. This book has grown up with me. Every time I've read it, it's reflected me back. The first time through I didn't realize Jan and Tom were having sex, the information's given so obliquely. It wasn't till sex came into my own life that the penny dropped: that's what Jan means when she says to Tom their relationship's 'become all one thing'. And as I've become middle-aged I can see the questions the book asks about loyalty, betrayal and forgiveness fall beyond the confines of a youthful romance. Of course, it's not the only novel to have changed like this: I read Sons and Lovers as a virgin, as a wife and as a mother of boys, and it was a different book every time. But Red Shift got to me earlier, during my formative years.
7. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, one of the reasons I'm fascinated by this novel is because it's so far from what I say I like. I'd always maintain that I prefer books which are clear and not deliberately opaque, where I'm at all times pretty much on top of what's happening. I like an upbeat, life-affirming ending. I don't enjoy witnessing violence and I'm not really into the supernatural or the mystical. But here's a book which wraps up all those elements I'm uncomfortable with in one powerful package, and I love it. So it tells me something about myself as a reader which I didn't know. How special is that?