A very long poem: Alan Garner’s Red Shift

Alan Garner’s Red Shift is a book I have practically memorised, which makes re-reading it weird—it’s more like reading poetry than prose, because my brain keeps filling in the whole line from the first word. The reason I know it so well is because I like it a great deal, and also because it’s a very difficult book (again like poetry) and one that I first read as a teenager and kept coming back to and back to in an attempt to understand it. Garner’s previous books (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, The Owl Service, Elidor) were children’s books deeply rooted in place and mythology. Red Shift is all that, but it definitely isn’t a children’s book. It’s much too challenging and elliptical. Almost the whole book is dialogue, there’s practically no description and very little attribution of dialogue. It’s set in the same places in three distinct time periods—Tom and Jan in the contempory 1973, Thomas and Madge in the Civil War, and Macey and the remnants of the Ninth Legion at the borders of Roman Britain. They’re linked by location and by a paleolithic axe and by a vision they all share of something that is blue and silver and very bad. You don’t find out what the blue and silver thing is until the end of the book.

The story can be seen as a version of “Tam Lin.” It’s also a naturalistic story about a romance between young people with no money, and a story about some Roman soldiers trying to live on a hilltop, and a story about the kinds of betrayals you get in civil wars. It’s a story about the history of Cheshire, and about the way history has deep roots and happens right where you are. It’s about sex and love and longing and how hard it can be to hold on to connections between people. It’s full of beautiful imagery and language. It jumps between times that are linked thematically. It really is a lot more like poetry than prose, it makes more sense if you read it with the protocols of poetry.

“I’m not sure about the mean galactic velocity. We’re with M31, M32 and M33 and a couple of dozen other galaxies. They’re the nearest. What did you say?”

“I love you.”

“Yes.” He stopped walking. “That’s all we can be sure of. We are, at this moment, somewhere between the M6 going to Birmingham and M33 going nowhere. Don’t leave me.”

“Hush,” said Jan. “It’s all right.”

“It’s not. How did we meet? How could we? Between the M6 and M33. Think of the odds. In all space and time. I’m scared.”

If you like this, you will probably like the rest of it. Garner’s most recent book, Strandloper, is also written like this. I’ve recently read it, just once, and I think I liked it, I’m not sure yet.

If Red Shift is Tam Lin, then it is a Tam Lin where Janet does not hold on to Thomas as he changes. If it’s a thing like the motif in Guy Kay’s Ysabel and Fionavar where the pattern repeats and maybe somebody will hold on sometime, then that makes the mention of “next time” in the coded note even weirder. We also have three pregnant women, none of them pregnant by the men who love them, but it is the men who connect up through time, the men who see the vision of the train that parts Tom and Jan. It’s perfectly possible that the girl on Mow Cop and Madge are Tom’s ancestors, but Macey and Thomas Rowley are not. Yet Macey and Thomas are picking up Tom’s anguish back through time as it’s manifested in the blue-silver blur of the train. But the Tam Lin thing is actually reversed, it’s Tom who doesn’t hold on to Jan, he gives up the Bunty. Macey and Thomas do hold on to their women—Thomas seeing the lights on the cars on the motorway and thinking they are waves is one of the most impressive images in the book.

I understand the weirdness about Tom’s reaction to Jan’s previous relationship a lot better now than I did when I first read the book, where it was quite incomprehensible to me. I actually understand it better than I did even the last time I read it, because I have been reading Kathleen Norris in between. The whole obsession with female virginity still seems bizarre, but at least I see where it’s coming from. It seems particularly bizarre because it’s Tom that I identify with in Red Shift, and this, significant as it is for the story, is where I can’t follow him. Oh well.

All three partnerships, in their different times, are across barriers. With Tom and Jan it’s straight-up class, her parents are professionals, Tom’s parents live in a caravan and he is struggling to win a scholarship to university. With Madge and Thomas it’s that Thomas has fits, visions of Tom and the train. With Macey and the unnamed girl they’re from entirely different cultures, and he’s ridden by visions and the whole berserker thing.

The Romans talk like soldiers, in soldier slang and local dialect. Their names, Face, Magoo, Logan, Buzzard, Macey, are not Roman names. Yet they don’t at all feel like modern people, even with all of that. The lack of distancing in the language and names makes them more different. The things they do—the slaughter and rape in Barthomley especially—are horrific. There’s a wonderful line about Face, but it applies to all of them really: “He has lost Rome and is tribal, far from his tribe.”

The Civil War episode contains a lot of backstory packed into very few words. Madge has been involved with two men, both called Thomas, Thomas Rowley and Thomas Venables. She’s married Rowley. Venables comes back and rescues them from the general slaughter of Barthomley. John Fowler the Rector’s son has been fighting on the Parliament side. He’s also tangled up with Madge and the Thomases. He has been a thorn in the village’s side for a long time. Civil wars lead to people killing people they know, or sparing them, there aren’t any strangers.

There are three locations that link all the times. Most significant is Mow Cop, the hill with its quarries where the Romans retreat, where Thomas Venables comes from, where Madge and Thomas Rowley end up (with the stone axe) and where Tom and Jan visit in trying to find somewhere real. Barthomley village, where everyone gets slaughtered twice in the two historical periods, is a haven of peace and tranquility for Tom and Jan. And Rudheath is where Tom’s parents live, and where the Romans begin and Thomas and Madge end up. Crewe, the city, is modern and unreal, although Jan and Tom spend time there it is constantly described in images of unreality, or being too real.

“Each of these shops is full of one aspect of existence. Woolworths is a tool shed; Boots a bathroom; British Home Stores a wardrobe. And we walk through it all but we can’t clean our teeth, or mend a fuse, or change our socks. You’d starve in this supermarket. It’s all so real we’re shadows.”

They find their way to Barthomley by finding a path “older than Crewe” that cuts through and across the city. Crewe is, of course, for most British readers, famous as a railway junction. I have changed trains there thousands of times without ever venturing out of the station. And this aspect of it is emphasised in the novel, not only with meeting and parting at the station but in the tracks they cross following the path and in the views of Mow Cop Jan gets from the train. (It’s actually only visible on the train from the North, not from the London train.)

The book is also seamed with graffiti—the inscriptions on the bells, the park benches, on the screen in Barthomley church (“Let there be no strife for we be brethren”) and the actual ungrammatical graffiti carved in the house on Mow Cop “I came back Mary” and “Pip loves Brian: not really now not any more.” These, with Tom’s constant quotations from Tom O’Bedlam in King Lear, serve to root the times and histories even deeper together.

Red Shift is a sad story of a love that doesn’t work, though the deeper historical stories have happier endings. It says something for the way it’s written that the beauty of the language and the landscape and the depth of resonance shines through that sufficiently to make it comfortable reading. I love it. I’m not sure I entirely understand it, even now, but that doesn’t matter.

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