Alan Garner, Thursbitch (Harvill Press, 2003)


The press release that arrived with this novel describes it as: "An exploration of this 18th century mystery; a mystery that lives on in the farms of the area.... John Turner's death in the 18th Century leaves an emotional charge which, in the 21st Century, Ian and Sal finds affects their relationship, challenging the perceptions they have of themselves and of each other."

"Ah" (think I), "A mystery. I know what's coming here..."

Let's face it folks, we've all read books about "old mysteries." Stories where a couple of annoying busy-bodies (usually precociously "smart" urban kids on rural vacation) wander out on the misty moors (for no particularly good reason), find themselves at the site of some ancient, folkloric mystery, get caught up in some spooky goings-on that resonate "uncannily" with the past, solve the age-old puzzle, and make it back to their Aunt and Uncle's picturesque cottage in time for tea and buns.

So, this is going to be one of those, right?

Wrong. Fundamentally, spectacularly, completely wrong...

While it's been years since I read anything by Alan Garner, I should have had at least an inkling of what to expect. If nothing else, I should have remembered my older sister, back in our shared childhood home, pasting a picture of an owl on her bedroom wall after reading The Owl Service. Sometimes she used to wake in the night, see the owl picture and suffer nightmares when she went back to sleep. Whenever our parents suggested simply taking the picture down, she always said: "no, I love The Owl Service." Clearly, anything that can elicit such extraordinarily contradictory emotions is made of something more than "puzzles" and "tea and buns."

Contradiction is both the central flaw and very essence of the type of novel witheringly outlined above. "Everyone loves a mystery," goes the reasoning, "so tell a tale, based in mystery, and everyone will love it." What these taletellers forget is that it's the mystery that everyone loves, not the "solving" of it (for then, there's no longer a mystery to love...)

Thursbitch is far more than a tale, based in mystery. It IS a mystery, the sense of which is deepened, rather than diminished, by the telling of the tale. Actually, that should be "tales," as the stories of past and present, of Turner & Nan Sarah, Ian and Sal, are interwoven in what the book jacket notes call: "a visionary fable rooted in a verifiable place."

While this is a short novel (158 pages), the range of this book is staggeringly enormous. Garner is quoted on The Unofficial Alan Garner Web Site as saying: "At the bottom level, my stories have to work as entertainment, keep a reader turning the page to find out what happens next. At the top level, they have to work for me, say what I want to express. In fact, I must write poetry, making words work on more than one level, subjecting myself to the poetic disciplines - pace, compression, simplicity."

Thursbitch is both a validation and complete realisation of those ideals. Its construction irresistibly reminds me of traditional British balladry, more than any other literary or poetic discipline. The words of the characters "sing" off the page with absolute clarity (albeit, at times, in an authentically dense Cheshire dialect), while the full meanings and implications reveal themselves gradually, and differently, between singers, readers, listeners and chapters. It's been my privilege to have met a few of the great ballad singers, all of whom have, at some time, described the experience of singing a particular ballad for decades, only for fresh layers of meaning to be exposed in the repeated act of performance. Of course, those narrative and supernatural ballads have been honed over countless generations and regional variations. Garner has somehow managed to achieve that level of power all by himself, in one go.

The numerous layers of Thursbitch are both literal and metaphorical. Ian and Sal are geologists, their stock-in-trade the very strata of the landscape, who are repeatedly "drawn" to Thursbitch, while Turner is "a Jagger" (or packman) whose trade takes him far beyond the confines of his isolated community, always to return.

The everyday lives and relationships of these folk throw up huge "questions" that stand immovable and unavoidable as the standing stones that pepper the bleak landscape. Questions about love, family loyalty, mortality, belief, truth and community for starters. Followed by questions about land-use, countryside access, degenerative illness, hallucinogenic fungi, geology and folklore. Then there's the whole question of what we mean by "a place." Is it something defined by the changing actions of humankind, or does some unchangeable "genius loci" play a part in shaping and determining those actions?

These are only the questions which I find myself considering today. When I read Thursbitch again (and I will), they may be different, as they may be for you, when you read this book. The reasons for this are that Thursbitch is a book that casts the reader as an enthralled participant, rather than a passive recipient. It is, to repeat, a mystery. It may unsettle you (if not actually give you nightmares), but you'll love it unequivocally nonetheless.

Having managed to write a great deal without actually saying much in the way of concrete, unambiguous opinion, I'll conclude by giving my answers to the two questions that are probably uppermost in your minds. Is Alan Garner really a genius, and is Thursbitch really as good as you could hope for?

The answer, to both, is yes.

[Stephen Hunt]

Read more Alan Garner reviews here and here