From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Hang Him When He Is Not There by Nicholas John Turner.
This book is disorientating. It reads as a series of short stories that the reader expects will eventually interlink – it is, after all, described as a novel. Some chapters are more straightforward than others. Some are distinctly weird. A threatening undercurrent weaves itself through the pages, shadows not quite glimpsed in passing. There is a viciousness to certain thoughts and interactions. Few of the characters are likable, not that this is necessary.
Settings vary but include: a care home, a vineyard, an apartment crowded by books, a decaying family home, rooms let to tourists by an elderly lady. A proof reader travels to meet a reclusive author; in later stories we learn more about their lives. A chapter tells of two brothers on holiday; they reappear in the background of another tale. Books and how they are read are a recurring feature – meta considering the challenge of pinning down what this book is saying.
One theme I plucked from the many permutations of characters’ narrative and observations was the disturbance felt on registering that a person one is close to is not as thought and treated as, perhaps for many years. It is impossible to fully understand all that goes on inside another’s head and one is rarely the centre of another’s universe however much they appear attentive and to revere.
I pondered if the author is offering a work that demands readers change and change again their interpretations as they progress through its pages.
The Mystics chapter was particularly challenging to read due to the brutality. Sexual or bodily explicit scenes throughout offer nothing pleasant. People within these stories are not conventionally good looking – flaws are described vividly. There is the suggestion of personal darkness that few acknowledge, an innate coarseness veneered by observers as much as self.
So, what was the author trying to convey in writing this way?
“I’ll do better than to tell you about a dream I had. I’ll tell you how it was to have this dream. But not before telling you how it was to recall having had it. Everything is everything.”
There are obvious plays with language and form. More was gleaned on a second reading. Ultimately though this was a book that left me perplexed and somewhat frustrated, despite best efforts. The intricacies offered were tantalisingly elusive, viewed through a glass darkly. I wonder if this was intended.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Splice.