Book Review: Slip of a Fish

“I couldn’t think, couldn’t straighten my thoughts, couldn’t be sure”

Slip of a Fish, by Amy Arnold, won the inaugural Northern Book Prize which was launched by And Other Stories in 2017. It is an unsettling tale told from the perspective of a young woman named Ash who likes to observe the lives of others, to listen to them as they speak, but does not welcome their company in her home. It draws on memories from Ash’s childhood and the difficulties she is experiencing now that she is married. This is not in any way a standard offering. Ash is a troubled and often opaque protagonist.

The tale opens on a first date when Ash is taken to see a film set in northern Finland by Abbott, the man who will become her husband. Ash is affected by the idea of days spent in darkness, how for several weeks in winter the sun sits below the horizon. She wishes to add the name of the Finnish town to her word collection. Ash thinks often of language, of homonyms, and how difficult it is to understand feelings or anticipate other’s actions and reactions.

We learn that, back then, Ash could speak. These days she struggles to articulate the many and varied thoughts silently swirling around, travelling in tangents through her mind.

Ash and Abbott have a daughter, seven year old Charlie. Ash takes her swimming in a local lake where swimming is forbidden. Abbott would prefer them to use the local pool, and often they do, but Ash likes to see the sky, relishing the space, the peace and privacy amongst the trees with the water washing over her. She watches the birds, especially those that migrate. She ponders on time, the importance granted it: by Abbott with his newly acquired watch; by the people on the perimeter of her family’s lives. She feels disturbed when these people encroach.

Ash has learned to breathe under water and tries to teach the skill to Charlie. Over the course of a long, hot summer Charlie starts to pull away from her mother. Abbott is concerned about his wife and offers practical solutions to what he perceives as her problems. Ash regards his actions with suspicion.

There are references to Ash’s papa whom she appeared to love despite how he treated her. There are references to Kate, a yoga instructor whose relationship with Ash had a powerful impact. Despite her inability to express her feelings, in words or deeds as most would expect, Ash tries to draw Charlie back to her by showing her love in the only way she knows how. The rip tides of her life manifest.

These dark undercurrents of the story run deep, articulated sparely and often portrayed in metaphor. Telling aspects are revealed in small comments made by others. Ash fixates on certain books, on words and their potential meanings, but struggles to translate what is spoken into anything attributable to her.

The repetition in the writing brings to the fore the salient strands which feed Ash’s preoccupations and concerns. The fragmented structure adds to the tension and volatility of the narrative. The toxic elements of Ash’s life prove challenging to read despite being mostly kept shadowed. This is a powerful evocation of maladjustment and psychosis, its causes and consequences.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, And Other Stories.