Although I cannot see them, I know they are out there. Hare. Fox. Raven. Each waiting to play their part.
– Richard Skelton, The Look Away
A sense of ominous foreboding pervades The Look Away, the debut novel from Richard Skelton, musician, poet, and co-founder, along with Autumn Richardson, of Corbel Stone Press. The novel is told from the perspective of a single (male) protagonist and runs as a fragmented stream of consciousness, pockmarked by more coherent boyhood memories. Now an adult, the narrator has recently arrived at an abandoned dwelling – a “shieling” – in a remote moorland setting. He has been through some sort of physical and/or emotional ordeal around which his mind turns but to which we, as readers, are only given oblique access.
Much remains unsaid throughout The Look Away. Only the occasional use of twentieth century clue words like “car”, “analgesic” and “clock” transects a nostalgic syntax and anachronistic setting that suggest this story could be taking place out of time, or at least any time within the last 300 years. Often it is not only the reader who remains in the dark but the protagonist too. We know that he is waiting – like the hare, fox and the raven. And that he is suffering: “The pain subsides if I lie perfectly still”. We know that he is haunted by a past deed and now expects some sort of retribution. Yet, neither he nor we, as readers, ever know what he has done or who his pursuers might be: “I had come here to escape my past,” we’re told, “or so I had thought. Hiding from unknown pursuers. From retribution – I had done something unspeakable, I was sure of it.”
A massive body of water runs through the landscape of this work. It is depicted as a potent force only just contained by earth:
[…] I feel movement. Not the dull workings of my body, but something greater. It is another body, massive and restless, shifting beneath me. Rising and falling. My mind drifts, and although I cannot hear it, I feel the progress of the stream that runs close by. Its thousand veins meeting other tracts of water, seen and unseen. The hills’ open pores, fractures and fault lines, flooded with dark liquid. And so my body, filled with blood, water, mucus.
In this novel, the partitions between elements and epochs – imagination/reality; human/animal/landscape; past/present/future – are fundamentally unstable. Water threatens the land’s solidity as it threatens to overflow the central character’s body, to dissolve the patchy reality of a discrete and boundaried self at any moment. Haunting the text is the idea of being undone by so great a natural force, a sense of the blissful release of resolving into something like the “vast river” of Shelley’s Mont Blanc that “ceaselessly bursts and raves”.
This struggle against dissolution that occupies the protagonist is played out in the formal structure of the text. Repeat phrases, even when they are not explicitly prayer approach a prayer or a mantra-like warding off of forces that threaten to overwhelm the discrete sense of self embodied by the protagonist. As if, well-woven enough, the structure of the text might better contain a self caught between the fear of perpetual “unmooring” and the seductive charm of what such an unmooring might bring. Language holds the self together, but only just: “Touch the horseshoes. Cross yourself. Say His name if you think it will help. He leadeth me in the paths. I will dwell in the house…”
In 2004, during a period of intense bereavement, Richard Skelton retreated to compose music in the West Pennine Moors. This, according to a 2011 article in The Quietus, was Skelton’s “attempt to ground his ever more spectral existence in the tangibility of the landscape”. “I felt very light, completely unmoored, unconnected with everything,” Skelton told Wire magazine. The presence of this word “unmoored” suggests parallels between Skelton’s moorland retreat and that of The Look Away‘s protagonist. The word occurs a number of times throughout the text.
I walk slowly and never far, keeping the shieling within view. I often find myself looking back for reassurance. Each step made away is an unmooring. I wish I had a rope to tether myself. I feel that I might slip, lose my footing, stumble into the unknown.
Here, in the early stages of the text, the fragment expresses the narrator’s anxiety about remaining connected, principally to the shieling but metaphorically to the structural determination of some sort of discrete construction – built, of wood, clay, body and bone or words. Then, on the penultimate page of the book:
Each step is an unmooring. Habitually, I turn to look back at the shieling.
They have come.
It is here, at the end of the text, where language dissolves into the blank space of the page that the moment of transfiguration – hinted at throughout the book – takes place. The trajectory of The Look Away, as a retreat into a moorland landscape in search of healing or transformation, suggests that this piece grows out of Skelton’s personal experience of bereavement. The private drama of this text is, like the heaving body of water through the land, a massive and almost overwhelming presence: a grief that threatens to tear the solid ground – and the bounded self – apart.
The Look Away evolves through the subtle structuring of words over pages formed as patterns that deliberately counteract any simple linear arc. The sense of this work is atmospherically induced. It is an active roiling mist that propels you along, pulls you back and through and over again. The Look Away is both densely symbolic and fundamentally ambiguous. Formally, the precise attention to the placement of words and spacing of passages on the page establish the book’s proximity to the poetry that makes up the large part of Corbel Stone Press’ back catalogue. But, for a reader of fiction not already familiar with Skelton’s music and poetry, this style of writing may offer too little to hold your attention. Even as an ardent fan of Corbel Stone Press, I was a little thrown upon first reading. It feels at times as if the author has fallen out of poetry without quite finding his way back into prose.
As such The Look Away inhabits a formal no-man’s land that echoes the physical and psychological limbo that is its subject. It took a second reading – all in one sitting – for me to appreciate the full craft of Skelton’s prose debut. It was then that I could better follow the way in which his short, pared back sentences repeat, build up and insist a motif, offering brief moments of clarity or familiar landing points, gifted as ground for the reader – like stepping stones through an otherwise foggy reality.
Richard Skelton, The Look Away is published by Corbel Stone Press (2018).