Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Skallagrigg - William Horwood

Skallagrigg is basically a quest story and its reading has been somewhat of a quest for me. Lady Bracknell has mentioned this on Ouch and elsewhere, but perhaps the most powerful recommendation was when our own Marmite Boy had its title tattooed to himself. I ordered it from Amazon but they took three weeks and two attempts to get it to me. Then when it finally arrived, I was into relapse, experiencing various cognitive difficulties etc, so I have been reading very slowly. Plus we are talking about 728 pages here; which is a lot of pages when you can only do a few every day. Obviously some days I’ve managed more than a few or else it would have taken me a full year, but you get the picture.

Okay… Peter doesn’t know who his grandfather is. Peter’s father doesn’t know either and Peter’s grandmother never said much about it. Only the word Skallagrigg which she would spell out in her senility. So when Peter hears of and begins to play the computer game called Skallagrigg, he becomes interested in where it comes from and how it might be connected to his own history.

We then begin to learn about the life of its author Esther Marquand and her quest to find the Skallagrigg – a character who crops up in stories of hope and deliverance passed down among disabled people. Which brings us to one of the many notable aspects of this book; Esther has Cerebral Palsy, and many of the characters are disabled.

Esther, like many CPers before her, initially struggles to demonstrate her personality and intelligence to the wider world, but she happens to be in the right place at the right time as far as developing computer hardware is concerned. With the help of her father’s colleagues in the IT industry she is soon not only able to communicate through an adapted keyboard but developing into a talented programmer.

Meanwhile, she sets out trying to discover whether the characters in these Skallagrigg stories, such as Arthur, a man with CP who features in them all, were real people and what exactly the Skallagrigg is. This interest, which becomes a disruptive obsession, takes her on many adventures as well as the ultimate journey of self-discovery that she was eventually to incorporates into this amazing, life-changing computer game.

Horwood is either writing about subject areas he already knows well or else his research cannot be faulted. He writes in convincing detail on various subjects from the institutionalisation of disabled people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, through computer science to wind-surfing. He knows about people with various impairments. Norman, a man with learning difficulties who is compelled to write his mother’s address even years after he has been taken from his home, really struck a chord with me. After my uncle Andrew died this spring, I inherited his 2005 diary, which had little in it, except the address at which he grew up written several times over (though bizarrely he’d sometimes write Safeway instead of Suffolk). Horwood does not shy away from the aspects of impairment which others might find ugly or uncomfortable, and in recording them in a matter-of-fact way, he neutralises any discomfort one could feel about them.

But Horwood is not preaching any kind of political message about disablity. Disability plays an important part of the story, but it is incidental to the central messages. This thing happened and was passed down among this group of people and the thing that connected them just happened to be disability. Most importantly, Horwood validates disabled people as being worth writing about; normal human beings with normally complicated personalities and experience – no more brave or pathetic as the protagonists of any story.

The vast majority of characters, disabled and non-disabled, have this complexity and are totally real. There is only one angel and one devil in all this; Kate is Horwood’s idealised woman, young tall slim silk-stockinged Australian who never frowns or utters a cross word whatever unpleasant or irrational behaviour goes on around and towards her. She also stars in the only sex scene in the book, an honour that ought to have belonged to Esther (see below). Fortunately Horwood demonstrates an ability to write about real women elsewhere, so I guess you can excuse this single, total, self-indulgence.

The devil of the book is Dilke, the sadistic nurse in charge of Arthur and his friends, but this was perhaps necessary, his symbolism being far more important than his reality. However, all the other characters, old, young, male, female, disabled and non-disabled make it through with their strength and weakness, and therefore their credibility, fully intact.

And perhaps as a result, I don’t recall a book that has made me cry as much. I am not a complete rain-cloud and this really did surprise me. When someone says you’ll need a box of tissues, I usually expect to be nauseated. But this really touched me, really moved me a great deal.

Horwood has earned his poetic licence and is prepared to use it. For example, despite some excellent portrayals of cross-generational relationships, the vast majority of characters have been either been orphaned, are or become estranged from their parents. As a narrative device, this frees them to dedicate themselves to their friends without compromising loyalties, but alas, I noticed.

Had I read this very quickly, I probably wouldn’t have noticed this and other unlikely coincidences at all or indeed the neatness with which all the strings were finally tied up. However, his poetic justice was truly poetic so that although I saw the mirrors and the slight of hand, I was still somehow seduced and weeping as those strings were secured. Which demonstrates a very rare talent indeed.

I should also warn that a lot of Horwood’s language seems antiquated – not just his outdated use of terms around disability which we have to forgive, but there are flurries of romanticism which take you by surprise and some of the magic realism is rather Old School - more like Graham Greene than Zadie Smith, and thus perhaps not entirely to modern tastes.

And inevitably over the space of seven hundred pages, there were passages which I felt to be superlative and still other events or details which I felt were unwisely glossed over. For example, we follow Esther through adolescence, with her increasing sexual awareness and the attached fears and fantasies – almost to a tedious extent. Then suddenly her sexual initiation has been and gone without comment. I was far more interested in that, with the fear and excitement, pleasure and pain it perhaps entailed that than inflatable Kate’s al fresco shenanigans.

However, despite my ability to criticise such details, these are mere imperfections. Skallagrigg is a great book. It is a post-Enlightenment Pilgrim’s Progress (Pilgrim’s Progress being the second best-selling book of all time for a very good reason). There is allegory to be found within allegory here; about the journeys we all have to take, about making our way through the Slough of Despond without succumbing to despair, about love in its many shades and flavours and perhaps most of all, about hope.

I certainly feel I gained a lot from this book, apart from the fact that it is an exceptionally well-written book and a very good read. The best book I have read in a long time.


Blogger Lady Bracknell said...

Very nicely done, Goldfish, if I may say so. The problem with reviewing Skallagrigg is always going to be that you cannot even hint at the solution to its central puzzle without completely ruining someobody else's first read of it.

I have read many on-line reviews of the book, and they have tended to be much more succinct than yours precisely because of this problem.

The first time I read Skallagrigg, I read it in a day. Given the number of pages, the density of the writing, and they size of the font, I really have no idea how I accomplished this feat: I only remember that I simply could not put it down.

I carried on reading despite the fact that, some of the time, I could barely see for the tears streaming down my face.

I have lost count of the number of times I have re-read it, and it still makes me cry.

You talk about William Horwood's expertise in his subject matter: you may not be aware that he has a daughter who has CP.

His writing style is certainly idiosyncratic, and can take some "tuning in" to. I had always vaguely assumed that he had adopted the style specifically for this book (although I can't imagine why I would have thought that), but I read his autobiography last year, which disproved that theory immediately.

Admittedly, it's not to everyone's taste. I had it thrown back in my face by one friend, who said, "Why did you give me this sad book to read?" Unfortunately, she didn't finish it, so she never reached the transcendentally joyous passages which raise the goose bumps on my arms.

Skallagrigg almost - but not quite - topples Precious Bane from first place in my list of favourite books of all time.

7:02 PM  
Blogger The Goldfish said...

I am very grateful to yourself and Marmite for the recommendation, Lady Bracknell. :-)

Of course now I have to track down a copy of Precios Bane if that's higher than Skallagrigg in your esteem.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Lady Bracknell said...

If the Goldfish can bear to read an entire novel on screen, there's a link to the complete text of Precious Bane here.

1:47 PM  
Blogger marmiteboy said...

Thank you for a wonderful review Goldfish. You put it much better than I ever could.

Like you I had ceratin reservations when Lady B said that it would make me cry. Although I do cry at the happy bits in films, especially when the boy gets the girl, I have never cried when reading a book. However the scene where Esther makes Richard a birthday card had me in floods.

I'm afraid I fell head over heels in love with Esther too. This took me by surprise too. I have never felt so connected with a character in a book before. She is a difficult, harrassible but above all a viberant young woman and just one utterence of "Nah" or "Yeh" had me weak at the knees.

I can't wait to reread this amazing book.

4:44 PM  
Blogger edward11 said...

where can I get a video or dvd?

2:36 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

So briefly, I've read this book four times in twenty years. My daughter first read it aged around the same time I first read it, she was ten at the time. She and I treasure it and I truly think it is the most special book I have ever read. Reading it slowly is good, I find something new each time. What will I discover the next time I read it? So many layers entwined. I don't understand why so few people know about it? Though I do recall the BBC struggling bravely with it some years ago. Well, at least they tried. Thank goodness I read Duncton Wood, which drew me to this. Thank you Mr Horwood, BU

9:14 PM  

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