by Magnus Mills
Flamingo, pounds 9.99, 216pp
WITH A tone that wavers as unsettlingly between Ken Loach and Franz Kafka as its locale switches from Scotland to England, Magnus Mills's first novel is a work of rare originality and power. The nameless narrator is an Englishman who is made foreman in charge of Tam and Richie - two labourers who put up fences - by Donald, the avuncular but oddly obsessive owner of a small Scots firm.
In the opening chapters, the team manage to kill a customer while fixing up a shoddy job of wire-tightening, and calmly bury him under his own fence. The process is repeated, equally casually, several more times, with each of the main characters more or less responsible for a job-related fatality that has no consequence beyond an unsettled account.
Donald sends the team south to an English backwater, where they are to fence off a remote farm property. Mills concentrates for a while on the details of their drudgery: living together in a squalid caravan, as Tam and Richie's slovenliness challenges the narrator's attempt at domesticity; grumbling through a fitful day's work in order to grab precious hours in the pub in the evening.
A potential rivalry simmers when the team learns that "all the fencing round here is done by the Hall Brothers". A meeting with John Hall, some kind of English doppelganger for their boss, gets them into off-the-books work for him, from which they feebly try to escape.
While the business of workaday plodding is convincing, the book is building up a strange background, not least in all the deaths. This makes the home- stretch as nightmarish and yet vague as anything in English since the heyday of Robert Aickman. Written from a point of view stranded between Tam and Richie (with their beer-centric lives and on-the-job moaning) and the Halls (whose businesses are private obsessions with horrific implications), the novel never quite says what exactly it is that all these fences - some electrified, and stouter than they need to be - are for, and what kind of beast has to be restrained by them. It never needs to come out with a Twilight Zone punchline, although the final chapters, when the team returns to the Halls' increasingly regulated processing plant, are horribly suggestive.
This is a concise book, sure enough of its effects not to overdo them. Yet it contains multitudes of meanings: from a specific State of the United Kingdom address (fences as a symptom of national ills) to a wittily resigned vision of people blindly building the very farms, prisons and death camps in which they will be "processed". It is very, very good.