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Clay, By Melissa Harrison. Bloomsbury, £14.99
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Wednesday 06 February 2013
This debut novel by a young writer and photographer blends the ancient and the modern as it traces, over one year, the lives of a small group of characters who live around an inner-city common and its nearby scrap of parkland. As nine-year-old "TC" flees his chaotic tower-block home to find solace and stimulus in the "forgotten, wild corners of the city", and the fauna and flora that stubbornly thrive there, Melissa Harrison draws on the urban pastoral style of writers such as Robert Macfarlane.
Like them, she celebrates the nature that still shoots, seethes and riots amid concrete and tarmac. Her season-by-season chronicle of human deeds against the changing backdrop of plant and animal life conjures up the Shepherd's Calendars of poets such as Spenser and Clare, and a bucolic tradition of rural verse that stretches back into antiquity.
Whether marking the timetable of the dawn chorus in a ragged city park or noting how the "mysterious imbroglios of fight, flight and survival" occupy the beasts at the bottom of the best-tended garden, Harrison turns over the thin topsoil of urban life to reveal – and revel in – the wild things beneath. A fitful narrative tells of TC's estrangement from his depressed mother and friendship with the migrant Polish countryman Jozef, with a parallel tale of middle-class alienation as elderly Sophia tries to imbue her little granddaughter with the rapturous appreciation of nature that her upwardly mobile daughter never acquired.
Harrison's investment in these familiar fictional types sometimes wavers. What never falters is the fierce and tender grace of her natural descriptions, as the rhythms of growth, decay and renewal emerge not as adornments but the book's beating heart. TC's solitary joy in his secret garden unites the novel's ethical and ecological strands.
As a nature-writer, Harrison has already, gloriously, blossomed; as a story-teller, she is still in bud. But every reader who cherishes even the scruffiest patch of urban greenery should rejoice in the "beloved territory" she digs up in Clay.
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