Fact is, if we chose to live the way she does, in that kind of Hell, it would change us. It just would.
There are two kinds of ways to write a book that is genuinely startling: you can do it with the plot, or you can do it with the style. (You can, of course, do it with both, but the vast majority of authors, in my experience, pick one or the other. Those who do both tend to be absolute knockouts, though.) Kerry Hadley-Pryce, in The Black Country, mostly does it with the style. The plot is basically something we’ve seen before: Maddie and Harry, a couple who have been together since they were too young, now hate each other. They relate to each other mostly through silence and lies. They attend a memorial service for the university tutor who introduced them; at the party afterwards, Maddie meets someone else, a man named Jonathan Cotard, and fucks him. On the way home, in the icy darkness of a West Midlands winter night, they run someone over by accident. It’s Jonathan. They leave him there in a panic and drive home. When they return in the morning, he’s not there. From here, the plot descends into a whole mess of infidelity, underage sex, and further developments which are even more tabloidesque. (Spoilers later.) So in some ways, it’s not a surprising or innovative book. But in other ways, it’s disturbing and haunting and queasy-making in a manner that suggests there’s more to it than a bare summary makes it seem.
Hadley-Pryce’s world is nasty, and its nastiness is tactile. People have “bluish” skin; their hair is greasy; kitchens are cold and dirty and have little bits of grit underfoot. Smell is omnipresent, usually bodily–people’s breath, their hair–and always faintly repellent: “cat-food and chemicals”, “halitosis-like”, “metallic”, “sour”. Landscape gets the same treatment; urban or rural, there is something chilly and corrupted about it:
And Maddie kept walking, away from the city, out, past the edges of disused factories, beyond the metropolitan blocks and buildings. Not far really. It isn’t far before the city limits quite suddenly become an abandoned, unimproved no-man’s-land. Here, black weeds and oily mud line the water’s edge, and that day, puddles of gradually icing mud had breached the earth to offer up dim reflections of overhead power lines.
It is land that could be beautiful, or at least dignified, in another novel, but the significance of landscape is a matter of perception–in the eye of the beholder, as it were–and no one in this novel is in any fit state to see beauty anywhere.
Which brings me to the next curious thing about The Black Country: its narrator. Someone who occasionally refers to themselves in the first person is telling us this story, but it is neither Maddie nor Harry. It appears to be someone to whom they’ve both confessed; most events are mediated through “he says” or “she would have”. This has the effect both of being slightly jarring and of making everything contingent:
And then, quite suddenly, the traffic moved. Jerked forward. Harry would have driven forward with the flow, and Maddie ran her hand across her own flat belly and says she thought something about orders of bliss, or some such philosophical nonsense, and she felt her face crimp with the worry of it.
“Jesus”, he said, or something like it. And Maddie knew exactly what he meant.
The implication is that the details aren’t really important; we can get a good enough sense of what’s going on even with the imperfections of memory. Whether we’re meant to agree with the narrator on this isn’t clear. There aren’t really any major events whose interpretations are contested, though; the only things we’re given to doubt are relatively small, like the order in which people spoke, or the precise things that they said. The big picture is never all that controversial. I’m still not certain whether this is clever, deterministic, or accidental.
That narrative style, with its short declaratives, its fragmentation, its sentences starting with “And” or “But”, and its frequent repetition, is the backbone of the book. The Black Country is fortunate in being short (under 200 pages); any longer and that style would start to grate severely. As it stands, though, it’s a clever way of building the narrator’s personality without actually telling us who he is. The insistence behind phrases like “It would. It really would”, or “She does. She really does” grows ever more revealing. What kind of person needs to repeat these things? What kind of person needs to convince themselves so constantly of reality?
We eventually find out, of course, and this is where the plot starts to get tabloid-y. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Sure, all of this has been set up from the beginning: the hints that Maddie left Harry for a year, fifteen years ago; the revelation that Harry has had an affair with a schoolgirl; the fact that that schoolgirl has recently disappeared; the slow reveal that the narrator is someone whom Maddie keeps going to see. But the sudden Josef Fritzl turn that the plot takes is pretty unexpected, and I couldn’t help wondering whether it was entirely necessary. We’ve already got two people who hate and hurt each other, paedophilia, prostitution, paedophilic prostitution (which I haven’t even discussed here), self-harm, and corrosive guilt and shame. Even though the man-crazed-with-jealousy-kidnaps-people-and-hides-them-in-basement device ties up the plot neatly, I couldn’t help wishing that Hadley-Pryce had stuck with the more banal evils.
Unlike most novels with crimes in them, though, this one ends on a deeply ambiguous note, and that resonates strongly with a major preoccupation of the book: consequences, or the lack of them. The way we deal with the fallout of our actions reveals, in large part, who we are; people are vulnerable when stressed because often stress makes us our worst selves, and those worst selves are parts of us that we need other people not to see. Maddie and Harry are terrified they’ll be arrested for hitting Jonathan, so they flee; then they’re terrified they’ll be in even more trouble for fleeing. When they return and see that he’s not there, their relief makes them physically weak. When Maddie sees Jonathan’s watch under the hedge–a proof that it really did happen–she starts to cry:
Not for Jonathan, she’s perfectly honest about that. No, she was crying for herself. She was crying for the hope that had been snatched away. She says she was crying because she lost faith.
They don’t, as it turns out, need to worry, because nothing ever comes of it. Jonathan’s body turns up a few days later, but it wasn’t them who killed him; he’s suffered twenty-four stab wounds, after which no policeman would think to look for signs of having been bounced off a car bumper. Harry, who’s a teacher, is several times called into the office of the headmaster. Each time he thinks they’ve discovered his affair with a teenager, but it’s always about something else. Official repercussions don’t exist in this book, or at least they don’t catch up in time.
But unofficial repercussions very much exist, as exemplified not only by the aforementioned Fritzl plot twist, but by the weary horror of Maddie and Harry’s lives. They’re helpless, pathetic, mean, controlling people caught up in a nightmare of their own making, and they can’t escape. The ending only literalizes the trapped nature of their lives. It’s an unsettling, odd book, and I can’t quite figure out whether it works entirely as it’s meant to, but if you take one thing away from it, it should be this: be a person who can change. Otherwise, you’re on a path to your own private hell, and it won’t be fun when you get there.
Thanks very much to Salt Publishing for the review copy!