Steve Himmer Reviews Clay: A Novel By Melissa Harrison
It’s an old but important question in environmentalism and art alike: Do we place the human at the center or the edges? What’s the right role to assign ourselves when we create national parks or urban oases, or when we attempt to tell stories about a world containing more species than solely our own? The painters of the Hudson River School dwarfed their figures with mountains and vistas, and contemporary novelists take a range of approaches from anthropomorphizing animals to balancing the narrative attention paid to human and non-human concerns. A good example is Jim Crace’s minute and multi-species depictions of human bodies decomposing on a beach in Being Dead.
Melissa Harrison’s debut novel Clay takes on this question, among others, rather directly. In depicting one year in a group of lives connected by a small, overlooked park in a declining English urban neighborhood, Clay makes more of that green space “as beautiful and unremarkable as a thousand others across the country” than might be apparent to rushed passersby. Her characters include Jozef, who immigrated from Poland after losing his farm, and TC, a young boy from a home broken in ways he only half understands, who Jozef befriends. There’s also Sophia, an elderly widow who comes to know Jozef and TC via the park, and whose daughter lives with her husband and daughter in a posh community nearby. The park that connects these characters to the neighborhood also embeds their stories in a wider world, and in the realms of economics, politics, history, class, and ethnicity.
Jozef, for instance—the kind of “anonymous” immigrant easily overlooked in the crush of modern cities—lost a family farm worked for generations in Poland because,
… his new dairy failed an inspection. Jozef got a fine, and couldn’t pay. The bank foreclosed. It was so quick; one day he was expanding, the next everything, everything was gone. He could not understand what had happened.
Although “He had voted yes to Europe — they all had,” Jozef is undone by new laws and regulations wrought by those optimistically welcomed cross-continental political ties, and so he becomes a family farmer bought out by industrial agribusiness and then driven abroad where a “little wedge-shaped city park” becomes his surrogate landscape.
Harrison is an adept observer of the details of place, and more than once I was struck by similarities to the quiet depth of attention in Jon McGregor’s fiction (so it was no surprise to notice his name in the book’s acknowledgments). Clay’s is a realistic landscape, a complicated landscape, rather than a romantic vista with the marks of human presence left out. Driving out of the city, for instance,
In a few of the fields left fallow, wrecked lorries acted as makeshift advertising hoardings. One was fashioned from an old shipping container which had been gently collapsing for several years. It was for a debt-collection agency, although the telephone number, with its outdated dialing code, was now partly missing. Below it the sheltered field was grazed by sheep, lit golden, as the sun crested the rise, like a Constable pastoral.
Like the landscape itself there is so much packed into that passage: lorries and fields both abandoned but repurposed, the phone number lost to time and change, and all of it reabsorbed into the pastoral scene, not quite “natural” but close to our imagined version of what nature looks like.
Equally powerful is Clay’s careful depiction of time’s passage. Chapters are titled with English date references such as “Midwinter” and “Plough Monday,” leading us through the year via markers thick with tradition. In that juxtaposition of a pastoral calendar onto urban life there are echoes of George Mackay Brown, and also in the elevation of “mundane” seasonal signs to vivid, poetic clarity. An abandoned grocery is “almost empty, bar some sun-bleached leaflets and junk mail like a tide around the edges,” and the coming of winter to urban garden plants means “summer bedding stood sad and tangled in the pots” until “lawns had thawed” with the arrival of spring. That equanimity, the willingness and ability to take seriously not only human presence in and around the park and its city but the presence of animals, plants, and inanimate objects alike, is Clay’s most stirring and striking quality. In fact, the few moments of narrative misstep come when human lives and desires are overstated—or perhaps overdetermined—by slips into an assessing authorial distance out of step with that balance, and when characters (primarily the young boy TC, perhaps unsurprisingly) show an exaggerated degree of self-awareness regarding the poetic significance of their own everyday actions.
But such dropped stitches, so to speak, are rare in the tightly woven tapestry of the novel. And as it builds toward the inevitability of an ending seen coming from the opening pages, even the tragic elements of Clay come with a moral and narrative complexity earned through that attention to a world larger than human lives alone. The individual tragedies of characters, their individual losses, are moving and sympathetic and well-earned by the novel, yet they are also smoothly absorbed by that larger fabric as no more or less individually significant than the growth of roots and bulbs underground or the nocturnal comings and goings of urban foxes—and far more collectively significant for that.
To say a work of fiction makes human lives seem almost beside the point may sound like a strange compliment paid—the novel being a distinctly anthropocentric genre, for obvious reasons—but in this case it’s meant as high praise. Harrison’s debut is a wonderful evocation of the complex rhythms of place and time, and while the particular events of the plot give it momentum and narrative tension, they’re ultimately part of that fabric rather than exceptional in themselves, provoking questions about whether we need plot or if place and time are enough, and if perhaps our insistence on tension and intrigue is a part of the problem (ecologically speaking), a disruption to our being in the natural world peaceably just as an insistence on seeing “problems” becomes disruptive to and destructive of the lives of Clay’s cast. There are difficult questions in this, about what it means to be a reader insistent on “story” with its necessity for change and consequence, but those questions rise from the soil of the novel so gradually, so gently, that they burst forth like the first brilliant crocuses after gray winter, sneaking up on us so fully formed and demanding—in their bold, quiet way—that we take them in all at once and give them our fullest attention. It is no less than those rich questions, like this rich novel, deserve.
Header photo by Simmons B. Buntin.