By Chris Sims
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‘Time passes, and little by little everything that we have spoken in falsehood becomes true,’ writes Proust in Remembrance of Things Past. Were Proust to be confronted with Mackie’s beguiling debut novel, he would recognise in it this problem of memory coupled to the exposition of homosexuality in defiance of social convention. ‘He would only tell me to remember it how I wanted to remember it,’ writes Mackie in And This Is True, ‘and it would be as much the truth as anything I could tell you.’
Mackie’s debut novel delineates a provocative narrative: Nevis Gow, a fifteen-year-old boy, has lived in a van with his father, Marshall, for the past eleven years, travelling Britain. Nevis has fallen in love with and is dependent upon, his father, evincing a macabre form of familial Stockholm Syndrome. This bleak narrative affords the opportunity to host a fascinating social tableau; that Nevis’ isolated upbringing has created a veil of ignorance vis-à-vis social conventions. His father, once a teacher, has educated him, but it is academic and general factual knowledge, precluding any social intelligence that denuded interaction with a vibrant, peopled environment affords. When the van breaks down in the Scottish Highlands, precipitating crisis, Nevis is forced to interact with a society for which he is so unprepared, leading Mackie to an insightful examination of personal interaction and cultural commentary.
Presenting an iconoclastic examination of social convention places the novel within the sphere of transgressive fiction—a genre in which the protagonist operates outside societal restrictions in ways illicit or taboo. Whilst this genre sports illustrious predecessors, Mackie specifically evokes the irreverence of content and defiance of stylistic monotony characteristic of the Californian novelist, Kathy Acker—albeit in a more subtle manner. Mackie challenges you, makes you uncomfortable, implicitly suggesting that society has appendaged irrational notions of shame and guilt to sexual practice: ‘You can’t choose who you fall in love with,’ Marshall tells his son when we, the reader, are privy to the uncomfortable interpretation Nevis takes from it. ‘Let me live alone in the closed confines of the van any day,’ states Nevis. ‘There is much more freedom there than under the watchful eyes of others.’
Whilst the veil of ignorance forms the basis for plot, the overarching theme is memory, explicitly deconstructing the very tools that form the backbone to any fictional work: recall; reconstruction; narrative. ‘Memories are like milestones,’ Nevis writes, but having opined that memories form the yardsticks by which we measure the distance covered in our lives, he encounters crisis:
‘How can we distinguish memory from simple imagining…we experience an event and then days later we try to remember what happened. We conjure up an image in our head, we conjure up a feeling, but who’s to say that our image is clear and complete? Who’s to say that we haven’t added bits or exaggerated our emotion?’
For Nevis, and ultimately for Mackie herself, the questions become: what is the essence that we distil from our memories? And, if memory is simply a compromise between clarity and detail, are we compromising truth?
Offering a master-class in the construction of a narrative arc, Mackie at times dares to weave in the necessary building blocks of structure explicitly, as when she writes that a ‘character has to develop’ and when Nevis explains that ‘I wanted to know what was real and what was not…the twist, the revelation, the change. The truth. What an excellent dénouement.’ Mackie writes from the shadow of her recently completed creative writing postgraduate course, but in a place illuminated by a rapidly maturing solo voice. The questions that she poses—what was Marshall writing about in the van? Did that kiss happen? Take the reductionist recounting of a story, but add to it the problem of memory and the presentation of truth, generating heightened suspense.
Creating an elegant choreography for her characters affords Mackie the opportunity to develop emotive, if artificial, subplots, particularly the suicidal farmer who may one day choose ‘his dead wife over his living son.’ Mackie employs familiar techniques—the kettle boiling during Nevis and Marshall’s heated argument about the kiss; the Wittgensteinian interplay of ‘grief’ and ‘farm’ as specific stressors generating a sense of foreboding; the open road serving as catalyst for Marshall’s writing—but it is the intelligence of the construction and subtlety of explication that warrants praise, admirably underpinning the central story with suitable context.
Ultimately, the success of any novel as a literary vehicle is in its intrinsic ability to take esoteric experiences and convert them into a universally-resonant form. With transgressive material, operating as a specific reaction against social convention, the task is that much harder, but Mackie offers an accomplished, confident debut, cast in the hue of Proust’s ‘translucent alabaster of our memories.’ Does Mackie’s provocatively titled work of fiction hint at the work being a construct from the writer’s own experiences? Mackie is a Winchester-born lesbian raised in the Scottish Highlands, with experience of the alternative lifestyle, this much is true.
Proust might appreciate this muddied dialectic of truth and falsehood, as do Sceptre, an imprint of the mighty Hodder publishing house, who has given Mackie a two-book deal after she rejected an earlier offer from Jonathan Cape. It is testament to Mackie’s combination of rapidly maturing talent and unorthodox perspective that an unpublished writer’s work can generate such interest. With this debut, Mackie has laid effervescent groundwork for the literary world to embrace her forthcoming second novel. And this is true.
Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/
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