Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Moonlight and Magic: Alison Lock's debut novel Maysun and the Wingfish

Readers of this site will know I am a huge fan of Alison Lock - whose poetry I celebrated in the opening post of 2016:


and whose work I have profiled on the Caterpillar Poetry youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rglPI8qsgnM

so it will come as little surprise that when Alison's first novel Maysun and the Wingfish was published this July, I read it eagerly. 

Maysun and the Wingfish is such a wonderful novel for all ages - beautifully crafted dreamscape of tribal legends, supernatural forests and magical realities.  It follows the story of Maysun, a young girl who sets out on a dangerous journey to restore harmony in the wake of an environmental crisis.  The story begins in Maysun's homeland, "the world of Watterishi, a place where grey skies and green-brown land merge into a camouflage", and with an overview of the community, its way of life, agricultural practises and buildings, and the world where all this happens, together with descriptions of its plants and the Wingfish which populate its waters - and whose presence, in a ominous conjunction with the recent appearance of the planet Ares in the skies, embodies a cautionary pre-telling of the story:

It has been three score years since Ares came within a whisker of the planet, sending shudders through to the core.  No-one knows why it happens, when it will happen, or why it appears to chase the full moon, or why the moon changes colour becoming red and looming large. But when Ares comes close every creature cowers in fear of its destructive force. The older Watterishi are fearful of the full moon and bide their time until it has passed. The elders no longer speak of the planet they fear as if doing so might evoke an evil omen. To minify the bad forces, the Elders rarely eat the Wingfish although at times they are driven by hunger to sacrifice a few. But by way of compensation, they give back one tenth of the Gringrows they collect, always leaving enough for the Wingfish. They believe that as long as the Wingfish are happy, the moon chaser will never strike.

The significance of the Wingfish are underlined in the earliest paragraphs, when Maysun herself declares: "Wingfish are so beautiful!" and the first chapter concludes in peace and beauty:

As the moonlight steals through the reedy walls of their abode, it catches only the oily glisten of their skin as they entwine and perform their love-making.  By dawn, their gleaming bodies are as slippery as the fish in the lake.

But the environmental scales are tipping in the world of Watterishi, since:

This season the Watterishi have gone too far; they have plucked at the roots of the Gringrow that once held firm the sides of the lakes.  Maysun can hear oozing and bubbling as the Wingfish writhe in the shallows.  They are agitated.

Maysun's planet is attacked by the destructive power of a "Soomoon" storm, Maysun's world is thrown into chaos:

There is a flash from above.  The ground below is rumbling, the waters quiver.  Bolts of firelight cross and cross before the eyes of the Watterishi. Shards of lightning flare, pluming out across the valley.  A terrible noise fills the air as the darkness in all its shades of grey and black and red explodes.

Maysun's father is initially optimistic of his planet's chances.  "It'll soon abate," he says of the rain.  It doesn't. We are then sucked into a post-Apocalyptic aftermath of rising waters, desolated villages, and a struggle to survive. 

The Watterishi are clinging to the poles with the water rushing around them, the Wingfish catch at them with their quill-like tails, their mouths biting.  Many of the Watterishi can no longer hold on and are swept away into the surging waters.  Some are submerged for a short time but rise again. Some are drawn into the muddy swamps where they come face to face with the grotesque creatures that lurk in the silt.  Disturbed now, the carrion feeders have risen to the surface for the first time, stretching wide ther throats and yowling their displeasure at the heavens.  The surviving Watterishi are left clinging to pieces of driftwood, clumps of tiles, the remains of rafts until they are dragged further and further from their homes with each rising wave.

I do not wish to spoil the plot by revealing much more of what happens to the Watterishi, or indeed to Maysun, as she embarks on her dangerous journey across her Soomoon-savaged world, where:

The dwellings of the Watterishi are gone: the only trace are the stumps of their posts in the mud ... All around her is mud, slipping and sliding and oozing.  Everything has been suffocated by the slimy earth.  Even the Ruba trees at the edge of the forest, in the distance, have lost their footholds and their white roots are exposed, flapping in the running waterways.

These Ruba trees are themselves an integral part of the story - seemingly semi-creature, semi-plant, with the capacity to entwine around their victims and suck them into the earth - reminding me of the voracious desert-dwelling reptilian Salek of the Star Wars trilogy.  And the author's ability to conjure up a world of grotesque danger does not end there - in passages almost like something out of Milton's Paradise Lost, we find ourselves enfolded in a forest whose zoology, to maintain my Star Wars comparison, is occasionally reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt:

...the old footpaths and byways have grown over becoming an impenetrable force of undergrowth and tightly packed foliage, and with the added danger of the Ruba's sticky droppings ... Few animals survive in the darkest shadows of the forest.  The grand slimers remain, the largest of the gastropods, who, unlike the other slow moving creatures have not died out.   With their vile secretions, they dissolve the rubbery textures, gaining purchase on a sheath of bark, stretching and shimmying along the far branches of a tree until they reach the sweetest leaves,

You might easily imagine the appeal such a depiction might hold for a mollusc-doting poet like myself!  These forest creatures are depicted peacefully above, but the rough-and-tumble of forest life (and death) is sharply accentuated in the descriptions of the activities of Stonebears, who dwell in caves and engage in territorial battles:

The loser is forced to leave the cave and in the ensuing battle they can be heard slipping down the scree, bellowing their invocations in a violent remonstrations ... sometimes the loser is left clinging to a tree in a final hg of desperation as the ribbons of sticky Ruba wrap themselves around him in an inescapable trap.

If the natural history of Alison Lock's fantastical planet appears defined by struggle and violence, this is even more dominant in the lives of its humanoid inhabitants - beset by a tribal antagonism, whose protagonists - the Watterishi and Peakerfolk people - are divided by a long-time segregation and animosity, whose borders are traversed when the paths of Maysun and her male Peakerfolk counterpart, Borro - not to mention his faithful dog Worro - unexpectedly cross.  The futility of division is emphasized when we learn that the very devestation encountered by the Watterishi has also befallen the territories of their tribal rivals:

... the Peakerfolk had watched the Soomoon from the mouths of their caves, high in the mountains. They saw the full moon and then they saw the grey planet of Ares. And then the storms began and the mountains seemed to creak and rock as the winds and the rains blasted against their homeland.  When th shuddering of the rocks finally relented, and the last boulders had slipped down the scree the Peakerfolk, who had crept deeper into their caves, were shivering under their blankets ... They had seen how the Soomoon was wrecking the valleys below and they were knew that the river beds would be filling and swelling.  Many dreamed of cursed waters, oozing and luring them to their deaths.  In their sleep, they fought through suckers and winding roots that hung in long fibrous tentacles along cave walls, all the while clutching at their sleep-heavy limbs.

What follows is a classic tale of poignant heroism, peppered with a largely dark and intriguing supporting cast, including a thuggish tyrant, a shadowy talismanic figure, and a duo whose comic clumsiness somewhat endears them to the reader, and might do even more so if not for the acutely skilful manner in which they are depicted as genuinely menacing and hostage to deep-seated prejudices.  Driven by fear and a narrow worldview hammered into them from birth,  Goss and Hind take their place in the classic tradition of blundering villainous double-acts, and stand out for me as both a triumph of characterization and a wonderful mirror in which to offset the maturity and hope of the two central characters.

Maysun and the Wingfish, then, might justly be described as a reflection of many of our own world's conflicts and divisions, and as a plea for understanding and alliance across apparent barriers of difference. Yet the novel can also be taken as a purely imaginative excursion into a world of dreams, danger and magic: indeed, I read it very much in a mood of escapism - struggling with depression and the pressures of "the real world", I wished to take cover in an alternative reality, which, thanks to this engaging and hypnotic novel, I found.  Resplendent in hints of CS Lewis or the more adventurous novels of HG Wells, Maysun and the Wingfish is nonetheless a unique book, and throughout its shimmeringly lyrical and page-turningly enticing text, Alison Lock's victorious debut treads a fine balance between fairytale and parable, as its emotive narrative of rivals, superstitions, morality and, perhaps above all, the plight of the environment, has the capacity to both transport the reader into another world, and to bring home to them the urgent realities of our own.

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