Just finished reading Melissa Harrison’s lovely first novel, ‘Clay’, and wanted to pen a few thoughts while it’s still fresh in my mind. ‘Clay’ is a terrifically beautiful book, a quiet, sensitive portrayal of the lives of a small cast of slightly lonely, slightly constrained protagonists, and their development over the course of a half year in a South London which is by turns familiar and gloriously unfamiliar.
Familiar because Harrison has a good grasp of the plain-sight city – “nail bars, chicken parlours, newsagents, mobile phone unlocking, cheap calls to Africa”, and exotic because she populates the city with a bewildering cast of living things which our eyes are either untrained to see or disposed to miss; dog foxes, bats, sticky goosegrass and evergreen choisya, butterflies, greenflies and stag beetles, swifts, starlings, and plane trees shedding flakes of polluted bark. Harrison’s prose is poetic but hyper-observant, always sensing new movement in the nearby undergrowth, or a pair of eyes watching high in a tree.
All five of the novel’s main characters see more of this hidden city than I (regrettably) do, and are to a smaller or greater extent drawn towards the area’s liminal places – the parts of London in which pockets of extraordinary life are concealed, yet continue to thrive – and in particular to a small park near Tooting Common, which becomes the space in which they meet and interact. At the centre is TC, whose story of neglect is painfully sad but whose resourcefulness and passion for nature is a rebuke to his coddled, careless peers. Around him Harrison conjures a story quite free of sensationalism or sentimentality, but which is quietly gripping and somewhat inspiring.
The clay of the title refers to a phrase recalled from childhood – ‘we are the clay that grew tall’, which resonates through the novel; TC is a child ‘on intimate terms with the earth’. Jozef, an exile from Poland, mourns the physical properties of the farm he grew up on. Sophia, growing old on a council estate her family have left, does her best to disrupt the order which the council wish to impose upon the wedge-shaped park she has watched over for decades, her pockets bulging with papery bulbs.
‘Clay’ is a very satisfying read; a serious book which evokes important topics like innocence, companionship and trust, but which is driven forward by the author’s obvious, intimate connection with nature.
Very pleased that it’s the first thing I read in 2013; it’s a short, brilliant novel that makes me want to rush out into the woods.