Red Shift, 1973, is formed from the jagged pieces of three interlinked narratives. It is, by turns, unnerving, distressing and, in parts, oddly romantic. Each narrative’s timeline, though separated by a thousand years, is ‘present’ throughout. Linear ‘tick-tock’ time does not exist, but is interwoven and contemporaneous. Red Shift is an interpretation of time travel, but travel of an inner and psychic form. It makes for a destabilising, unnerving read.
There’s no handholding in Red Shift.
Whilst the last days of Roman Britain; the siege of Barthomley Chruch during the Civil War and a 1960s caravan park near the M6 provide the settings; and the Vietnam War looms large, though is never named; the locations and situations are never explicitly defined. Stylistically, Red Shift is very compressed, minimalist, much of it conveyed through sparse narrative and dialogue, of which Garner is a master.
There is little description. Much of the book is unattributed, quick-fire back-&-forth conversations between the protagonists. In short ambiguous lines. Often using dialect terms or making allusions to events the reader has to deduce; or literary or period references. A cubist story of incomplete dialogue and interactions. The style – pared-back, shredded, enigmatic, stream of consciousness – demands Red Shift be read more as poetry than prose. It’s by turns uncomfortably Pinteresque, then disturbingly witty à la Alan Bennett
Garner explained in an early 1980s Granada Television biography that often his novels began with the subconscious juxtaposition of a couple of seemingly disparate images/ideas resulting in creative tension and an impetus to write through the seeming contradictions and confusions, the crossed-wires, towards conclusion. The resulting novels are complex, gnomic and Beckettian. Red Shift is inspired by the legend of Tam Lin, and a piece of graffiti Garner had seen at a railway station, “Not really now not any more” but there’s also Lear, Macbeth, Ulysses, the Waste Land, Briggflatts and the slang of American GIs.
Red Shift explores notions of power, loyalty and betrayal, bloodlust and sanctuary, home and homelessness, sex, impotence, madness. There’s a talisman, a Beaker-period votive axehead, that tenaciously exists in each of the three naratives and vitally there’s the landscape of southern Cheshire, specifically the folly-capped Mow Cop.
Its not a perfect book by any means. The structural iconoclasm is intrusive and disorientating. It’s indulgently obtuse. But, that said, I’d urge anyone to give Red Shift a go, as more than any orthodox work of historical fiction Garner makes the past numinous, terrifyingly real, and anything but passed.
- Emma Donoghue’s review in The Independent