The Storyteller by Kate Armstrong: Holland House, 2016 – Republic of Consciousness Prize Long List*

‘Here is what I suggest. That, bound together in this circle of hell, we talk fondly like sisters and we share our stories.’

A young woman alone in the world attempts to claw back her sense of self. Prepare to be dragged into the eye of the storm as she allows an older woman of questionable motives to mould the essence of her life into a story.

The Storyteller

The Storyteller opens in the aftermath of a failed suicide attempt as two women meet in a psychiatric unit. The reader must rely on the observations of Iris, the disturbed older woman who, with a bejewelled, elegant hand, takes the vulnerable young Rachel into her grip. Does she mean well or is there something sinister in her plan to re-work in words the younger woman’s life?

Part memoir, part fairy-tale, part horror story, part tragedy, this challenging novel defies categorisation as it draws the reader in. The story unfolds with the seasons; the outside world moves forwards while the young woman is locked away, initially in a literal sense within the confines of the ward but always within her own mind as she faces an insular battle for growth and healing. It is both bleak and triumphant as Rachel emerges from the depths of despair, timidly re-entering the world and going through the motions of finding a boyfriend and making plans.

Written from the point of view of the unstable older character, the present tense, second person narrative creates a claustrophobic sense of immediacy. It almost feels as if we are being spoken to directly, gaining a stark insight into the mind of a deeply unhinged collaborator who manipulates events to suit her own twisted purpose.  The result is a vividly unsettling reading experience.

A palpable air of mystery grows as the younger woman has no choice but to be implicit in Iris’s game, and the reader is similarly pulled into the action. ‘Your nod is tentative. But the doors are locked and you have nowhere else to go’. She appears to want to help Rachel, but is it the insightful observations of a born writer or paranoia and jealousy that lead her to make deep and sometimes cutting remarks? Occasionally cruel yet strangely compelling, she twists the story to suit her own romantic fantasies. ‘You have slept like a princess, awoken and then sobbed like an imprisoned queen’.

Rachel’s predicament highlights her intense vulnerability. Depression threatens to steal her identity as, by trying to escape the perceived dangers of life, fear is replaced with a feeling of nothingness.  This deeply intimate portrayal of her tentative awakening exposes the fragile nature of recovery as anxiety and dark memories emerge.

Like the story inside it, the book’s cover is a work of art. It feels exquisite, a precious jewel in the hand promising further treasure within. This beautiful novel is not an easy read. It is a monologue written by an unreliable source interspersed with snapshots of a possibly fuller truth. The reader is forced to interpret the unspoken messages behind the story as the nature and reliability of the memoir genre is deliberately called into question in the process of editing a life.**

‘And so I will navigate you through the story that you think is yours…But this pact is two-sided. If I am your voice, then you also, you must agree to be shaped by me…I will write your tale, but in my own way’.

Click here to find The Storyteller on the Holland House Books website.

About the publisher: Holland House is a bold, dynamic publisher of high quality literary and genre fiction. Investing time and energy into producing books by unique voices, they are not afraid of advancing new and challenging work, as well as great books written in the classic style. ‘We want to produce quality writing and to work with good people’ (Robert Peett). Imprints include Caerus Press for historical fiction and Grey Cells Press for crime fiction.

Review by Becky Danks.

Becky is an avid reader, creative writer, dog lover, poet, and reviewer of books. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyD123

 

*The Contemporary Small Press is celebrating the first ever Republic of Consciousness Prize for small presses by reviewing a range of titles from the long- and short-lists throughout early 2017.  The Republic of Consciousness Prize was established by writer Neil Griffiths to support and reward adventurous new fiction published by small presses in the UK and Ireland.  The judges have selected some of the most exciting and innovative new fiction to highlight through their long- and short-lists, demonstrating the breadth and depth of high-quality literary fiction currently being published by small and independent presses.  The winner will be announced at an award-ceremony held in conjunction with the Contemporary Small Press at the University of Westminster in March.

**This post was updated on 14 February 2017 to include details of the book being long-listed for The Republic of Consciousness Prize.

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