Verity Holloway’s debut novel from Unsung Stories is a richly developed story entwining multiple layers and perspectives weaving in and out of consciousness as the plot traverses dream, fantasy and reality. Following the experiences of seventeen-year-old Aisling Selkirk, whose blackouts and pseudo-seizures cause bewilderingly altered states of consciousness, the reader is plunged into the intensity and confusion of a protagonist who is never quite sure where she is. The skill of the novel is in maintaining that disorientation throughout the plot, never quite drawing clear boundaries between dream and reality, while creating a compelling narrative that propels the reader forward with momentum. It achieves this very successfully most of the time, although it took me a few chapters to fully immerse myself in the book after a potentially slow opening.
Aisling, whose experiences are figured alongside the mystical visions and poetry of William Blake, is drawn further and further into a world that defies the linear logic of temporality and geography on an adventure to understand not only her condition but her desires. Comparing this new world with the familiar world of reality, would she choose to go back even if she could? This question is left hanging, and the novel is far stronger for its refusal to accommodate a satisfying resolution.
“None of this is real, is it? … I think I’ve worked it all out now. And I don’t mind that it’s not real. I’m happy here.”
“Because you’re happy, it can’t be real?”
The question of the reality of one place or another is likewise never resolved, with the general suggestion that each can be as real as the other. On one level, the book could be an exploration of the effects on consciousness of various forms of writing – poetry, journal writing, fiction – words and worlds are tangled and layered in a perplexing swirl of locations, identities and possibilities, and the ways that words are used to conjure those worlds underlines the close proximity of alternative states of consciousness to what we generally experience as normality.
The novel is incredibly well researched with threads including William Blake, contemporary mental health issues, Russian history and speculative fiction. Characters and plotlines are well developed and complex – which is necessary for this kind of fiction and something I felt that Unsung Stories were yet to develop in some of the earlier books I reviewed. The complexity of this novel, its intertwining plotlines and well-developed characters made it a substantial read while leaving enough questions unanswered to spark a desire to flick back through it in search of missed connections. Both ‘pseudo’ – something that is not genuine or not fully what is seems to be – and the eponymous ‘tooth’ feature as integral to plot and character throughout the novel, but the title is perhaps never fully resolved within its pages, only suggestions are made which the reader must actively attempt to demystify.
At its heart, the novel poses questions about the viability and desirability of any potential utopia – exploring the conflict between the desire for purity and the desire for acceptance. The novel frequently raises the problematic complexity of any so-called utopia based on an idea of purity which leads to differentiation, isolation, segregation, exclusion, expulsion or eugenics. This is an historically important question which bears repeated asking, and a question which seems to have more and more vital contemporary urgency with every passing day at the moment. It does, however, lead to a very occasional heavy-handed morality in the writing, although this is always consistent with character or plot and never overly intrusive.
The book is a remarkable achievement for young writer Verity Holloway and a quality addition to the Unsung catalogue.
About the Publisher:
Unsung Stories publish literary and ambitious speculative fiction. This means science fiction, fantasy, horror and weird, and the fuzzy bits between these genres.
Review by Sally-Shakti Willow
Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster. She is Research Assistant for the Contemporary Small Press.