He built a house and next to it a church

As a God Might Be, Neil Griffiths: Dodo Ink

‘I don’t believe much of what goes for basic Christianity. It might be that everything I believe would be rejected as heresy. Actually, there is no “might.”’

When Proctor McCullough decides to desert his comfortable London life to build a church on a clifftop, nobody knows what to make of it: McCullough is not religious. Is it a midlife crisis? Has he gone mad? Is he suffering a spiritual breakdown in a secular age, where identity is shaped by wealth and status.

Or has he really been chosen by God for a new revelation. McCullough finds himself torn between love for his family and a group of local drifters who are helping him to build his church. When one of these drifters commits a shocking act to test his beliefs, McCullough finds himself pushed to the very limits of understanding and forgiveness.

As a God Might Be is an epic novel, and Proctor McCullough is a complex and deeply human character struggling to cope with the grand issues of modern life.

Let me say straight away that—while I have a few small quibbles—I think this novel is a triumph. Griffiths had me from Contents, for I was enraptured by a book brave enough (or brazen, or mad enough) to divide itself into New Testament and then Old Testament (note the inversion) and then divide its subject matter further into books as though it were, self consciously, a theological text with beguiling titles such as ‘Tetragrammaton’, the Hebrew name for God transliterated in four letters, YHWH or JHVW, articulated as Yahweh or Jehovah. For me, the book felt like an adventure because of the attention to detail here, not to mention its inclusion of the bold acclamation of Abraham—‘Here I am’—which prefaces the book and its first chapter beginning with Pascal,

‘You must wager.

It is not optional,

You are embarked’

Proctor, in embarking, upends his life, with its pains and worries, his loves, his children and his work, itself about conflict, the worst that can happen and a study of what it is that drives us or compacts us when we are in crisis. The central theme—embarking, let us call it—recalls William Golding’s 1964 book The Spire, a novel that traced the journey of Jocelin, a dean who believes God has directed him to erect a spire above Salisbury Cathedral. That book, like As a God Might Be, is both a meditation on faith and a study of those who question the sanity of believers or, in the case of Proctor, of those who believe they have been chosen for a task. I loved that book, too, but here, with Griffiths is something a little different;

First, you’re assuming I’m a Christian. But what does that actually mean?’ Proctor asks of his clifftop building cohort. ‘What kind of battle is someone in for if they want to announce an authentic interest in the existence of God?’

Proctor is imperfect, selfish, sententious, clever and boorish. He is weak when he should challenge—do I have a drink with or lay flat the man who slept with my partner?—but I think that this is rather the point and a fascinating tension in the novel: that he is and remains all those things, yet you cannot take your eyes off him and off the process. And I’m minded, too, of the biblical precedent that I’ve not seen referred to as yet in other writings on Griffiths’s book. I thought of it immediately and it was another reason I was drawn into the text. By biblical precedent I mean, look at the prophets and look at some of the peculiar things they were commanded to do. Hosea was told by God to marry a prostitute; Ezekiel was asked to dig a wall, shave off his hair and beard and weigh the trimmings in a scale, and once made his tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth so he was unable to speak; Moses most definitely did not want to be a prophet and Jonah, called and called, decided to run away. I think these callings and their responses are fascinating whether or not you believe in God, whether or not you believe the bible is bunkum and Christianity—or all religion—the source of nothing but conflict and separation, or think Proctor (quoting Terry), is ‘fucking nuts!’or that God is all delusion, as Richard Dawkins (whose screaming fascinates me) would have it. The psychological process is compelling.

            He built a house and next to it a church.

Take this example, a dinner party at Proctor’s house, with his partner Holly and their mostly egregious friends, whom you cannot actually believe they entertain (a flaw in the plot, for me: a quibble. Their friend Simon is different and, ultimately, in crisis over the vapidity of his friends’ morals as he sees them: I wanted to see this developed, perhaps as a counterpoint to what is occurring with Proctor). Proctor makes a speech and it is excruciating, the embarrassment is visceral as he explains to his friends what has happened, with his notes on the table.

‘This is what I think. Or what I thought. Something…God is the transcendent Other, for whom creation, what we know as life, is a gratuitous act of love, a dispossession of a portion of His infinite creativity given over to our thriving…’

Proctor is sick and embarrassed, but he has the strength to press on, though he knows he could stop now and that ‘outside, the air was full of the promise of spring, of the simple bounty of physical life.’ He wants to be held by Holly or ‘squashed’ between his twin children; he knows what he has said is irrevocable, yet it means nothing and he is torn between these things: a purpose with meaning and just a string of clever words, for he is good at stringing together clever words; he gets paid for it in his job as an ‘atrociologist’. And then there is this: I confess I was in tears over here and am not ashamed of that.

‘Perhaps that’s all it would take to slip through the infinite transparency back into the world. All he needed was to focus on his family, turn sideways, draw his body up and slip around. But it was impossible. There was no narrow passageway, however determined he was and slender he became. You cannot disbelieve what you believe. There is no choice’, the lyrical beauty of which is punctured by and, ‘What a fool he was. What a stupid fucking fool.

Holly looked around the table and then at him. She paused. ‘I’m not sure you’re being entirely honest, are you, Mac?’

Human, imperfect and others understandably sceptical or derisory of what he is doing. And yet we recall the prefatory quote from Pascal that I mentioned:

‘You must wager.

It is not optional,

You are embarked’

I think the scope of As a God Might Be is remarkable; that it is clever and ambitious, subtle and brave; the fine writer and booktuber, Kate Armstrong, saw it as a Victorian novel in its preoccupations, then offering comparison with Middlemarch. Yet I see it as fresh and modern, too, and hope to discuss this further with others. There are other contextual factors that I’ve been pondering, also. William Golding wrote The Spire in fourteen days, its own miracle, about building a spire above a cathedral that is itself, with no foundations, a miracle. I am interested in the process of writing this book because Griffiths is quite frank, at text’s end, about how long it took and about the reserves of energy it took. There is such candour, such generosity, I think, in telling the reader this (I always read the acknowledgements pages) and I suspect anyone would have been enormously daunted by examining and confronting eschatology (itself the title of the fourth chapter) over an extended period. I believe, without reserve, that encountering the last things, what we think happens to us when we die, is a central tenet of our lives and of the governance of our behaviour, the girding, or not, of our mental health; axiomatic of what we believe in. We can run from those questions, but whatever we decide—grave worms or eternity; atoms moving in and out of form or the transcendence of the soul to be with God—this is not a question we can evade. We do, I think, need to see we are ‘embarked’. I also think what we think happens when we die, does have a daily pull on our lives. Our fears—our darkest fears—of the deepest loss and our own personal annihilation are surely related to what we regard as new life, frightening judgement or end stops and grave worms. Might this not inform our decisions and judgements? Whether our life is lived with meditative space in it, or at top speed because ‘this is not a rehearsal’ to quote a fridge magnet someone gave me (which I actually hate). I can tell you, both as a questingly religious person for whom the quality of doubt is finer than the quality of faith (I’m paraphrasing T.S. Eliot’s summation of Tennyson’s great poem of loss and grief, ‘In Memoriam’), and as someone who has had many bouts of mental ill health, that the deepest darkest end-fear — eschatology—was there, and rattling me in my loneliness. I see such poignancy in Proctor’s thoughts and actions.


So this simple statement from the author moves me and makes me warm to the book further:

‘This book has taken years to write; one might argue most of my life, or at least the thirty five years since my state school teacher…gave me a copy of Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky.’

I think that we need more books which test us in this way. I also—and I am no expert in publishing matters and how one decides what will be read, what will sell and so on—cannot see why a theological novel should be an obsolete thing, as seems to have been an argument raised around this book. Why? Is God not done these days, like ‘We don’t do God’ in the words of Alastair Campbell, once interrupting Tony Blair? There are a number of fairly recent books which explore faith, (though none, I would say, quite like this) and I think you’d have a hard time denying the immediacy of a book about theological matters to those of faith, different faiths, all around the world, but also to those who have decided they are atheists but want to see an exegesis of sorts on the subject. And why should it be assumed that those who aren’t sure, don’t know, have never thought or tried not to, would not be interested in a book that deals with (to quote Rowan Williams on the book), ‘encountering and speaking about God’? In writing this, I am mindful of an article by Griffiths himself in ‘The Irish Times’ earlier this year. In ‘God and the Author’, he wrote about how difficult the route to publication was, including the loss of his agent. But step forward the independent press, in this case Dodo Ink, not afraid to take on a risky book. I quote,

‘Route to publication was difficult. I lost my agent: he didn’t think readers were interested in characters who were interested in such things. Rejection letters began to arrive. One publisher, who very generously described the novel as potentially award-winning, claimed as “an atheist, materialist and humanist” she couldn’t support it. But it wasn’t just atheism. The oldest Christian publisher in the world (The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge) called in the novel and then rejected it as “theologically unsound”. This came as no surprise. When my friend suggested I seek support in the US, my response was that while they might read it, their next step was more likely to burn it.’

And I was fascinated by this; the assumption and the dissention here. Frankly, if all of it held true, then Dostoevsky’s books, which Griffiths cites as a major influence (and which I would cite as some of the finest books written), would have no chance. And it seems to me that an important discussion of impulse, experience and encounter, should not be dismissed as ‘theologically unsound’. That is not only a diminution of another’s experience but also missing the point—hence, as Griffiths has said,

‘As a novel As a God Might Be allows me to set aside the question of the existence or not of God, but still ask what his nature might be – a question science isn’t interested in, and, I’m afraid, no longer a question religion can rightfully claim to answer. It’s time for the novel to enter the debate.’

Those of faith should not be offended by a brilliant and honest exploration, either. I am Anglo-Catholic; my husband is a Benedictine oblate (that is, a lay-person attached to a monastery) and thus I hang around monks and talk to them; we have lunch together sometimes. Their faith is brilliant, but difficult: they are not rescued from the pains and depressions of life by cant prayer or cosiness with a God who has chosen them. No, they work at, repeatedly, daily, and their thoughts and discussions are expansive. There: life inside a monastery. I’m taking them Griffiths’s book. Can’t wait for that. And actually, there is something more at stake here because can’t novels encourage us to enter belief systems outside our own, and empathise with people of different cultures, worldviews and backgrounds? I know from discussing the book, that other readers don’t see it as primarily a religious novel because Proctor’s central dilemmas can be relatable for anyone. His doubt, and the existential crisis of his life, is manifested in a religious experience. In the hands of Camus in The Outsider or The Rebel, or for Sartre in Nausea, how might this look? We’re back to eschatology again and we will all, though perhaps some will push it away for longer or more effectively than others, go through something similar in our time—that is, with or without God.

‘You’re building a church; I want to sit in my chair. You want to spread the love; I feel like killing someone.’

‘Fine lines, Terry.’

‘Lines nonetheless, my friend.’

‘I want to help you.’

‘Of course you do. Maybe God sent meto test you.’

‘I don’t believe that…in that.’

It fascinates me, this book. Proctor is managing his life well; he is comfortable enough; he loves his partner and his twins. It is, on the surface, a tidy middle class existence, and into this comes a revelation for Proctor which, while he has read and thought and explored philosophy theology and faith—otherwise how could he expound at such great detail on the subject?—is entirely inconvenient. It is brilliant, but it is painful. He explores the notion that God has chosen him to build a church, finds common land and gets to it. In this, he is both reckless, selfish and extraordinarily brave. And here’s where Griffiths excels. He has written a book which is a sweeping exploration of faith and of the nature of God; he has created a text which displays a good deal of learning and managed to hold this in tension with brilliant and convincing characterisation and balance the sublime with the banal elements of life. I loathe all of their friends; they are reptilian (though one, Simon, as I said, I feel I want to know more) and self interested, ingenerous middle class dinner party folk. It is against the wine and the cheeseboard that Mac first explains what it is he must do and it’s brilliantly realised.

[Plot spoilers ahead]

I’d actually like to push them all off the Dorset cliff. I’d like to push Proctor off sometimes. He can be intensely dislikeable and full of high sentence. He is a hypocrite; it’s as though, by bringing another woman to orgasm without actually having full sex with her, he lets himself off the hook. He does nothing to properly challenge Lucian the entirely unapologetic seducer of his partner, Holly, a man who comments, unashamedly, that he had warned him this might happen. Griffiths’s portrayal of flawed, broken, repulsive humanity is wonderful. The rustic drifters who help him build the church are a tremendous counterpoint to the dinner party and professional swamp and, ironically (that is, if you’re inclined to jump to such conclusions), their intellectual engagement with what Proctor is trying to do, is much heftier than that of his London friends. The portrayal of Nat I’ve seen mildy criticised as being one dimensional, but I disagree; this is the irony of the situation; he is forced into a dimension and constrained by a family which is oppressive and does not understand him. I found this profoundly moving—to see the man-boy in deep pain, yet with so much love and potential brimming. And to see what becomes of him. His appalling end. I loved the insouciant Rebecca, the complexity and closeness of the life she shares with her mother; it makes for uncomfortable reading, but it also rings true. None of it is tidy, all ragged. Rebecca is deeply clever, sexy and a temptation (though it is a dalliance with her mother which occurs for Proctor). And Terry. This is interesting indeed.

Griffiths mentions in his acknowledgements and elsewhere, the influence of Dostoevsky. He refers to Crime and Punishment, and I had it in mind when reading about Terry; Crime and Punishment is a thriller which is nonetheless infused with philosophical, religious and social commentary, and in which a young man plans the murder of someone whom no-one will miss and no-one will mourn; a book in which the notion of a just crime—and by a man of genius—which transgresses moral law is explored. Why does Terry do as he does? I thought, primarily, of The Brothers Karamazov which is, to summarise, a spiritual drama; a wrestling with faith, doubt, judgment, and reason; it is set against a modernizing Russia and its plot centres upon the subject of patricide, a crime which might well have been committed by Terry in the book. Terry is on a wilfully self destructive path and so tests faith and the world by committing a similarly wanton crime; it is Nat but could, he tells Proctor, have been him first and I do feel that the delicately limmed relationship between Proctor and Terry is part friendship, part father-son. Terry is rootless, alcoholic and suffering; wanton, because of it. He has not been well educated and yet he has an intellectual drive and spiritual perspicacity that had me in tears because he was also on the slide, hurtling, in fact, towards a cataclysm. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan talks to Smerdyakov about Fyodor Pavlovich’s death; Smerdyakov eventually confesses to Ivan that he, and not Dmitri, committed the old man’s murder. But he also says—and here I see a parallel with the things that the dying Terry says to Proctor, never letting off the hook the man who is there in his final hours—that Ivan is also implicated in the crime: the philosophical lessons Ivan taught Smerdyakov about the impossibility of evil in a world without a God, made Smerdyakov capable of committing murder. Terry commits a brutal act in the most brutal way to prove a point: because he could. Who is Terry testing? God, Mac, himself, the world? All four.

So do read the book. Read it for its risks and dilemmas; its beautiful descriptions of stone, sand and water; of building, physical sensation and spiritual thirst. Read it to wonder about the personal nature of God and ‘As a God Might Be’, in the words of Wallace Stevens; read it if you’re wondering or you’ve stopped. Notice how well Griffiths handles erotic detail, uncomfortable humour, a London street or how children interact with their siblings. There is more to explore than I have space to tell you about here.

Tolstoy thought that Dostoevsky was a man of little accomplishment or expansiveness of mind, though he said he ‘admired his heart’. But a copy of The Brothers Karamazov was found next to Tolstoy’s nightstand when he died. I’ve always liked this little detail. I am now re-reading it, and I’ve got Neil Griffiths’s book and, my new encounter, Wallace Stevens, on mine. Hopefully, not a portent, but there because it is joyous to explore, ‘…our painful, confusing and at times burdensome freedom to love.’

Click here to buy As A God Might Be by Neil Griffiths from Dodo Ink.

About the Publisher:

Dodo Ink publishes original fiction, with a focus on risk-taking, imaginative novels; particularly books which don’t fall into easy marketing categories and don’t compromise their intelligence or style to fit in with trends.

Review by Anna Vaught

Anna is a novelist, essayist, poet, editor, reviewer and also a secondary English teacher, tutor, mentor to young people, mental health campaigner and mum to a large litter. A great champion of the small presses, she reviews their books and writes for them: novel, Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press, 2016), novella, The Life of Almost (2018) and poems and essays with Patrician Press and Emma Press. Saving Lucia, Bluemoose Books (2020).  Anna is working on her fifth novel.

An Indie Press Christmas

Writer Anna Vaught puts together a Small Press Christmas List.  Inspiring and uplifting new books that bring comfort and joy all year round…

I love Christmas and have been on a mission to denude the whole thing of anxiety in recent years. For example, no worrying about what you’re supposed to be doing; no massive present spend I cannot really afford; some slow and steady shopping so that I actually enjoy the gift-giving side of things. And I never want anything much, really, for myself. I loathe clutter and waste and basically all I do want is fudge, marzipan, the essential box of sugared almonds, fires, routine, dossing about, lots of food and no fuss, inviting anyone in who’s alone or looks sad, my annual reading to the community – candlelit house; mulled wine (please come?) – of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales and – I’m getting there – some books. So I thought…which new or newish books have given me most pleasure over the past two years or so, when I really – arriving foolishly, negligently late to the party – discovered the independent presses of the British Isles? I started to publish with them and that was what led me there. I now write for more, buy from more for myself, have started to review indie books for assorted publications and I love to buy them as presents. Friends say, ‘Oh, I hadn’t heard of that!’ or, when I posted on social media about my favourite books of the year so far, ‘Where do you find out about these books?’ One aim of this article is to help you with that.

…TA DA! Here is something rather fabulous to do for Christmas. I’m going to:

  • tell you where to look for indie titles
  • suggest presents that also support the work of the presses
  • tell you about books, particularly anthologies, that have a philanthropic purpose; that are fund-raising. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the last eighteen months or so really hard. I’m frustrated and jaded by the tirade of Brexit-Trump. Why not – and in so doing boost your spirits – lift your sights and see who needs you nearby?

So, readers and present-buyers, where do you look for indie titles?

First stop, if you have a good local bookshop anywhere near you, go in and ask. There is pretty much nothing that makes me feel as jolly as a joyous, bookish conversation in a great indie bookshop. And they’re not all in London. Oh no. I don’t want to name names here, so please feel free to list a shop you’ve loved below. Not sure which independent presses there are? Fancy buying direct from one near you? Here is an interactive map started by Salt Press. The presses have added to it since it was published. Why not click on your area and see what comes up? Buy locally, but think globally, see? You can click through to the list of small presses on The Contemporary Small Press website here. While I’m at it, if you are a writer as well as a reader – or rather the person for whom you’re buying presents wants to write – then the Mslexia Guide to Independent Presses is pretty exhaustive.

Where else to go? Author Neil Griffiths set up the Republic of Consciousness Prize two years ago. It’s the only UK literary prize dedicated exclusively to books published by the small presses.  A great way to get involved is by supporting the prize fund.  You’ll find great prize packages and publisher subscriptions available, with the added bonus of investing in this worthwhile literary prize.  Or why not pick from the longlist, which will be out in December in time for Christmas shopping? It will be a beautifully curated selection. Also, the Small Publishers’ Fair happens in November and if you look at this list of launches, you’ll seem some very interesting things that someone might just love. Go on; do it now.

Right then. What about presents?

What I cannot do here is tell you which books you absolutely have to go and buy. (Well I could, but I won’t – although of my top five, four are indie and you can see what I’ve said on twitter and go and follow the indie presses or ask them directly!) No. I mean something that is a substantial book gift and maybe lasts a year or more.

What about subscribing or being part of a buddy scheme? For example, if you buddy up with Galley Beggar, for £30 or £50, you get a number of rather lovely things. Books through the year, signed by the author (I’ve enjoyed this so much) free ebooks, funny postcards that make you smile, invitations to all the new book launches with pop and fun and substantial discounts of the books. Also your name is in the back of each book because, as a subscriber, your contribution to a new work of art is vital.  I’d be delighted if someone bought that for me. No-one did, so I bought it for myself. However, I have two subscriptions from And Other Stories; one for me and one for my husband for a Christmas present. I know; it’s very sweet. His ‘n’ hers. This is a daring range of literature, with a special focus on translation and, I see from himself’s latest subscription book post, authors who should have had more attention when they were alive. Again, there are levels of subscription, but what a lovely gift that keeps giving through the year.

I’d posit that it is wonderful and life-affirming just to be part of something new and innovative so why not pledge to a really exciting project from Dead Ink, who have recently acquired the backlist of the Eden Book Society: that’s a whole lot of horror and it would be a brilliant present. You can subscribe at different levels, from name in the book to books through the year. I’ve asked for the £40 level from husband and the little bookworms, so I can receive novellas through the year.

There will be more in this cornucopia. Go hunt and, indie presses, stick your suggestions in the comment box.

How about buying some book bundles or trying some book offers?

These are a good value way to experience what the small presses get up to. Bluemoose is currently doing a ‘2 for £10’ deal. (Excuse me a moment: I’m popping this on my own Christmas list with the Dead Ink pledge because there’s a couple on the Bluemoose list I’m yet to read…right: I’m back in the room.) There are eight titles to choose from. Charco Press are offering a wonderfully festive ChocLit package on all their titles – combining great Latin American literature in translation with delicious artisan chocolate in delightfully matching colour schemes.  Or, at Patrician Press, you’ll see that the publisher has Christmas in mind, with three choices of book bundle, three books in each. One is for children, the others take in a range of novel, novella, short stories and the first of the fund-raising anthologies which the press has commissioned.

And finally, linking from that, philanthropy. Good stuff. An expansion not a battening down. There are too many books to mention that enlarge our view – arguably, don’t all books? – of course, so I will focus on those books which are fund-raising. Patrician Press’s (see above) Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers gives profits to the charity Help Refugees. The two anthologies of Refugee Tales from Comma Press give all profits to the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group and Kent Help for Refugees.

Recent titles at Unbound include 24 Stories (out next year and funded, but you can still pledge), edited by Kathy Burke, an anthology of stories, put together to aid PTSD related needs of survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire and Trauma Response Network. I’m pleased to say my name’s going in that book because I pledged for it, as it will be for Others, funding at the moment. This is sure to be stunning and it will raise funds for refugee and anti-hate charities. And the point is, more broadly – as I’ve said above – that it’s a wonderful thing to be contributing to an artistic endeavour; here, the double present is that you are contributing to essential debate, fostering links between people through open discussion and you are also helping to fund those most in need.

I’m not saying such bookish extravangance is what everyone wants for Christmas, but My Dear Lord, Santa, it’d make my heart beat faster.

Christmas Books

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Keep your chins up and keep reading. Anna x


Feature by Anna Vaught

Anna is a novelist, essayist, poet, editor, reviewer and also a secondary English teacher, tutor, mentor to young people, mental health campaigner and mum to a large litter. A great champion of the small presses, she reviews their books and writes for them: novel, Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press, 2016), novella, The Life of Almost (2018) and poems and essays with Patrician Press and Emma Press. Books three and four out on submission at the moment. Anna is working on her fifth novel.

Bellowing at the Moon

Blue Self-Portrait, Noémi Lefebvre (Translated by Sophie Lewis): Les Fugitives

Shortlisted for the 2018 Republic of Consciousness Prize

This short novel in translation from Les Fugitives Press is as unputdownable as it is unforgettable. Mid-flight between Berlin and Paris, our female narrator constructs a narrative of herself that weaves between memory, assumption, speculation, and (in rare and brief moments) the details of the flight she’s actually sitting on. Equally between locations as between languages, she must spend the flight time switching back to French from German, as her thoughts veer between the two modes and the two countries. In a space never fully occupied by itself, this novel explores the flights of imagination that keep a restless mind ever-elsewhere.

Blue Self-Portrait

‘If I’d allowed my inner goings-on to show you’d have taken me for a cow bellowing at the moon’

This metaphor is returned to throughout, suggesting the narrator’s inner stream of consciousness – in which we, the reader, are immersed unrestrainedly – is the equivalent to a howl of inarticulable, bestial noise. This is deftly juxtaposed, however, with the exquisite and virtuosic sweeping prose of the novel. Rhythmic, cyclical, polyphonic. Sentences can carry for the length of a paragraph (or more) which, in turn might run to several pages. Within a single sentence conflicting ideas, contradictory thoughts, randomly associated memories will be brought into a kind of rhythm with one another that is utterly compelling. Dwelling particularly on the subjects of painting and music (Schoenberg and his blue Self-Portrait), the novel effectively accomplishes its own inner musicality, while presenting the spectre of a self-portrait lived between memory, association and speculation.

The novel retains its high intensity throughout a narrative that could be read in a single, uninterrupted and fervent sitting. Within these pages are both the remembering and the forgetting of the horrors of the world, the personal and intensely lived experience of being, and an ardent resistance to all notions of collective happiness in its variety of forms.

Beautifully pitched and compellingly virtuosic, Blue Self-Portrait is translated from Lefebvre’s original French novella by Sophie Lewis and published by Les Fugitives Press which specialises in publishing only short novels by award-winning francophone women writers. Despite its brevity, Blue Self-Portrait has an epic feel to it, and the precision of Lefebvre’s language demands an exacting translation by Lewis. Les Fugitives is dedicated to bringing such novels as this to an English-reading public, and we are the richer for it.

Click here to buy Blue Self-Portrait directly from Les Fugitives.

About the Publisher: 

Les Fugitives is an award-winning independent press dedicated to short, new writing by francophone female authors previously unavailable in English.

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.


The Practical Senior Teacher, Finella and Philip Davenport (Curated by Tony Trehy)  Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2016


Finella and Philip Davenport’s The Practical Senior Teacher is a book in the loosest possible sense of the word, and yet also in multiple senses of the word, too. First the loose associations: This is a collaged work spanning over thirty years begun by sister and brother Finella and Philip Davenport (collaborating as The Gingerbread Tree) in 1984 and continuing to evolve as a work in progress to this day. The pages collected, printed and bound as the 2016 KFS edition bearing the title represent a fraction of the 300-plus page work that exists and has been exhibited in loose-leaf form at the Text Festival in Bury and the Storey Gallery in Lancaster.

Beyond the codex are the physically collaged pages incorporating layer upon layer of magazine cut-ups, adverts, government health warnings, comics, paint, lipstick, scribbled notes and empty painkiller packets. The book is just one possible iteration of the project of The Practical Senior Teacher, and readers can accompany their reading with the YouTube playlist The Margaret Thatcher Museum for an additional, aural, layer to the collage. Further videos by The Gingerbread Tree feature collaged pages from the book thrown into alternative contexts.   This is a restless and relentless project, a perpetual work-in-progress that has been continually worked and re-worked since its inception. The ‘book’ is just a part of it.

Yet this project also fulfils the definition of book from multiple perspectives. The title, The Practical Senior Teacher references the original textbook that forms the substrate for the composition of the collaged pages. This book started life as a textbook for school teachers in the Thatcher era, and the subsequent collage-work provides its own document (Old English boc, book) of those times through its incorporated layers. This is both a personal and a cultural document of those years, creating a history from the detritus of a throw-away culture interwoven with the debris of personal crisis and development. Pages documenting Finella’s experience of the life-threatening post-natal condition HELLP are left unchanged by Philip, yet the condition is represented, like everything in the book, by its waste products.

the practical senior teacher

Throughout the book, various excerpts and iterations of Finella’s poem Bee Scandal are woven with the collaged pages, giving a kind of loose metaphorical narrative of a society disintegrating and self-destructive – the same society attested to by the decades-long collage project.

The days

we hid in a      basement

beneath the incessant buzz

didn’t know which side was winning

took turns to take


(ear to the radio:

the well-bred

            the dead


will take

the Queen

The poem carries echoes of a bunkered and broken society as well as a colony of bees in a hive. As the poem becomes more fractured and fragmented the bees themselves begin to pile up ‘like abandoned rubbish … trash stings scattered needles’ – again interweaving the twin narratives of the bees and the society they echo. The bees piling up like abandoned rubbish, their stings scattered like the needles of a drug user. Society itself broken and addicted. Each reduced to its own destruction. Through collage, however, the abandoned rubbish becomes the material of recreation, the constant reconstruction as work-in-progress with whatever materials happen to be at hand.

Other fragments of text from the layers of collage appear and disappear through the worked pages – whose most recent form of reworking includes digitisation. This has allowed pages to be duplicated, mirrored and adapted digitally; distinguishing the collected pages from their material counterparts and enabling effects such as reversal and repetition that further distort the reading and disorient the reader.

When the work was displayed in Lancaster it was as part of Understanding the Ritual, an exhibition of art-shamanism, and it’s this that interests me the most about The Practical Senior Teacher: the ritual process at play in the project. The restlessness of the ritualistic acts that have compelled Finella and Philip Davenport to keep creating, destroying and recreating this work for over three decades, and the alchemical transformation of that act physically, mentally, emotionally and perhaps even spiritually. One of the most intriguing text-fragments for me is set onto a page painted almost entirely red and includes the following mythically-resonant phrases:

‘Heart of Dionysus


heart of hare

not eaten lest it make the eater timid

heart of lion or le[op]ard eat           heart of wolf

& of bear

eat to acquire courage



The final phrase is taken from the 80’s Government health warning ‘Heroin Screws You Up’, and there’s so much going on here. Is the eater of the wolf’s heart the mythical equivalent to a junkie? Does the juxtaposition suggest equivalence or contradiction, or something less exact? The association with heroin brings to mind a play on wasted / waste / wasteful that resonates with the theme of detritus throughout the book and finds another expression in the empty pill packet representing a moment of serious threat to Finella’s life.

Like the making of this ‘book’, the reading is a work-in-progress, an unsettled and unsettling process of excavating and creating connections within, between and beyond the pages. No two readings are ever the same and there’s no fixed ‘meaning’ to discover. Reading this book is a physical process that can, if the reader chooses, engage multiple senses and experiences. For me, its magic is in its perpetual openness to recreation, coming alive at its multiple points of connection, writing and creating not only the lives it contains but also the lives it touches.

Click here to buy The Practical Senior Teacher direct from Knives, Forks and Spoons Press.

About the Publisher:

Knives Forks and Spoons Press is a prolific publisher of avant-garde poetry by internationally acclaimed poets and emerging young writers. ‘KFS is a forum for an extraordinary range of diversity and risk-taking artistic experiment.’

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.


Divided We Fall

The Cut by Anthony Cartwright: Peirene Press, 2017

‘He spoke of the weight of the past on the present, a sense of betrayal, of something undone, of retribution on some grand, futile scale.’

Just over a year ago, the UK awoke to the cataclysmic news that by a very narrow margin, the nation had voted to leave the EU. Released on the first anniversary of the Brexit referendum, The Cut by Anthony Cartwright was specially commissioned to tackle the deep divisions at the heart of British society today.

The town of Dudley in the Black Country forms the backdrop of the story. A former powerhouse of the industrial revolution, it is painted bleakly, with a depressing sense of lost identity amidst relentless modernisation. The ruins of a castle and engine house are the only reminders of its proud history, when people worked for the steel and coal industries with a sense of purpose that has gradually been eroded.

Documentary maker Grace Trevithick, an academic’s daughter from Hampstead, visits Dudley shortly before the referendum. She wants to interview ordinary people, ‘conscious of saying ordinary people and all that might mean,’ to find out why they are considering voting Leave. The reality, she discovers, is complex. She tries to be open-minded but her innate condescension proves difficult to shake off.

‘She saw them as a bobbing, swaggering whole. She was struck by the state of their work clothes, ragged and dirty like something from an engraving of Victorian squalor.’


Grace’s confidence and sense of entitlement sharply contrast with local man Cairo Jukes, an ageing boxer struggling to make ends meet. He works clearing old industrial sites to be replaced by new entertainment complexes, facing financial uncertainty on a zero-hours contract. Cairo is a deep thinker who doesn’t easily fit into any convenient box. Grace is surprised by his eloquence and the two attempt to communicate without prejudice, forming an unexpected romantic bond.

The Cut highlights the different experiences of British citizens, offering an insight into alienated communities. There is a claustrophobic sense of being in the thick of the action, a tense immediacy heightened by the close third person narrative. A key scene involving UKIP members having a fight in a curry house certainly grabs the attention. The focus shifts frequently between different points of view, providing a glimpse inside the minds of the main characters.

Although they have things in common, the relationship between Cairo and Grace feels a little contrived. Brexit is too complex an issue to condense into a love story between two white English people on opposite sides. The referendum created a distorted sense of polarisation but how people voted was not simply dependent on privilege.

However, as a comment on the British class system, it is an insightful and revealing short novel, exposing prejudice so ingrained it is rarely confronted or discussed. Class is the elephant in the room in the UK. People are casually judged based on their accent or the way they dress. Carefully laid out definitions aiming to protect people from discrimination do not extend to class. Victims are effectively silenced and powerless to defend themselves without the necessary vocabulary.

‘All you people want to say is that it’s about immigration. That we’m all racist. That we’m all stupid. You doh wanna hear that it’s more complicated than that. It lets all of you lot off the hook. Never considered the problem might be you.’

Cairo is a particularly well drawn character, his intelligence and sensitivity proving attractive to Grace. He is deeply insulted when his interview on the news is subtitled, translating his accent into his own language, as if he is somehow ‘foreign’ in the country of his birth. Cairo fears that despite his keen insight, his opinion somehow doesn’t really matter. He and his family are looked down upon, but worse is the sense that they may simply be ignored. ‘If they talked about them at all’ is a phrase that appears frequently in this story.

‘And this is how it began, she supposed, prejudice on a scale of a whole country.’    

At this year’s National Writers’ Conference, poet and academic Andrew McMillan of Liverpool John Moores University emphasised the need to focus more positively on the underrepresented in society. He believes that ‘there must be an urgency, now, to help disenfranchised communities of all different types express their identity, to celebrate their history, to see themselves as belonging to part of a bigger picture, and this must include a refocusing on the working classes.’

The narrative of The Cut is sympathetic without being patronising. It is a book advocating dialogue with a message to look beyond the stereotypes and actually listen to people. This is a timely, challenging story exploring not just how Brexit came about but the social gulf it represents. Like the canal system referred to in the title that links Dudley to the rest of the UK, ‘we are all connected’, a theme of hope on which to build. This compelling and thought-provoking novel is essential reading for anyone wishing to better understand modern Britain.

Click here to buy The Cut by Anthony Cartwright directly from Peirene Press.

About the Publisher

Peirene Press is an award-winning boutique publishing house based in London,  specialising in contemporary European novellas and short novels in English translation.  The Peirene Now! series enables the press to work closely with writers and commission new British fiction on current political topics.

Review by Becky Danks

Becky Danks is a creative writer, poet, book reviewer and dog lover. She recently won the City Writes competition for her short story The Anniversary. She is a judge of flash fiction for the Hysteria Writing Competition. She voted Remain. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyD123. Website: www.beckydanks.com



Skimming over Black Glass and Counting Lies

The Red Beach Hut by Lynn Michell: Inspired Quill, Release date – October 2017

‘Ready?’ Always the same word. The same starting gun. He liked that.

Are we ever truly ready for what life throws at us and can we outrun fate? As Abbott, a gay man who works with troubled boys, runs to the refuge of a red beach hut during a time of fear, persecution and the threat of his life being torn down, he meets an unlikely friend, Neville, a young boy aged eight. Lynn Michell writes a beautifully innocent and endearing tale twisted by the tainted gaze of society’s perverse darkness, as two lost souls find hope in their unlikely companionship amidst their separate turmoil. As the odd yet surprisingly complementary pairing draw the attention of others’ gazes, which eventually places them under suspicion, Michell subtly tackles prejudice by treading the thin line between what is and is not appropriate. Abbott continuously questions how his actions may be read and misconstrued by those watching, yet both Abbott and Neville provide each other with the quiet trust, understanding and constancy they are each searching for in a time of need.

TRBH crop

The novel’s structure eloquently intertwines memories and inner dialogue throughout, weaving Abbott’s childhood memories of days on the beach with his aunt and the terrible mistake that led to him running from his current life. The Hut becomes a refuge and a safe place to revisit these memories – a place of innocence and happiness. Meeting Neville helps Abbott, in many ways, to recapture this time and see the world through a child’s eyes once more; allowing him to share the heartfelt, excited, compassionate, and honest perception of Neville. Michell develops the characters with an undercurrent of stillness running through their fibres; capturing the mind of Neville with such authenticity and attention to detail, which is no small feat. She interlaces his inquisitive nature with a quirky need to count everything in an attempt to appease an anxiety for order, rules and consistency. The literal, black and white mind of a child tests the grayscale of an adult’s mind, as Michell captures deep and poignant moments when tackling the truths and lessons people learn as they grow up.

Neville has a fascination and desire to understand words, to understand language and his place within it. Abbott meets this desire through the knowledge he’s gained whilst working with troubled boys, providing Neville with an adult figure who will actually be honest with him and treat him as an equal – recognising that he needs consistency and someone to take the time to know him. 

‘But we can say now it’s day and now it’s night…’

‘Only afterwards. There’s light and dark but there’s grey in between. Twilight. It doesn’t matter if we aren’t sure. It’s OK sometimes not to know. To be uncertain.’

‘I like certain.’

‘I know you do.’

‘What about me and you? Are we certain?’ He liked the word.

Whilst Neville teaches Abbott to be true to himself and find the honesty in what is spoken, Abbott provides Neville with the safety and security to be ok with the uncertainty of life; to be ok with not knowing. Michell presents the reader with the delicate and fragile moments in which one reveals oneself to another and hopes that that vulnerability will be met with compassion. Abbott gives Neville the confidence to speak and the trust in someone being there to listen. He is given the chance to share his voice and his thoughts, a truly powerful gift to give another, which Abbott, knowing the danger of being made to feel voiceless against discrimination, knows all too well.

In The Red Beach Hut language is not always vocal: Lynn Michell’s writing evokes the subtle languages of touch, of music, of being on the sea, and of being still. There are other ways, and sometimes more powerful ways, to communicate than with words.


Before they set off, the boy bounded up the steps and slipped his small hand into the man’s big one. Abbott let it rest there. The gesture spoke of trust and Abbott offered his acceptance. How could he betray it?

They give each other companionship, yet through this pairing Michell similarly tests the boundaries of intimacy, as Neville desperately wishes Abbott was a father-figure and Abbott must navigate the conflict of the intensity of emotions within a child’s mind. There is a tenderness to Neville – the deep and absorbing love of a child who’s found a friend with whom to learn how not to be so alone. The internal world of a child is a lonely place, a confusing place of learning the rules of life, and Abbott offers a helping hand of guidance.

One goes on and on, running on the same treadmill, never considering an alternative until forced to stop, he thought.

In each other’s company, Abbott and Neville find a moment to pause, reflect and just be, there is an easiness in which they can both stop running – Neville stops counting all the time, and Abbott stops running from himself. Out of rhythm with society, they find solace in the sea’s rhythm, the subtle shifts in the water’s moods and the constant gravitational pull they feel to be there on the seashore looking out and imagining what could be. As Neville says, “I can wish”, and perhaps wishing is all we ever can do.

The Red Beach Hut by Lynn Michell

About the publisher:

Inspired Quill is a not-for-profit publishing house which is dedicated to quality publications and providing a people-oriented platform for writers to develop their skills in writing, marketing and self-editing. They value a collaborative approach with their authors throughout the process from submission to launch, endeavouring to produce unique and powerful pieces of work.

Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.

Pseudotooth – Review

Pseudotooth – Review

Pseudotooth, Verity Holloway: Unsung Stories, 2017

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.

Click here to buy Pseudotooth directly from Unsung Stories

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.