Red Shift by Alan Garner

redshiftOnce I figure out what is going on in Red Shift, I feel very pleased with myself.

Alan Garner’s 1973 novel opens with dialogue, just dialogue, between two un-named speakers.   Neither “Said Jan” nor  “Said Tom” appear until halfway down the page, who either of these people are is never explained; the reader has to figure things out.  I do my best.

The scene  shifts suddenly to a different set of speakers, a group of men who talk like modern-day soldiers, but keep referring to themselves as “the Ninth.”

A-ha, I eventually realize, they are members of the Ninth Roman legion, which was lost in the lands north of Hadrian’s Wall back in the day.

A third set of speakers appear. Who are these people, I wonder. They also appear to be soldiers.

I had figure out the Jan and Tom are two young people, fighting to stay a couple after Jan goes to school in London, far to the south.  Are they in the future? Is Tom going to be some kind of soldier, soon.

All three stories feature a single location, Mow Cop which is a high hill-top with a view of the surrounding valley.  It would be much easier for me to figure this book out, I think, if I spoke British English instead of American English.

In all three sets of stories, the characters make use of one star in Orion’s belt. In all three the characters go to the top of Mow Cop.  All three include a love story of some sort. All three love stories are doomed, I think–I’m not really sure what happens in the third story which took place in the 17th century and featured historical references I would better understand if I were more British.  (See above comment.)

This switching between story lines without announcing who is speaking forces me to pay much more attention to the book that I might normally do.  It takes a few lines to figure out which storyline I’m in each time the plot moves through time.  What really unites the three? What do they have to do with the notion of Red Shift?  Red shift is the change in light that occurs when you observe something that is moving away from you.

Poetic science when used as a metaphor in a love story.

Tom tells Jan that the light they are seeing when they look at the star in Orion’s belt actually left the star while the Romans building Hadrian’s wall.  So I guess the Romans in the second storyline are not looking at the same star after all.

Orion’s belt is made up of stars moving away from us.  All starts are moving away from us as the universe expands.  Are all people moving away from us as well?

The book feels rife with meaning, something deeper must be going on, I keep thinking, but it escapes me.  I wonder what will happen to the former members of the Ninth Legion.  I like the way Mr. Garner has them talk like modern soldiers, it’s very Derek Jarman.  I wonder if Jan and Tom will stay together, though I secretly think Jan should dump him once she moves away.  He is far too much of a lost soul to make for a happy marriage.

I still cannot really follow the second storyline–I think it’s about highwaymen caught up in what will be a failed independence movement but I don’t know their story like I know the story of the Ninth Legion, thanks to Rosemary Sutcliff’s books.

There’s a piece of graffiti, two pieces really, on one of the rocks atop Mow Cop.  The first says some girl loves some boy. The second, written later in another color says “not really not now anymore.”

I finish the book wondering what I will say about it in my review.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Randall says:

    Sounds fascinating… and confusing, all at the same time!! 🙂 What led you to this book?

  2. I really enjoyed the book. That may not be apparent from my review.

    I confess that I collect NYRB Editions because I like the covers. I tend to like the books most of the time, as well. They publish a very wide range of books, lots of stuff in translation, too. Some of my favorite reads each year, come from random NYRB Editions I picked out for the covers.

  3. Joseph Clewes says:

    Highwaymen? You should read the author’s Introduction, where he explains exactly what is going on.

    1. I did, but who can remember all those details…. It was not a part of the book I enjoyed, to be honest. I think the author wasn’t all that in to that plot line either, since he spent so little time on it compared to the other two plot lines.

      And, without reading the introduction, and you never ever should read the introduction before reading the book, I don’t think many readers would be able to figure out much about that plot line.

      Still, I enjoyed and recommend the book very highly.

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