Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Review of “Cygnet” by Season Butler, pub. Dialogue Books (Little, Brown) 2018

"Another few feet of the cliff are gone. The end of the yard is a booby-trap, something out of a cartoon. There's nothing underneath to support your weight, just a drop into the constant traffic of the waves against the rocks. Fresh rock and soil and dangling roots like the nerves of an extracted tooth are exposed along the C-shape of the cliff face. One of the trees, a dogwood, clings to the cliff-side at a desperate angle, four-petalled blossoms shivering in the constant sea breeze. It looks like it's still falling. I can't see the other one at all. My dogwood tree at the bottom of the sea."

This alarmingly unstable residence is on the island of Swan, located in the archipelago of the Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire. There is in fact such an island, but this is very much a fictitious version of it. In the book, (set in the present, 2015) the island has become a sort of gated community for the old, that doesn't, due to its location, actually need gates. Our narrator The Kid, a 17-year-old girl, has in effect been dumped there on her grandmother by her feckless drug-addled parents, who promised to return for her but failed to do so. The grandmother has since died and the girl, who has needed to be resourceful in her short life, is hanging on in the house, tolerated by some of the regular inhabitants (the Wrinklies) but resented by others, and supporting herself in an interesting way, by digitally altering all the photos and cine film that comprise the lifelong memories of her elderly neighbour, Mrs Tyburn, to better reflect the way that lady wishes her life had been – overweight children are miraculously slimmed, and the boat named after a husband's mistress rechristened, by the magic of a little technical know-how that remains a mystery to the Wrinklies.

The Kid, in fact, has been messed about by inadequate adults all her life and is now living on sufferance in a community set up to cater to the needs of oldies but gradually and literally crumbling away into the ocean, arguably as a result of that generation's actions in the past. The nearby island of Duck is plagued by sudden methane explosions, the result of having been used for years as a dump for, among other rubbish, disposable nappies. There is a certain grim humour here, and also in The Kid's narrative voice, which is one of the best things about the novel. Blake Morrison's quote on the back, saying he hadn't been so captivated by a first-person voice since Holden Caulfield, nearly put me off, for even as a teenager I found Holden a tiresome brat. The Kid is a great deal more engaging. It does strike me that for a girl who has not been much in school and, we are told, hasn't read much, her vocabulary is a bit too extensive and sometimes verging on the literary. But she is very listenable.

There are a fair few typos in my proof copy, which I've been asked to ignore since they'll hopefully be edited out. I will mention one, because I'm tired of seeing published works, whose authors and editors should know better, spell the verb "retch", meaning to vomit, as if it were the noun "wretch", meaning a literary person who can't spell…

The voice puzzled me at times by having, I thought, a tinge of UK English, which seemed strange in a book so firmly set in the US, Sure enough, the writer turns out to be one of those deracinated exiles I so often find the most interesting, because they see their own country clearer from a distance (rather like RLS describing Edinburgh from Samoa). This probably explains the sharpness of the topographical descriptions of Swan Island. All in all, this is one of the better novels I've read this year, original and engaging with a saving touch of humour.
Tags: book reviews, litfic, novels
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