I’ve noted my love of Alan Garner’s fiction more than once here (and IRL). I remember Red Shift as being my favourite of his. Re-reading it has done nothing to quell my enthusiasm; what I do realise, though, is that I was probably just a smidgen too young to fully appreciate the novel.
Red Shift is, much like Garner’s other work, rooted in space, though not time. It draws on the history and folklore of the north of England drawing on the stories of Tom and Jan, a young couple, soldiers involved in the English Civil War and a group of Roman soldiers. Though the novel is set in a small area, geographically, it spans hundreds of years. A wider sense of scale is evoked through Tom’s speech. He is studying and has a keen interest in astronomy and cosmology. His explanations of our movement through the universe and the idea of red shift – whereby the wavelength of observed light increases as the source moves away from the observer – evoke the vast scale of the universe in which we reside and our insignificance within it.
Much of the novel concerns Tom and Jan. Though both are on the cusp of adulthood, Tom is studying and Jan is preparing to study nursing in London, it is clear that they – Tom especially – are still beholden to their parents. We see their attempts to enjoy one another’s company while suffering the disapproval of Tom’s parents. His relationship with other people is complex; clearly bright and intellectually curious, he struggles to relate to those for whom he cares and who care for him. He is often short with his parents and even Jan, despite his oft professed affection for her. Indeed, Jan remarks that she doesn’t believe that she truly understands him as he doesn’t seem to open himself to her, or anyone (this is in marked contrast to the way that he speaks to strangers where he is courteous to a fault).
“He spread his arms and lifted his head towards the sky. ‘Through the sharp hawthorn blow the winds,’ he shouted. ‘Who gives anything to poor Tom? Tom’s a-cold! Bless thee from whirlwinds, starblasting, and taking!’
‘Stop it! You’re all quote! Every bit! And you call me second hand!’
‘Pillicock sat on Pillicock-hill. Halloo, halloo, loo, loo!’
‘You can’t put two words of your own together! Always someone else’s feeling! Other people have to go to hell to find words for you! You’re fire-proof!’
‘Take heed o’ the foul fiend. Obey thy parents; keep thy word justly; swear not; commit not with man’s sworn spouse; set not thy sweet heart on proud array. Tom’s a-cold.'”
Through the novel, Tom’s mental state deteriorates, as does their relationship. Every time they part company, they say hello. The reasoning being that their meeting is just taking them closer to the time that they will have to say farewell.
Tom’s discovery that Jan had been seeing and older man (with whom she had had sex; Tom and Jan had been avoiding physical intimacy) does little for his own state of mind. His insistence upon their sleeping together results in Tom’s state of mind deteriorating further. This leads to the ending of their relationship as symbolised by his selling a stone hand axe, which they had kept as a symbol of their love, to the museum.
The hand axe is more than just a symbol of Tom and Jan’s love. It is a link through the hundreds of years that the novel spans. One of the Roman soldiers in these sections of the novel possesses the axe for a short period. Though Garner doesn’t show that the axe protects those that possess it, the artefact seems totemic at the very least. The boy who held on to it in the Roman section is spared the fate of his companions, who are all slaughtered after raiding a village and capturing a girl held to be sacred by the tribe. Of course, it is possible that he is spared this fate due to the fact that he didn’t participate in the violence of his companions.
Similarly, a young lad (also named Thomas) finds the hand axe while he is involved in the construction of a barricade during the defence of their village against an attack during the English Civil War. Thomas, once again, is spared during the carnage. Though, once again, it isn’t ever seriously suggested that the axe is what saved him. However, when Thomas founds a new home after his life is spared, he and his wife embed it in the chimney of the house that they build together. It is here that it is found by Tom and Jan.
This, as noted, is the physical link through the ages. However, there is a further link through the ages. Visions, madness and depression link the three male possessors of the axe. The novel even seems to suggest at some points that Tom’s waning mental health may be the source, his influence spreading back through time (perhaps another reference to the red shift of the title?)
The novel is told mainly through dialogue. This makes for a particularly striking novel and one where Garner can use local dialect (as he often does) to striking effect. Although I have to confess that the years that have passed since I first read this have done little to further my understanding of the choices of words used by the Roman soldiers. They are clearly not native to northern Britain, but then their speech patterns seem modern rather than archaic. This is, presumably, a deliberate stylistic choice. It makes sense that the Tom and Jan and the seventeenth century characters would use what we consider to be the local dialect. However, given that in Roman times the linguistic influence from Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Scandinavian settlers would not have affected the language yet, it doesn’t break the immersion and sense of place that the use of dialect in other sections has. Indeed, the soldiers, as outsiders would not speak the local language.
Cannot recommend this highly enough. In some ways it feels different to Garner’s other novels and yet the grand sweep of time and acute sense of place, bolstered with a feel for language and his familiarity with myths and legends is entirely fitting within his oeuvre. Excellent.