Melissa Harrison (2013) Clay Bloomsbury, London; 272 pp.; ISBN 978-1-40882602-7
In 2012, the National Trust in the United Kingdom published Natural Childhood, a disturbing report by Stephen Moss that showed how modern British children are increasingly alienated from their natural environment. In a single generation since the 1970s, the number of children walking to school, going to play in the park with friends or running errands to the shops has fallen dramatically. The physical range in which children are allowed to play outside without an adult has shrunk by ninety per cent. The report links these changes to an increasing number of physical and mental problems in children and shows these are having a negative impact on children’s lives. Our modern obsession with protecting children has ironically become a new form of child abuse.
Clay is a novel where children’s alienation from the natural world is a key element in the story. TC and Daisy are nine year olds from very different families. TC’s mother has thrown his father out and is having an off and on relationship with a new boyfriend. TC does not get on well at school and he misses his dad. He spends a lot of time truanting and wandering a nearby park and common. Daisy’s parents, Linda and Steven, keep a tight rein on her outdoor activities, even though like TC she has a keen interest in wildlife. It is Linda’s mother Sophia – Daisy’s 78 year old grandmother – who brings TC and Daisy together and allows them to run about and explore the common, climb trees and take an interest in the plants and creatures they see.
TC is befriended by a middle aged Polish immigrant, Jozef, who has lost his ancestral farm at home and is finding it difficult fitting into life in Britain. He worries about the boy being alone and not having a stable home life, so gives him food, talks to him about nature and tries to teach him chess.
While Sophia and her dead husband were very keen on the outdoors, their daughter Linda has grown estranged from the natural world. She commutes in a car and spends most of her life indoors. After a walk in the woods en route to a conference in Bristol, Linda begins to take a renewed interest in gardening and recalls how she used to spend much more time outdoors as a child. Her reconnection with nature does not extend to letting Daisy enjoy the same childhood freedom that Linda did and this adds to the tension between Linda and her mother Sophia.
In his time wandering on the common, TC encounters violence by teenage boys and he learns that the natural world is not always a garden of Eden. As the friendship between Jozef and TC deepens, people (including Jozef himself) become concerned about whether the relationship is appropriate – another life-limiting fear of our modern world. When TC takes Jozef to a secret garden he has found, matters come to a head and the lives of all the main characters will be transformed.
Melissa Harrison is a nature writer and photographer, and her interest in, and description of, the changing seasons gives the book a solid grounding in the rhythms of the natural world. The story shows both the corrosive effect of alienation from nature and the power and enjoyment that can be gained from a curious and respectful interest in the world around us.
This is a first novel and the characters struck me as a bit too obvious: alienated boy, hapless single mum, estranged career woman, Polish immigrant. It felt too much like a pick and mix selection. The symbolism linking people and nature – or dividing them – became increasingly unsubtle as the tale wore on and it appeared as if Harrison was painting by numbers. Those weaknesses aside, the characters are well developed and their actions and relationships are plausible. The prose is occasionally twee but generally keeps the story on track and the evocation of seasonal changes is a constant strength.
The novel has a somewhat rushed ending but we see that the lives of the key actors will now run on very different tracks and that their connections with the natural world will be irrevocably altered. Will TC and Daisy buck the modern trend and build on their passion for the natural world, or will they become yet more sad statistics like those in Stephen Moss’s report?