Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Kay: Mountains of the Moon

I J Kay (2012) Mountains of the Moon Jonathan Cape, London; 368 pp.; ISBN 978-0-22409376-7

I J Kay – three consecutive letters of the alphabet. It is an odd pseudonym but in this long and interesting novel I realised that the author has a thing about names. The main character has a new name for each stage of her life and other characters often have more than one name by which they are known. Luckily the book has a ‘cast of characters’ list at the beginning and I found myself referring back to it on a regular basis. The book is structured with the headings of a musical performance – an overture, three acts, a finale and an encore – but despite many snatches of tunes scattered in the text the point of this arrangement remains obscure.

Young Lulu has dysfunctional and abusive parents. Her father Bryce is often absent and when he is home he is physically violent to Lulu, her mother and baby brother. Another brother, Phillip, has gone to live with his own father in Wales to escape the cruelty, so Lulu and baby Graham bear the brunt of their father’s anger once Bryce has beaten his wife senseless. Lulu’s mother, off in her own world, both fears and loathes authority figures. She keeps Lulu out of school, spends her days banging on the piano singing old show tunes, and after each severe beating by her husband tells the police everything is fine. She berates Lulu whenever the girl seeks help from outsiders. Police and social workers predictably fail the children and their mother, so the cycle of trauma and violence is perpetuated.

Lulu escapes into a fantasy world of Africa, inspired by a book that her grandfather Bill passes on to her. Waste ground near her house becomes the Masai Mara and she dreams of scaling the Mountains of the Moon. She builds a walkway in the treetops near her home and escapes there to a world high above the one where she suffers. But the fantasy world is also dangerous, haunted by a neighbour, Mr Draper, who enjoys menacing young girls.

After Lulu’s father dies in an accident, Lulu is placed in care. For a time in her teenage years she finds solace with Anton, a mental patient who is kind to her and makes her laugh.

Coming out of care as a young woman she is befriended by Gwen, a ‘Welsh slapper’. (Heavens, is such a thing even possible?) They move into a place together and get jobs at a casino. There she meets Quentin, Heath and Peter, three men who will play important roles in her life. In a botched robbery, Quentin is shot and almost dies. The adult Lulu (now using another name) is found guilty of attempted murder and spends a decade in prison where she has to be violent to survive.

On release she has to come to terms with the demons of her past. Africa remains a dream in her life and when she receives some money from a court case she travels there. The trip is sometimes fraught but cathartic. She makes her final peace with Quentin and returns home where Heath and Peter are moving on, even if the latter needs a bit of a shove. Despite all that she has suffered, at the end of the story we have a hopeful view of the road ahead.

This is a deeply emotional tale and describes how one woman can survive some of the worst things that life throws at her. However, the story takes a long and tortuous path. The narrative is fragmented and out of sequence, and written in an impressionist style. This can be a useful technique to reflect the disjointed way in which we learn about things in life, but in a novel where ultimately you need to tell an engaging story, there is a risk that the fragmentation will dissolve into incoherence. That is too often the problem in this novel.

The other weakness is that important characters are never given much depth. They appear at some points, disappear for long periods, pop up again and then recede. Apart from the narrator, you never get to know any of them very well. As a result I had little or no empathy with any of them. If a novel’s characters cannot lure you in, then you have to question the point of telling the story.

The voice of the main character – Lulu, Mitten, Kim, Beverley, Louise are some of her monikers – changes for different periods of her life and mostly this works well. However, I found the voice of the young child Lulu stereotypical and unconvincing. It seemed more a parody of a child’s way of speaking than something believable.

This is Kay’s first novel. She is an older author and has studied creative writing, and a lot of the self-consciously arty techniques of her training permeate this story. On one level I could admire the play with words and imagery, but in the end the linguistic pyrotechnics became tiresome and blinded me to the story. The opportunity to move the reader with a disturbing and worthwhile tale fizzled long before the awkward happy ending.

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