We first meet the narrator of Mick Jackson’s fourth novel as she sleeps on a coach (although it is prefigured by a light – could it be dream-like? – rumination on the Post Office tower in London, a landmark that was once home to an early revolving restaurant), journeying in the company of a group of older Japanese ladies to Haworth, to visit the Bronte parsonage and walk across the wild moors that acted as the backdrop to so many of their books. Not that Yukiko’s all that interested in or knowledgeable about the literary sisters. Her pilgrimage is of a wholly different sort: she is following, quite literally, or as literally as she is able, in the footsteps of her late mother.
Ah, you might think if you are familiar with Jackson’s books, this sounds a little like his previous outing, The Widow’s Tale, in that this book – like that book – concerns a woman dealing with a bereavement that feels too big to get to grips with. In some senses, that is right; but in some senses, it’s wrong, too. You get the sense from reading both books that there is something in that bereaved space that appeals to Jackson, something he wants to get to grips with. One of the primary differences this time around is time itself. Yukiko’s mother’s death occurred a full decade before the events of the novel, which makes Yukiko somewhat less fragile than the narrator of The Widow’s Tale, more given to strange flights of fancy, more erudite (you can feel the interests of the author of Junior Science lurking like a breath cloud behind Yukiko); and yet (and it’s a big “and yet”), Yukiko is also more fragile – as fragile, in some ways, as William John Cavendish Bentinck-Scott, the Duke of Portland, who Jackson concerned himself with in his Booker-nominated debut, The Underground Man. She even daydreams (about the possibility of designing underground airports) in a way that recalls the Duke’s own ambitions:
“One’s pre-flight, airport-bound hours are a process of surrender. We grow quiet. We withdraw into ourselves. And no wonder. We are about to pass through a portal. What’s required, Yuki feels, is warm, dark spaces. Something womb-like. Airports should, in fact, be underground.”
Whereas the title is likely to remind people of Dan Rhodes’ sweetly exquisite Gold (in which a Japanese girl holidays in a Welsh seaside village), Yuki chan in Bronte Country is actually closer in tone to Adam Thorpe’s elegiac Still, in that, like Thorpe’s narrator, Yuki chan uses images to make sense of both her past and the world about her. But this is not just the tale of a young woman on the trail of her mother, a young woman seeking to answer questions about what drove her mother to do as she did; it is also a rather strange side step into the spirit world (Yukiko describes her journey as psychic as much as it is physical), and the reader may puzzle over which bit of the book came first perhaps.
Along the way, Yukiko interacts with her rather more dominant sister, her gentle father and a slightly wayward local girl who, as the spirit world starts to weigh more heavily on the book, you can’t help but suspect is a spirit herself (the fact we include it here demonstrates that it is no spoiler). What does weigh more heavily is that direct comparison with the narrators of Jackson’s previous novels. Where they were more defiantly untrustworthy, Yukiko spends the novel discovering herself as much as we discover her, and so there isn’t a point at which she loses the reader’s sympathy by keeping things hidden from view. What does occur, though, interestingly, is that we start to worry about Yukiko being in the world. She conjured up for this reader a similar feeling to that engendered by the (apparently untrue) story of the young Japanese girl who froze to death travelling to Fargo to see if she could find the bag of money hidden at the end of that particular film. With Yukiko you have the same sense that a bad thing could happen to her.
And yet there is sweet whimsy here, too (if Dan Rhodes’ book Gold could best be compared to a Graham Linehan sitcom, Jackson’s book feels like a Nilsson song); the book strikes out in unusual directions and you can’t really anticipate where you are going to be taken, page by page. Yukiko (via Jackson, we suppose) is given to stray fancies, charming memories, affecting visualisations that defiantly linger in your mind after you’ve read. Here is a good example, as she falls asleep:
“…her Aunt Kyoko used to tell her that after giving her hair a brush she should pluck the hair from the bristles and put it out on the window ledge, so that birds can take it and use it to build their nests. And even now she can’t decide whether this is just the kind of stuff grown-ups love to tell a child to fill their heads with nonsense or whether there aren’t in fact at this particular moment tiny birds taking hair from window ledges all around the planet.”
We would even go as far to say that this novel had an air of late period Brautigan about it. And anyone that knows Bookmunch, will know this is very close to being the highest praise indeed.
Any Cop?: It’s a good novel, then, is what we are saying, one that fights for top billing with Jackson’s debut in terms of whether or not it’s the best thing he’s done to date.