“Red in tooth and claw” – The Tangle by Justin Robertson

IMG_21Dec2021at192506Woods play a great role in literature from Dante and the start of the Divine Comedy to the legends of Robin Hood, and more recently the Cragg Vale coiners. Often they are a place of disorder, beyond the reach of centres of power and authority, far from a picturesque view of nature, neat avenues of shrubs and trees, pruned to perfection.

You enter the wood. The paths twist in all directions. Which way should you go? You are alone and the silences fill with noises, breaking branches, bird songs that last longer than usual, and, most of all, the sound of your beating heart. The soundtrack is distorted, filled with repetitions and feedback. Roots trip you up.

This is the location of Justin Robertson’s new novel, crammed with different paths of narrative and characters, from detectives to victims and detectives who become victims.  There is an ocean, too. Nature is taking back control through destroying human life, absorbing it, morphing it into something different. It is red in tooth and claw. The motifs of the horror story loom as large as the murderous foliage: metamorphosis, hyper-violence, the emergence of a new order, revenge, are all present here. Don’t make a chair from a tree. Leave nature alone. Let it thrive in its pre-human patterns. It has its own purposes, not so much extinction rebellion as extinction now. This is an eco-horror treat.

At the start of the novel Robertson quotes from Rilke’s letters:

“ Everything is blooming more recklessly; if it were voices instead of colours, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night.”

This novel shrieks into the night.

Robertson’s art work populates the novel  from  monotone drawings that could be viruses seen under a microscope to neo-modernist images of not quite human forms. If you like unsettling books read this and don’t spend your afternoon alone in a dark, dark wood for the narrative will come back to fill your mind:

“A faint gurgle escaped the remains of her mouth. The ash welcomed her into the roots, and with the last tiny spark of her human self, she complimented it on its fine craftsmanship.”

Any Cop?: For a first novel, Justin Robertson takes many risks, the various points-of-view, the different settings, the changes of genre from police procedural to sci-fi, to  the repetitions, and a narrative that just avoids sliding into allegory.

Richard Clegg

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