Review: “The Unmapped Country” by Ann Quin

It’s a good start to the year for fans of mid-century experimental fiction. Alma have reprinted Michel Butor’s Changing Track, and now And Other Stories have gathered these short pieces and fragments by Ann Quin.

Quin, who drowned off Brighton beach in 1973 aged 36, has long been a cult figure. She was one of a small group of British writers who looked to the continent for advances being made in fiction (in particular the nouveau roman as practised by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon and others), among whose number were Christine Brooke-Rose (who translated numerous nouveaux romans) and B.S. Johnson. Quin’s first novel, Berg, is the best-regarded of the four she published, and a return to print of her work is overdue (though the ever-reliable Dalkey Archive Press have done their best).

Chloe Aridjis uses the word “mosaic” in describing Quin, which seems to perfectly describe many of these works. Quin’s language is sharp and precise, her prose often coming in staccato bursts. Each tiny sentence is a bright facet, fragmentary on its own but combining with those around it to intensely evoke a stifling, constraining universe.

“Enclosed by gray walls. Were they gray? Corridors. Women fettered from head to toe in black and white. Their white faces.”

Her characters are trapped, emotionally or physically, and strain at the leash of polite society. The England that is portrayed is a dreary, gray place where nothing happens. ‘A Double Room’ (one of the highlights) tells of a would-be dirty weekend in a drab seaside town. In a frank portrayal of female desire, a girl longs for her married lover to perform but he is continually unable, putting off the act for a perfect moment which never, of course, arrives.

In ‘Nude and Seascape’, a man struggles to place and to arrange to his satisfaction a woman’s corpse on a beach. He spends hours, frustrated by time and tide, trying to situate the cadaver just so. The title may sound like a surrealist painting, but the vignette is so visceral and told in prose so sharp it is anything but oneiric. Like a splash of cold water, Quin’s language is refreshing and – excepting a few period details here and there – doesn’t feel dated at all.

‘Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking’ evokes an atmosphere similar to some of the early stories in Dubliners, where a child has to navigate the unknown depths and hazardous shores of adult situations, but Quin’s spare, rapid-fire prose is closer to Beckett than to Joyce.

The title story, unfinished at Quin’s death, is a breathtaking portrayal of a woman committed to an asylum. The character whose head we inhabit, Sandra, walks a fine line, her perception at one moment hallucinatory and the next deeply, terrifyingly – yet all too plausibly – paranoid.

“Once she had understood the language of birds, now no longer, it took all her time to understand her own language…if speech at all then it was the spaces between words, and the echoes the words left, or what might be really meant under the surface.”

There is a kinship in the final part of the quote above with the tropisms of Nathalie Sarraute: those sub-vocal communications and thoughts which pass across our consciousness without ever being articulated.

Two early stories, ghost-written for the New Zealand pop artist Billy Apple, are probably the weakest but evoke a similar post-beatnik milieu as early Velvet Underground songs. Although interesting, they are not otherwise representative of Quin’s work but do show consistency: these are characters from the edges and margins of society, at a time when society was less understanding of – or adaptive to – those margins than it is today.

The Unmapped Country is a superb introduction to Quin, smartly packaged and with a thoughtful introduction by Jennifer Hodgson. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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