Adam Scovell takes his long-standing fascination with the idea of Place a step further in this, his coldly enveloping second novel.
Isabelle is in Strasbourg. Her increasingly-distanced partner has left for a trip to South America, and she’s alone when she receives word of her father’s suicide. So begins her slow sinking into the fabric of a city which with its multi-layered history and it’s artistic and political agglomerations across the centuries, is echt-European.
Strasbourg’s past lures Isabelle in until she feels it write upon her skin. England, by contrast, is associated with her “harridan” mother and her bitter artist father and is described as “sinking”. Isabelle sinks too but her journey, unlike that of England, is an opening up of new – often destabilising – landscapes. Because Isabelle is being stalked. A figure she glimpses in the city then visits her dreams: it is the Erlkönig, the fairy king (“fairy” has connotations of tweeness not present in “Erl”).
She delves into the lives of those artists who made Strasbourg their home – among them Goethe and Doré – and the linkages between them create a web in which Isabelle is caught, transfixed.
I reviewed Scovell’s debut novel Mothlight last year. How Pale The Winter Has Made Us continues his (Sebald-inspired) use of vintage photographs and postcards, and they act like a breadcrumb trail for Isabelle to follow.
Scovell’s prose style is almost anachronistic, redolent of the past Isabelle is trapped by, and his sentences unveil with a langour that’s unusual in contemporary fiction. There were stretches of Mothlight I felt were perhaps overwritten, but although How Pale shares the same slightly archaic style it doesn’t try too hard. His prose takes its time, and draws the reader deeper in to the mystery that Isabelle feels wrap itself about her. There were a few occasions when, as a writer, I re-read a particular sentence just to admire how elegantly, at the end of a sentence, he’d got out of the linguistic construction he’d built for himself at the start.
How Pale is told with more confidence and I enjoyed it even more than I did Mothlight. I wonder if his next work – Nettles – will maybe step away from the first-person narrator?
A final word of praise, for Vince Haig’s design: I loved Mothlight‘s cover, but his work on How Pale is stunning. The stained glass-on-white effect is sublime. Kudos to Influx Press: this is a paperback that’s a lovely thing to hold.
Image (c) Influx Press