on 15 December 1999
I too read this story in school, many more years ago now than I want to remember. I was reading simple adventure stories and came across 'Red Shift' somehow and was completely captured by the pure imagination of it. Maybe the only novelist who comes close for me now to that sense of wonder and other worldliness is Robert Holdstock in his Mythago novels. But if you can put 'Red Shift' into the hands of a teenager at just the right time...... ....you will create a reader of books for a lifetime.
This is a complex, ambiguous and intense read that remains enigmatic right to the very end. While ostensibly written as a children's book it is very different from Garner's Elidor, for example, which is far simpler and easier to `get' (though it is still a great book which terrified me as a child).
Red Shift consists of three narratives: Jan and Tom, the teenage lovers who are misunderstood by his parents; Macey and his band of military brothers on the run amongst enemy factions; and Thomas and Marge, caught up in what seems to be the Reformation civil wars. All three are replete with literary and historical echoes - Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Roman invasions of Britain, Vietnam (this was published in 1967), Cromwell and the religious wars of the reformation - and yet the timeframes are never delineated and the stories float in a kind of timeless space. By the end the three coalesce and cannot be unwound from each other in the final pages.
At heart each story is about love, betrayal, violence and pain. I almost dreaded the end (especially of the Jan/Tom story) and yet it is all so right and fitting when it comes. Be warned, this is a book with very little exposition and practically no scene-setting: as readers we are thrust into the narrative and have to navigate our own way through the text. There are pages of no more than pure dialogue (no `he said' `she said' here) so if you dislike this style of writing this might be one to avoid. But it would be a shame since this really is a marvellous feat of imagination and pure writing, which also forces the reader to work imaginatively hard. A great book for a teenager and one which really opens up the delights of literature.
on 20 October 2006
I read this book when I was 14 - it was one of several that my English teacher recommended, not as part of the school curriculum, but because he thought they were good books (these were halcyon pre-National Curriculum days where teachers could often follow their own enthusiams, and thus build the same in others).
I cannot recall what else he recommded now, but Red Shift simply blew me away then, and continues to have an effect today - 30 years later.
My friend and I read it at the same time and discussed it endlessly. We were gripped by everything - the style, the story, the lack of a traditional narrative thread, the switch between times - and viewpoints, the meaning (if there was one).
Its not a perfect book - the Roman episodes do not work entirely well at times, and returning to it now its a bit dated - but that does not matter when you can be so gripped by the pace and drive of the book (I will not say "story" because that would imply a structure that it does not have - and it is that too that fascinates).
It changed the way I looked on writing, and the way I wrote (indeed maybe still write sometimes). The power of the short sentance, and well chosen words. The way in which the reader fills in the gaps to the extent that every reader probably reads a "different" book.
Red Shift is at its heart a teenage novel (indeed it was probably one the first books aimed at the teenage market, an age group that - and it is hard to believe this now - was incredibly poorly provided for right up to the early 80s), and perhaps its only teenagers who appreciate the structural iconoclasm because many older readers hate it. I'd urge anyone to give it a go - relax and dive in. Let it flow over you. Emerge at the other end (its not a long book), think a bit, then dive in again... and find a whole different story each time.
on 15 October 2000
Red Shift would be the greatest children's book ever, if it wasn't really a dark and disturbing adult book subversively circulated to the young. Short of giving your kids "American Psycho" or "The 120 Days of Sodom", I can't think of a better way of messing with their heads. I read it (after the first 4 Garners) at 13, when I was smart enough to crack the code and too dumb to spot the sex, and it freaked me out, but not as much as when I re-read it five years later. There's three stories in one, plus bits of Vietnam, King Lear and the Ballad of Tamlyn, but its all really in Tom's over-intellectual, working-class, sexually-confused head as he tries to make sense of everything moving away from him. Along with "Unknown Pleasures" and "Closer", this is Cheshire's greatest contribution to world culture. Tom's a cold
on 29 August 2013
Can we ever escape life's repeating patterns? The three sets of couples in Red Shift don't seem able to, as history repeats itself over a period of a thousand years at Mow Cop in Cheshire. Pulled by invisible forces, the men - Tom, Thomas and Macey - struggle but fail for some understanding and equilibrium.
Garner's approach here is to provide the minimum of descriptive content for the reader, but instead to immerse them in the dialogue, this sometimes resulting in a whole page or so of terse and clipped sentences. It can be disorientating to start with, but it can also bring an immediacy and involvement. As our three parallel stories develop, the intercutting between scenes becomes almost natural, until by the end the threads are woven together into one.
Written in 1973, the Vietnam War was very much in people's consciousness, and Garner draws allusions between the Romans-gone-feral and the GI's caught up in the insanity of of a viciously brutal war they couldn't win. Therefore, Logan, Face and Magoo use phraseology and terms which presumably were accurate to that time, the idea being that this would resonate with the reader and perhaps add a reality which would otherwise be difficult to capture.
In the Civil War storyline, the author centrepieces the story of the siege of Barthomley Church, a true but harrowing episode as barbarous as anything in the Vietnam War. The third strand is contemporary, but played out against the landscape of the preceding two stories and carries with it all the unresolved questions.
Essentially Red Shift is a love story, but one which Garner exploits to look in depth at some of the crucial issues at the time of writing (and of course in 1973 the anti-war movement and the rise of feminism were highly significant topics). For instance, he seems to question the idea of manhood and masculinity; what are the bounds, and what happens when they are crossed? What then is the role of the wife/mother? Some indication of the author's viewpoint here might be deduced from a line of graffiti which partly inspired the book, and which I've used in the title of this review. The statement might be seen as a girl's disillusioned reply to a (former) lover's attempt at reconciliation.
Everyone will surely take away something different in what is a fascinating and enigmatic book of many related levels.
This is one of those books that everyone should read at least once.
Most of us will then re-read it several times to untangle the three time periods knitted together around the location and the influence of the stone axe head. But it is not the clever devising of the linking themes nor our empathy for the principal characters nor the buried references to history and folk tales and myth; no, it is the superb quality of Garner's writing that repeatedly draws us back into the book.
It is the sort of book one thoroughly enjoys as a teenager; but then revisits in later years finding more depth and subtlety than was first apparent, while still feeling the immediacy of the three stories washing around in one mind. It is the sort of book one lends in a fit of enthusiastic but misguided sharing, and then has to replace (as I did with this copy) because it never returns.
Published in 1973, the story starts with Tom and Jan, teenagers who are keeping in touch with coded letters and infrequent but intense meetings on Crewe Station. The story then intertwines with flashes to the past, to Roman Britain and the Civil War, with events that resonate back and forth in time as Tom and Jan visit sites where there has been much killing and other couples experiencing intense fear and suffering. Tom becomes almost deranged when he makes a discovery about Jan which threatens to tip him over the edge of sanity.
Alan Garner was apparently inspired to write the story after reading of a suicidal teenage boy who sent a taped message to his girlfriend: if you care about me you will react to this. Well the girl never listened to the tape and he did commit suicide. It is unclear if Tom and Jan have a happy ending.
I am sure that in 1973 this book must have resonated powerfully with young readers. There was much less communication, no mobile phones, email, skype. Jan tells Tom how intensely she imagines him, how strongly she idealises him, and the adjustment she has to make when she sees the real him. The book perfectly sums up the difficulty of a long distance relationship as well as teenagers rejecting their parents' way of living. In addition is the interwoven, complicated, and often confusing strands of the past which bind the three stories backwards and forwards together.
Altogether it is a very clever, complex, compelling (I read it in two sittings), and really quite tragic story. After all, first love always seems so very tragic and intense. The couples from the first two stories appear to have happy endings, I was unsure about Tom and Jan.
I guessed the code word of the coded letter and the first three words, but had to google the Lewis Carroll code in order to discover how to de-code the rest.
on 19 October 2011
I was haunted by Elidor as a boy and have enjoyed it along with other early Garners, as an adult. But Red Shift I'm not sure about. In part it's brilliant. It's certainly very daring to tackle themes which I take to include sexual jealousy, the teen fascination/fear of sex, and possibly male sexual insecurity - among many others - in a teen book (or any book, really), and at times the experimental style works. But at many points the actual events of the story are obscure and the ultra-pared-down dialogue-centred style is mannered and irritating. The novel is disturbing - both in a good way and a bad way. It delves into very deep emotional/psychological layers, but at the same time I did puzzle about the author's own attitude to sex and to the female gender.
There are three 'couples' in the novel: in modern times, Tom and Jan; in the English Civil War period Thomas and Madge; in Roman Britain Macey and the priestess. For different reasons, none of them have sex (until Tom and Jan do, disastrously, at the end). Macey is some kind of special person possessed by a berserker god and seems uninterested in the priestess sexually (which is his salvation). Thomas, it is suggested, is impotent. Tom and Jan are avoiding sex with each other. They both seem to think it would somehow pollute their relationship, but Tom perhaps is hung up about it (while Jan, it turns out, has in fact had an enjoyable and healthy sexual experience abroad outside her relationship with Tom). And all three main female characters are raped: Jan, finally, by Tom; Madge by another Thomas who was an early rival with her husband Thomas; the priestess repeatedly by Roman soldiers who keep her 'ham strung' in their camp - the fact that Macey has not joined in saves him from her eventual revenge. The only healthy sexual relationship in the book is between Jan and her lover, and that spells disaster for her central relationship with Tom. The book is very violent, and sex and violence seem conjoined.
It all certainly makes you think - but I kept wondering if there was some sort of misogyny going on here, and a mistrust of sex. Of course, Garner's very point may be about something destructive in male sexuality, but the book could almost be read as saying that a healthy sexual relationship between a man/boy and woman/girl who are in love is not possible; while Platonic love we can get away with. Plus, although we are obviously meant to deplore the raping, there is so much of it...
There was a moment when I was reading The Owl Service when I also began, I thought, to detect a certain attitude to the female sex. One of the heroes, Gwyn, keeps calling the heroine Alison, 'girl'. At times it reaches crescendoes - 'girl' at the end of almost every sentence as he speaks to her. The word draws attention of course to Alison's gender and sexuality and seems to carry a sort of strange distancing with it. Gwyn also has an oddly violent and stressful relationship with his mother! Much as I admire Alan Garner in many ways, all this does make me wonder what's afoot. I'd be interested to know what others think.
on 2 April 2016
Of Red Shift, Neil Philip says; “The book’s basic premise is that the most important, and the most difficult task in life is the establishment of loving contact between two people, the breaking down of barriers ……. This private, internal struggle ……”
This renders the Fantasy level of the book more important than it might appear at first glance. Firstly, the theme of the struggle of the young male for identity, against the backdrop of the tension between himself and his mother, is carried over into this book from The Owl Service and is very aptly expressed in the ‘Tam Lin’ theme of the beloved young man enthralled by the Queen of Elfland. The jealous “queen o’ Fairies” is one embodiment of the possessive mother, as is Tom’s mother on the realistic level of the story. Secondly, the love-theme is itself important; the need to be loved. For this, one must go beyond one’s isolation and form a bond with the other. On however high a plane his life may proceed, the I without the Thou lives a lonely existence. The happy endings to fairy-tales, in which the hero is united to his life’s partner, tell this much. But they do not tell what the individual must do to transcend his isolation after he has won his selfhood. One becomes a complete human being who has achieved all his potentialities only if, in addition to being oneself, one is at the same time able and happy to be oneself with another. To achieve this state involves the deepest layers of our personality. Like any transmutation which touches our innermost being, it has dangers which must be met with courage and presents problems which must be mastered. The message of these fairy stories is that we must give up childish attitudes and achieve mature ones if we wish to establish that intimate bond with the other (Bettleheim, The uses of enchantment
I have quoted this at length specifically because of what it has to say about Tom and Jan in Red shift. To some degree the lover trapped in Elfland, needing to be rescued by his beloved is the over-protected boy with the dominant mother. This time the protagonist is asked to prove his maturity by his attitude to his beloved; and the modern time-strand of the story, he fails, crippled by self-pity and anger, punishing Jan for what the mother has done to him. Macey and Thomas, in the earlier time-levels, have a greater respect for the feminine and for their loved ones. This is signified by both of them handling the votive axe with the respect demanded by the woman, while Tom disposes of it without any idea that he will hurt Jan by doing so. Also, Macey refrains from sexually abusing the Maiden, and so survives where his comrades die; while Thomas overcomes resentment of his namesake’s rape of Margery to such an extent that he is even able to welcome the idea that she may be pregnant with Venables’ child. Tom can only see Jan’s brief affair with another man as an offence against himself. Loyalty to their women rescues the two earlier men; self-absorption leaves Tom trapped in his enchanted state, a sort of manic-depressive condition which stands for enchantment in Elfland as do Macey’s rages and Thomas’s fits. Tom blames Jan for telling her parents about this; but it could be argued that like Blodeuwedd in The Owl Service, “She wants to be flowers”; it is Tom’s bitterness that makes him see her as owls.
Phillip’s concluding remarks on Garner are He is concerned with the traversal of boundaries within the self, with the refinement of consciousness. Through the manipulation of history, of the myths which are man’s [sic] spiritual history and of the metaphysics of time and space he enlarges our understanding of the human condition …… Essentially, he seeks in his work to reconcile ‘the natural forces in the world and the hidden forces in ourselves (A Fine Anger)
Condensed from my thesis;
on 21 September 2013
A short novel, exasperating and daring in equal measure. Like 'Thursbitch' - the only other Garner I've read (Hugh Hefner was my favourite writer as a teen) - Red Shift, set near Crewe, travels back and forth in time; in this case from the Roman occupation of Britain to the 1970s, weaving parallels and evoking a sense of place that leaks mysteriously through the ages. All three featured sets of characters battle with threatening predicaments: sex, myth, slaughter and an unnamed mystical, head-spinning, silver-blue force drive the story. An axe head provides the linking motif. Though many people seem to have read it in their youth, Red Shift has none of the signifiers of a teen/YA novel, and pretty much defies categorisation: it's a challenging read no matter how many miles you have on the clock.
Garner slashes description to the bone and neglects the signposts other novelists use to help the reader with narrative and location. It's all pretty clear if you pay attention; you just need to relax and go with the flow a little (you can understand why Garner is quoted as preferring the less 'trained' response of younger readers to his books: though you may also think he's ignoring at least some of a novelist's duties, and justifying his own pecadilloes). The Beckett-influenced dialogue is fractured and idiosyncratic: Magoo, Face, Logan and Mosey, the Roman soldiers trying to stay alive amidst the savage local tribes, occasionally talk more like characters in a Tarantino movie ('Go, baby!'); as in Thursbitch, it's the 'clever' modern-day couple - in this case, Tom and Jan, an Oxbridge-bound student and a young nurse recently moved to London - where this technique becomes mannered; that they are earnest and highly self-conscious exacerbates the problem. In particular, caravan-dwelling, know-it-all Tom, moody and endlessly quoting Shakespeare, gives the novel an unintended pleased-with-itself quality. When I am King, I'll ban Oxbridge types from novels (and novels about novelists; and feisty young female heroines;and world-weary detectives; plus protagonists with rare, exotic diseases - or amnesia. Oh, and orphans).
Well worth searching out, Red Shift is a welcome antidote to the Marketing Dept-approved, identikit, Hollywood-pleasing slush that passes for most modern fiction.