Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2019

Thursbitch, by Alan Garner

I discovered the English author Alan Garner (b-1934) when my parents gave me his first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, (1960) one Christmas.  I loved its English folklore and was enchanted by the fantasy.  Still, it came as a surprise to me when at teachers’ college studying children’s literature, I was introduced to Red Shift (1973).  That book didn’t strike me as one I might read to primary school children, and when I hunted them out, nor did Brisingamen’s sequel, The Moon of Gomrath(1963), or Elidor(1965), or The Owl Service (1967).  I liked them, but they were difficult books conceptually, and when I decoded the last lines of Red Shift (using the Lewis Carroll Alphabet Cipher) I would have hesitated to use the book even in a secondary school because I thought it was far too pessimistic for melancholy adolescents, even if their chances of decoding its devastating final words were slim.

Well, Thursbitch (2003) is difficult and pessimistic too.  It’s one of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 edition).  It shares elements with Red Shift because it plays with time, the long ago past bleeding into the present and influencing the action of the characters in both eras.  Although it’s only 160 pages long, it took a long time to read because I had to keep re-reading parts of it to make any sense of it.  It didn’t help that due to its slim size, I chose it as a ‘handbag’ book

The landscape is ancient.  Thursbitch is actually a valley, (also spelt Thursbatch) near Macclesfield in the Pennines on the borders of Cheshire and Derbyshire.  When the story begins, in our present time, a mismatched couple are climbing in difficult terrain and getting lost, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that Sal is suffering from some kind of neuro-degenerative disease (maybe Motor-Neurone Disease or Multiple Sclerosis) and Ian is her long-suffering carer.  Sal is making a last-ditch effort to research standing stones, wayside markers from the past and is very knowledgeable about the geology of the landscape, though her recall of words is failing as her disease progresses.  Ian is the butt of her scorn.

In the 18th century, Jack Turner perishes in the snow.  He is a ‘jagger’, someone who harvests salt from the moorland, and through the flashbacks in the narrative the reader learns that he’s also a mystic whose pagan cult is threatened by the growing domination of Christianity. Where Sal links the ancient markings on the markers with contemporary astronomical knowledge, for Jack they are part of his rituals, and because the text weaves in and out of both periods of time, these events impact on each other.  Sal finds an inscription on ruins that are not marked anywhere on their maps: the markings are about someone freezing to death in the snow.

But it’s not at all easy to understand what’s going on because Garner’s use of dialect is uncompromising:

‘Nan Sarah.’  You’re all as I ever needed in all this world. Did you not know?’
‘You seem never suited.  Forever agate.  Like as you’ll never rest.’
‘But that’s my way,’ said Jack.  ‘I’m a jagger born, me.  I walk in my own shoon.  And the more I see the more I want to be with you.  Not some trollop else.  And if you are teeming, and you’ll keep it and take me, then I’ll be a toad with two side pockets.’ (p.32)

And the contemporary situation isn’t much easier because the action is carried through dialogue that (even with simple events like Sal refusing to use her walking sticks) doesn’t always reveal what’s going on until you’ve almost given up.  (I remember that I had to read and re-read Red Shift many times before I worked out what was going on.)

The review at The Guardian hints that it might have helped if I’d read Strandloper first.

Author: Alan Garner
Title: Thursbitch
Publisher: first published 2003
ISBN:
Personal copy, OpShop Find.


Responses

  1. Hmmm. I loved Elidor and Weirdstone and Moon and Owl back in the day, but I struggled with Red Shift – really didn’t like it at all. Which has created a problem for me as OH gifted me a DVD of the adaptation a while back and I haven’t had the heart to tell him I have unpleasant memories of it and don’t really want to see it again…. Think I might avoid Thursbitch…

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    • I wonder if what was fiction that made a plea for people to respect the old country and its folklore has become bitter and pessimistic? In this book, Sal’s condition deteriorates so badly that she ought to be in care, but she refuses it and wants to be left alone on the moor to let nature take its course. That’s understandable, but it sharpened my realisation that she has no one else in her life but a paid carer. I think it’s meant to show that people are isolated and alone in the modern world, whereas there are people who grieve for Jack… but there’s no explanation for why she has no family and friends, and if she does die of exposure on the moor there won’t be any headstone for her.

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  2. Books with a lot of local dialect do take a while to get into. You have to tune in your ear as it were. I’m about to tackle one book written with a substantial amount of Glaswegian …..

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    • Yes, you’re right, and I can usually do it, but this was an epic fail for me really. I struggled with the dialect, I struggled to work out the action of the book, and I struggled with working out what the theme was.

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      • I didn’t think it was an epic fail for you at all. I was fascinated by the effort you put into the reading, and the reach of your understanding. I have never read the novel, and I confess that your analysis didn’t entice me to do so. However, I did appreciate knowing about it, and following your determined work was part of the pleasure. So – success of a kind. 💐

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        • Oh, Carmel, you are kind! But this book is niggling away at me. I want to ‘get it’ and I want to ‘love it’ and… I don’t. I think that’s why I kept re-reading it, hoping that the fog would clear.

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      • Ah then that would be a fail for me too…. far too many hurdles to overcome

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  3. I tend to like taking on challenging books. With that, I also tend to have a lot of trouble with dialects when they are written. Aside from that the plot sounds very good. The hint of devastatingly melancholy final lines sounds fascinating.

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    • Well, you know me, I like challenging books too. I’ve read Finnegans Wake, for goodness sake, so anything else should be a walk in the park, right? But no, I found this one awkward and confusing.
      And I wanted to love it, I really did!

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  4. I am always grateful to read your reviews of such challenging books, Lisa, because I simply wouldn’t have the patience (or the brain) to cope with works like this one. At least I get a good overview once you have done all the hard work. LOL.

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  5. This could be too challenging for me at present ;-) Thanks for sharing,

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  6. […] Thursbitch, by Alan Garner – Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog found Garner’s 2003 fantasy novel “difficult and pessimistic”. She also struggled with the dialect, which she describes as “uncompromising”. […]

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