BY Bryony White in Books , Opinion | 23 MAY 18

Sickish Landscapes: Trauma and the Pastoral in Three New Novels

Provincial landscapes mask creeping violence in three new novels by Emma Glass, Sophie Mackintosh and Fiona Mozley 

BY Bryony White in Books , Opinion | 23 MAY 18

The appeal of the UK TV series, Midsomer Murders, is the perverse incongruity between violence and the rural. The outright surprise that something like that might happen on our bucolic doorstep becomes a cipher for thinking about how violence can occupy even the most protected environments, or those in which we suppose ourselves impervious. The pastoral idyll – across literature, art and film – has often been adopted as a conduit through which to explore violence’s insidious ubiquity: how the nefarious can crawl into that which appears safe, cover its tracks and tear things apart from the inside.

In Sophie Mackintosh’s novel The Water Cure (published tomorrow by Hamish Hamilton), the hermetically sealed bubble of ‘the Island’ is a space that shields three sisters – Grace, Lia and Sky – from the contamination of the outside world; a toxin-filled elsewhere that does affective injury, resulting in ‘exhaustion’, ‘agitation’, ‘withering of the skin’ and ‘hair loss’. Like the effervescent refrain of a spa brochure, we learn that ‘islands like ours’ are ‘where women can be healthful and whole’. These women are therefore siphoned off from the realities of a violent world and contained within an unassailable haven of sky, sea and trees, free from the brutality performed at the hands of men. They undergo harsh therapies enabling them to excoriate trauma, sexual violence and abuse, their recoveries becoming justifications for their parents’ (the cult-like leaders, King and Mother) decision to keep them in isolation. These rehabilitations often rely upon natural elements – water for drowning, sea salt for drinking, bonfires for exorcising – that endure the pains that the women attempt to exhume. They drink from pools of seawater with anodyne qualities until they are sick, in the simple hope of feeling ‘lighter’. 

Emma Glass, Peach, 2018. Courtesy: Bloomsbury Circus, London

In Emma Glass’s Peach (2018), the eponymous main character – who, at the beginning of the novel, we learn has experienced a violent sexual attack – constantly looks to nature for distraction and survival. Having received a letter from her attacker, she finds herself sitting in the sun as the clouds morph into bestial shapes. Upon returning to school, she absent-mindedly stares out of the window as shadows flit amongst the trees. Whenever Peach feels herself countenancing trauma, she quickly thinks of nature; of the penumbra of trees and the pink candyfloss clouds. For Lia, in The Water Cure, the world that lays beyond the island doesn’t do affect management well, and is ill-prepared for those ‘personal energies’, which ‘are often called feelings’. ‘It takes vigilance and regular therapies’, she says, to hold the ‘limped, wretched things’ at bay. Instead, the sisters scream into trees, loams of sodden earth and the cerulean sky, their anguish reverberating into the natural world around them. 

But as the sisters bleed and cry, it transpires that the brochure was lying. Like the outside world, the island is not a place where women are healthful or whole, but one in which they are forced to reroute their feelings; to not show them, but plant them within the depths of the soil. It seems that, however tightly we squash how we feel, our emotions often emerge with greater strength and persistence than before. In fact, despite King’s best efforts, the sisters are always alive to the quiescent sensations of their bodies. They are ‘useless with grief’, their corporeal responses exceeding the tight constraints that have been forced upon them through regular and abusive therapies. For all their attempts to button their reactions to the world, the sisters still cry, scream, bleed, wallow and exult. One morning, Lia wakes hyperventilating. ‘Be good, be good, be good’, she tells herself in sharp anaphora, begging her body to play along. But while she may wish away her own unsanctioned indulgence, still the affect leaks out, sickish. 

Fiona Mozley, 2018. Courtesy: Hodder & Stoughton, London

Set within an arcane, feudal world, Fiona Mozley’s novel Elmet (2017) explores a violence that is similarly insidious. The protagonist’s sister, Cathy, feels angry ‘all the time’. Her skin can’t hide its bruises, nor the sicknesses that lie beneath. Mozley’s flat and saturated Yorkshire Downs, inhabited by savage kidnappers and slimy landowners, become an appropriate territory of violent masculinity in which to explore the sexual violence and abuse that Cathy experiences throughout the novel. 

In both The Water Cure and Elmet, provincial ruralities eventually provide a platform from which to unearth and assess the true conditions of their protagonists. For Mozley’s Cathy, it is not just the pastoral environment that is a natural resource, the site of a rugged, masculine struggle for land ownership, but also her body. Elmet, the area of Yorkshire from which the novel takes its name, is a pre-modern world illustrated through the simplicity of the life the family lead – rolling their own cigarettes, drinking homemade cider by the fire, chopping wood, hunting. Yet unlike her younger brother Danny, Cathy is never able to supplant the violence that is inherent to this land, nor hold it at a distance. She is always bruised, embattled, covered in mud, blood and dirt.  

Sophie Mackintosh, The Water Cure, 2018. Courtesy: Hamish Hamilton, London

These novels emanate uneasy, mythic atmospheres; aberrant environments with unknown and vaguely named characters (Daddy, Peach, Green, King, Mother). Their natural landscapes are desolate and alchemical; the people within them angry and weeping, trying to force their various sadnesses downwards. The reader is always scrambling for a foothold as the contexts shift and the settings become ambivalent and lawless. These porous and clouded feelings illustrate the enduring qualities of trauma and violence – specifically sexual violence. In peach, as in Elmet, the protagonist tries constantly to stave off a sickness rising in her throat. That these feelings cannot be contained illustrates trauma’s flat ongoingness; the fact that, as the sisters of The Water Cure put it: ‘our hearts have been bleeding for years’. 

The atmospheric landscapes that emerge throughout each of these texts cloak trauma and violence in wisps of uncertainty, where bad feelings coalesce as both presciently felt and strangely unknowable. Often, the sheen of safety is little more than danger effectively covering its tracks. These novels seem to communicate that nothing much shifts after suffering; that its symptoms endure as an atmospheric sickness that simmers. Like the drowning game of The Water Cure, these novels explore what it is to bear the weight of, and to remain afloat within, the extant ubiquity of trauma. 

Sophie Mackintosh, The Water Cure is published by Hamish Hamilton on 24 May 2018.

Emma Glass,
Peach, 2018, is published by Bloomsbury Circus.

Fiona Mozley,
Elmet, 2017, is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

Main image: The Water Cure, 2018. Courtesy: Hamish Hamilton, London

Bryony White is a PhD candidate at King’s College London, where she is writing about performance and the law. In 2019, she was shortlisted for the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize, and she has written for frieze, LA Review of Books, Artmonthly and the TLS. She co-edits the Tinyletter, close.