Genre: Literary fiction
Published: HarperNorth, January 2023
My Rating: 2/5 stars
"Breathing in enough to be given life, softening the pain a little, finding some colour in all the grinding grey. Remembering that something else was possible, that it could change. That was all I could hold on to, never daring to consider that it actually would change. That I would."
Whenever a book is this universally panned by critics, it sometimes paradoxically gets me even more intrigued by it. It’s not morbid curiosity that drives me towards these books. The low rating indicates to me that it has at least done something unique and different and isn’t just a “mediocre people-pleaser”. I go into these reads genuinely hoping to find a marmite-read that I find to be a delicious bitter-sweet delight. In reality, the experience is often very much like the one I had with actual marmite: I hate it, and now understand why others do to.
240 pages later, all I can say is: I get it now. I get what the author was going for, and I also get why they didn’t succeed. Fray is an experimentally stylized novel about a daughter wandering the Scottish highlands in search of her missing father, who in turn after suffering a supposed mental break, disappeared whilst “looking for” his deceased wife in the wild. The bleak and inhospitable nature around her creates a stark background for our unnamed protagonists grief and guilt over her double loss; the loss of someone missing without resolve, and the loss of someone certainly gone for good.
Throughout the first 40 pages or so, I was actually loving the atmosphere and the way the characters inner monologue unfolded. It reminded me stylistically of the likes of Infinite Grounds and Lanny; a stream of consciousness, hallucinatory mix of nature-writing and psychological musings. which can be hit-or-miss, but happened to work for me (especially in the case of the latter). Then, after that 25% mark, I began to see the cracks emerge, and slowly watched the novel crumble apart. Essentially; this should’ve stayed a short-story. Had the author stopped at that 25% mark, it would’ve been a 4-star story, and nothing much would’ve been lost. After this point, repetition set in. Unstructured, disjointed and draining repetition.
You could argue the symbolism here: it being a reflection of the character’s “working through grief in real time”. I would’ve accepted that as part of the novel, had their been an end-point to this journey. Instead, this book is all wandering and eventually goes nowhere. There’s no pay-off, no ending, no conclusion. In the end, the characters are in the exact place they left from.
Some readers may see their own experience with complex grief and/or trauma reflected here. To me, there just was no point to reliving that experience, without any pay-off or new insight to be gained.
In short: a bleak, disjointed “wandering” of text, that has a single message and “feeling” to convey. Unfortunately, it conveyed that in the first 40 pages or so, and the rest of the story did little but take away from its strength.
Find this book here on Goodreads.