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 

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’. 

web_peach-jacket-1.jpg

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

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.jpg

Fiona Mozley, 2018. 

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.  

the_water_cure.jpg

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 doctoral candidate in the English Department at King’s College London. She has written for the Times Literary Supplement, LA Review of Books, Hazlitt and Art Monthly amongst others. 

Most Read

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018