I picked up Erica Wagner’s novel Seizure because I was so attracted to its premise – a woman unexpectedly inherits a coastal dwelling from a mother she had thought long dead – but what I got was an unearthly blend of Celtic folklore, abandoned children, forbidden love and a strange, incantatory prose style that shut the reader out of understanding and into mystical dreaming as much as it told a coherent tale. This is by no means a book that will be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a bold and ambitious attempt to write the lyric borderline between reality and fantasy, and it is a continually intriguing if occasionally frustrating story of siblings attempting to heal their broken past.
So, the story focuses on Janet, a woman prone to disconcerting mental seizures. We are told that they used to affect her in childhood and have returned to haunt her recently, a harbinger, in other words, of an emotional storm heading her way that will occasion the same intensity, the same loss and recapture of herself, the same disorientation as the electrical storms in her mind. Beyond this symptom, her life is suspiciously quiet, as she lives with a musician, Stephen, whom she loves without deep connection. When the extraordinary summons from the lawyers arrives, informing her that she has inherited a property on the demise of a mother she had thought died when she was three, she sets off north in search of answers. What’s confusing but also fascinating about this narrative is that answers do not appear in the format we expect. Instead, she arrives at the house, a primitive place of stone floors and outside toilets, to find it already inhabited by a strange man, and one who claims he’s been waiting for her. Interspersed with Janet’s account are chapters narrated through Tom’s viewpoint. Tom is a garage mechanic with a craftsman’s feel for metal and a slightly menacing temperament; he’s also suffering from premonitions that a woman he’s long been waiting for is going to come to him. Interpolated into both accounts are stories that transport us into their respective childhoods and reveal troubled tales of parental abandonment. Tom has been brought up by a mother whom he adores, and who tells him terrifying tales from Celtic legend. But her elusive quality and her restlessness cause him the anguish of the uncertain child, bound ever more tightly to her through fear of caprice and indifference. Janet’s father, by contrast, is tenderly portrayed as a man who has never quite recovered from the loss of his wife, and whose undeniable love for his daughter is shaped and tainted by grief. In no time at all the reader has figured out their relation to one another and is wondering how their reunion will play out. The twist the story then takes into the erotic is a step out of narrative convention and into a kind of fantastic freefall that leaves all the usual responses to family breakdown far behind.
Let me assure you that this is not the kind of book you read for the plot; if you do it will seem implausible and odd. Instead, it’s better to see that what happens gives shape to poorly understood, deeply buried, barely perceptible but highly influential events in the protagonists’ pasts. The segments of narrative that recount Janet’s and Tom’s childhood are some of the most powerful in the book and show each being shaped in turn by the stories their parents tell them, stories that enter their bloodstreams as their only legacy and compass in an incomprehensible world. These stories, of a love that can never be overcome, of elemental and mystical forces, of strange transformations, are carried over into the adult relationship Tom and Janet feel compelled to enact, putting them in touch with wounds that hurt no less for being illogical. I was puzzled for a while by the highly evocative but unspecified geography that Wagner gives to the narrative. The cottage Janet inherits is somewhere in the north, her home with her father somewhere in America. But it struck me that the positioning in the novel was that of a child, who feels the world around them with tremendous intimacy but with no sense of placement. Instead children know they are ‘here’ as opposed to ‘there’, their identity forged by bonds of relationship to people and context. Ultimately it became part for me of the atmosphere of dark fairy tale that lies across the narrative, a Grimm’s tale that collects both redemption and violence into its folds without being entirely clear which is which. What makes this novel both so brave and so disconcerting is the transfer of the primordial and the visceral into an otherwise clear-cut adult landscape, but what exactly might be done about this subterranean realm of experience remains enigmatic; this is a book interested in the clash of fierce forces, not in their serene synthesis or their harmonious resolution.
Erica Wagner is an astute and gifted writer, and the prose is beautifully wrought in places. I felt she was at her best describing the childhoods of her characters with their legendary dimensions, and the daily sunlit world of reality that they both left behind. The indeterminate land of the cottage where they found themselves somewhere between myth and reality was perhaps less convincingly done, but probably because this is a hard place to hold a reader, suspended between fantasy and reason. I will say again that this is not a book to everyone’s taste, but it is unashamedly unique and combines some compelling ideas in unusual permutations. If you like your prose sculptured, and your incest legendary, if you are attracted to the notion of human spirits inhabiting the skins of seals or just fancy reading something completely different, it is well worth your time.