Seizure

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.

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14 thoughts on “Seizure

  1. Wow, well this sounds like one of those disturbing but intriguing reads – not just for the shock value of the subject but because the author attempts to address such a difficult subject head on and honestly. I’ve added it to the list. Especially if the writing makes it all work. Thanks, Litlove.

  2. Verbivore – the language works to cushion the impact of all that happens, as the rawness is described at the level of the visceral rather than the emotional. So it doesn’t really shock, although the narrative is quite intense. Events are channeled through the body and through fantasy, and so that leaves the reader relatively detached. But I’d be very interested to know what you make of it. Stefanie – lol! I did think of you as there is a distinct sense of the Greeks about this book, although without the inevitable tragedy. You know I always love to hear your take on books I’ve read, so do let me know if you end up getting hold of a copy.

  3. Hmmmm … I’m not entirely sure this book is for me! I’m taking your warning seriously :) I do like novels that set out to do something different and do it well, though. Interesting — I’m thinking that the border between fantasy and reality doesn’t interest me that much as a novelistic subject, and yet that’s exactly what Remainder is about. You wouldn’t read that one for the plot either. And the disconcerting mental seizures — not so different from what happens to the guy in Remainder with his mysterious accident that causes memory loss?

  4. This does sound intriguing but also a little bit psychotic. I know that’s an ugly word and a very poor description of what could be an imaginative and dreamlike experience. I’ll keep this one for a rainy day.

  5. Litlove, a little earlier this evening I had to look up something from Henry Miller’s _Sexus_, from 1949 (in which there is a lot of sex, but not incest; for that, see any number of atlantic canadian novels), and here is what I was searching for, which may apply: “People have had enough of plot and character, Plot and character don’t make life.”

    One of the nicest things about writing is using elements other than plot and character. Alexandra Chasin’s _Kissed By_, which came out earlier this year, is like that. While I haven’t read Wagner, nor heard of her before your thoughtful and engaged post, I’m all behind her (and anyone else) using whatever elements they want to say what they want to say. It’s not that plot or character are in the rubbish bin; they are just tools one can use if necessary. So, thanks for bringing _Seizure_ to my attention, anyway.

  6. I’m not so sure about the incest but this book does sound attractive to me anyway – maybe the Celtic folklore and mystical dreaming. Anyway I had a look at an extract on Erica Wagner’s website and have added this book to my wishlist.

  7. Dorothy – when I read your review of Remainder, I was thinking of this book and how similar the two were in their experimental approach. I don’t want to give the wrong impression, this isn’t a psychological novel in that way, more a case of a novel that allows its characters to do extraordinary things that suggest deep truths about the scars of the human condition. Pete – I rather think you’d enjoy it – it’s psychotic in a very interesting way. I’d love to know what you make of it as an analyst! Gentle Reader – if you like the review then I’m halfway there. It would make for a very lively book club discussion, I’m sure! JB – what a lovely comment. You know I have such admiration for the breadth of your reading. As a fan of the nouveaux romanciers, I agree that plot and character can be treated in any manner of ways to ask intriguing questions about the nature of narrative. I do like an author, too, who will try something different and push the boundaries. I must look up Chasin. Booksplease – the Celtic folklore dimension was probably the part I liked best of all about this book. What a good idea to look up an extract! I see I didn’t quote at all, and should have done. I’d love to know what you think of this if you get hold of a copy.

  8. This sounds like a really interesting read. I like a book that tries to do something different and I’m a big fan of myths and legends being interpolated into modern day plots.

  9. I admire you and Dorothy for reading such unusual books that go beyond the norm of storytelling. I mentioned to her that I am so predictable in my reading–rarely straying outside my own comfort zone, though I am intrigued by books like this and the McCarthy one. Maybe because of the mythology aspect this reminds me of the Alex Garner book that the Slaves read a while back. Although I found that one challenging, I did like it. Maybe this is one I could try as well. In any case I’ll add it to my list.

  10. alex – I don’t know whether you have a blog, but if you do, I’d love to know what you think of the book if you read it. Danielle – I remember that Slaves book! And yes, I think that’s an intriguing connection to make. I must also say in all fairness that I think I’ve had more wonderful book recommendations from you than just about any other blogger, so never feel you are not reading the ‘right’ things! I think people who have done big university courses in literature are at an advantage when it comes to more experimental fiction simply because we’ve read in it before and it’s possible to say ‘this is difficult to master’ rather than ‘I’m failing somehow because I don’t always know what’s going on.’ It’s the big difference in being able to take on books that challenge conventions.

  11. Methinks I’m one of those ones who might like to sip from this cup of tea. Off to goodreads yet again…(From now on, why don’t you just assume I’m adding virtual books to the shelves every time I read a post like this?)

  12. Emily – ooh, goodreads – I really should take myself on a tour of that site and join in more. I’d love to know what you make of this book if you ever do read it!

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