Book: Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London
Author: Gareth E. Rees; Illustrated by Ada Jusic
Published: 2013 by Influx Press, London.
First Lines: “My first daughter, Isis, was born in Homerton Hospital in November 2008. My parents looked after our cocker spaniel, Hendrix, while we adjusted to our new life.”
Rating: 4/5 time-traveling riverboats that consider themselves an independent micro-nation.
Recommended if you like: the surreal, the meta, the haunting, and the occasionally grotesque. Exploring the unusual, less tourist-trod areas of a city.
A Kindle version of this book was provided by Influx Press.
When I read the description of Marshland on inpress.com – “a blend of local history, folklore and weird fiction, where nothing is quite as it seems” – I was like
One download later, I stepped into a world of night-wandering bear-men, haunted Matchbox car factories, time-traveling riverboats, and midnight zombie reunions.
Marshland is an ode to the East London wilderness. The area encompassing Hackney, Leyton, and Walthamstow marshes provides a surreal and dreamlike setting where time, as Rees puts it,* is “in a perpetual remix.” It flows forward, pulls back, curls in on itself… Decades are superimposed on each other like waves stretching across the sand.
This is not a safe world, nor always picturesque. Here be demons and crocodiles, buried bombs and corpses, a gritty twist on a Brothers Grimm tale, and did I mention those zombie reunions? “How little [do] Londoners realise that, while they were tucked up in bed, battles between phantom beasts raged beneath the pylons and poplars.” **
But beware, most of all, the Old River Lea, who remembers a time before humanity — beware the day she’s strong enough to take back what she’s lost.
I love the constant dance between reality and fantasy in these stories. The book as a whole is a mix of genres – part memoir, part literary fiction, part meta-fiction, part magical realism… You have essays about the rise of Olympic Park and the fall of a late 19th-century sex cult, next to stories of hapless Victorians (literally) falling through time and guilty lovers trying to hide from their (literal) demons, complemented by Ada Jusic’s black-and-white illustrations that shift from simple to surreal, from eerie to macabre. Like time inside the marshland, the book moves in multiple directions, resisting any single label.
I also liked how the stories would link to one another, in more ways than just via shared setting. You’ll see a character or event from one story mentioned again several stories later. A side character whose name you don’t even remember is suddenly the lead. It’s another way the book defies genre, being neither a conventional novel, nor just a collection of unconnected stories.
A few things that lowered my rating:
- The occasional proofreading errors — misused or missing words, two words smushed together, etc. And there’s an error in the map of the Leyton/Walthamstow area, in the front pages – according to Google Maps, Leyton Marsh is actually southeast of Walthamstow Marsh, not southwest. Maybe it sounds trivial, but it’s kind of sloppy, and as I said, it’s not the only mistake the red pen missed.
- This one’s specifically about the Kindle version. The text in the comic-form story, “The Raving Dead,” was too small for me, and unfortunately, there’s no zoom function in a Kindle book. You can increase font size, but of course that doesn’t apply to text that’s part of an illustration. I ended up being able to just-barely read it on my laptop with the Kindle PC app.
- The following comment from “A Walk By the River.” Context = the narrator is describing some of the unusual things he’s seen in the woods by the Old River Lea, things he sometimes wonders if he’s imagining. At this moment, he’s just walked past a group of African men and women performing a ceremony.
They waited silently for me to pass, smiling. I smiled back but couldn’t think of anything to say. I wasn’t even sure they were there. They were figures from the dreams of another. I had become a bit part in the dengue-fevered fantasy of a sick city. [emphasis mine]
To me, it sounds like he’s referring to this group of people — or his vision of them — as a symptom of disease. Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne illness usually found in tropical regions, including some parts of Africa (though it’s apparently been spreading elsewhere more recently). It usually breaks out in dense urban areas. One of Marshland’s themes is the constant threat of urban London spreading into the wilderness… so, is the narrator suggesting that those people he saw (or imagined) in the woods — people he speaks of as other, as foreign — are part of the problem? It’s odd, since the book expresses a different attitude three stories later, when a character seems comforted by the sight of a football game “‘played between men of all races and creeds,’” believing it represents the freedom of humanity (well, “man”) in general.
Marshland is an excellent read, especially if you’re into meta-fiction and magical realism (if you liked Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman, for instance), and don’t mind the occasional swear word or a few graphic sex scenes.
I also recommend Rees’ blog, The Marshman Chronicles.† The “Marsh Radio” section is especially fun – it’s a collection of super-short stories (and a slightly longer one about that time aliens tried to transform the marshes into “a giant spacecraft landing site”) matched with playlists featuring hallucinatory streams of disco, dub, techno, electronica, remixed chants, and “Hauntology”…whatever that is. Anyone want to tell me what that is? Sj? Yeah, I know I could just Wikipedia it… oh. Except, apparently, they deleted that entry? Because they couldn’t decide if it’s actually a thing? But there’s an archived copy of their debate (scroll to the bottom) re: whether or not to delete said entry? Huh. Um…
Dance Party Ending, GO!
* In this quote from “Death of a Fish,” Rees is referring specifically to the Middlesex filter beds, but the comment also applies to the way he sees the marshland as a whole.
** from “Death of a Fish,” Kindle Locations 685-686.
† The Marshman Chronicles blog has since been taken down 😦 But ten points to Ravenclaw if you see what he did with that title†† 🙂
†† It’s totally an allusion to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, right?