Set in his native Merseyside, Adam Scovell’s third novel, Nettles, is a story centred on childhood rituals and pacts with the landscape, whether real or imagined. These rituals, invoked at a turning point in a boy’s life, when he feels he has nowhere left to hide, are depicted all the more powerfully for being situated in the edgelands of a post-industrial landscape: the concrete underbelly of a motorway, scrubland with distant pylons, the roar of the rails and the roadway. At the heart of the book is a tale of a boy bullied mercilessly and what he ultimately does, or what he thinks he has done, to escape and restore some sort of bearable, natural order in his life.
As a result of its subject matter, the main narrative isn’t a comfortable read: descriptions of the claustrophobic and isolating nature of the bullying are dealt with realistically and in fairly unflinching terms. But Nettles is more a tale of sacrifice than any sort of brutal, coming-of-age novel, although the brutality is there. We don’t particularly sense the main character maturing and overcoming adversity during the narrative in the way these things normally play out; instead the reader is drawn back and forth 20 years between childhood and adulthood, connections are made in a deliberating fleeting way, and there are strange, and slightly jarring, interludes about a local climber which eventually resolve at the novel’s conclusion.
Both the narrator and his tormentor remain unnamed, although Scovell uses the curious literary device of capitalisation of Him and He for the boy’s antagonist. This reverential use of pronouns suggests that what exists beyond a sense of fear and hatred is some kind of god-like awe at the bully’s power and his consequent hold over the main character and others in the school.
There are many instances of sacrifice in the story, both large and small. The book suggests that children believe they make such sacrifices all the time and perhaps they do. The perennial question of cause and effect is left unresolved, but that doesn’t make the story’s conclusion any less haunting and uncertain.
Scovell is most convincing when he deals with the place setting of the story, its otherness and the protagonist’s unclear role in it all. Landscape, as it often turns out to be, is a very unreliable narrator here. I got the sense that the locations were written with such a deft touch because they are well known to the author or at least versions of them are. Indeed, much of the story seems drawn, in some cases perhaps worryingly so, from semi-autobiographical events in Scovell’s own life. The protagonist’s return to his childhood home after 20 years, passages of which are woven throughout the book, is punctuated with blurry Polaroids of meaningful places in both the then and the now. This may be a nod to the conceit used by Sebald in The Rings of Saturn and other works, and while the pictures are nice to see, I didn’t feel they were necessary to give more flavour to an already well-conjured landscape.
I enjoyed this novel and the resonance of its imagery, particularly that of the landscape in which the story unfolds. There is a finely-written ambiguity in the bearing of the modern-day protagonist, which leads the reader to question exactly what effect the childhood trauma has had on him and what really happened two decades earlier. Scovell’s work seems to get better and better and Nettles is probably his most satisfying work yet.
Nettles is published in April 2022 by Influx Press and is available to preorder now.