The Look Away is musician and poet Richard Skelton’s first lengthy work of fiction, a novella clothed in unconventional garb. Fleetingly available as a limited edition hardback from Corbel Stone Press earlier in the year, it now appears in paperback from new imprint Xylem Books, established by Skelton and Autumn Richardson to make some of their key publications more accessible.
The book has an intriguing structure. At first glance, the focus is its nameless narrator, a damaged man fleeing something unspoken—past violence and the dread of violence to come, it seems—the story revealing in anxious, often agitated fragments the inner monologue which punctuates his hermetic escape from the world. Wearing the mantle of the fugitive, he hides away in a shieling, the resonantly named Hollowscar, a tumbledown stone hut barely fit for human habitation. Although this is a fictional narrative, that place turns out to be a real location and an odd mid-19th century map of the area actually exists, preserved in the National Library of Scotland. The protagonist’s retreat might even be from life itself: “Are you come here to die?”, asks the woman who provides him with basic supplies in exchange for what money he has.
There are few characters besides this broken individual. Other human agents are glimpsed only from the corner of the eye or appear as uncertain figures dredged from memory. Those familiar with Skelton’s work won’t be surprised that landscape plays an integral part in the story, its sinews tightening around everything. It might be the book’s most solid and threatening presence. Significant also is the spectre of isolation, an antagonist as fearful as whatever has forced the man to seek shelter in Hollowscar on the boundaries of civilisation. “I am an island lost in an infinite sea.”
The animal world here is not the stuff of typical nature writing; clothed in the pelt of the supernatural, in the sense of being beyond the natural, it is strange and menacing. Death’s shadow looms large over both the man’s seclusion and the grey tracts of this undiscovered country. Prey to his own insignificance in the surrounding wildness and beset by nightmares of hunter and hunted, he is “heir to a land returned to nature,” a brutal inheritance that might engulf him forever.
The writing in The Look Away is striking and memorable. Each passage plays out note perfectly, descriptions given room to breathe on the page, empty space marking time between the narrator’s bouts of introspection. Cadences fall as in the quietly insistent coda to a requiem Mass, the strains filling the room. Phrases loop back on themselves in a fashion similar to the way Skelton’s music is constructed, evolving and building as the tension builds. Familiar refrains flow like a turbid river across the page, are reified in different configurations, their call and response helping to fashion a lattice on which the more linear aspects of the narrative are encouraged to grow. The author interpolates parts of the twenty-third psalm in the text in a remarkably unnerving way. Stripped back, these biblical excerpts find an uncanny significance in the narrator’s menaced inner torment: his cup may overflow, not with goodness or mercy, but with a cleansing flood which erases all trace of memory and existence.
As the book moves across its two distinct sections, fear of the man’s pursuers evolves into a terror of what surrounds and imprisons him. He longs to be discovered; his desire for a new escape becomes more palpable, but one realm of violence is replaced by another, a more ancient one. The imperative to look away, rooted in memory and a child’s awakening to the relentlessness of nature, becomes the central core of the book. He cannot turn from fate, because he is swallowed whole by it.
The Look Away is a bold, poetic meditation on the power of nature to forget, to erase the past, and to renew, even if that renewal is unforgiving and indiscriminate. I have rarely read anything so emotionally compelling in so unusual a form. Skelton has crafted an unsettling and finely-wrought tale of red-in-tooth-and-claw metonymy, and I hope there is much more of this to come from him.