REVIEW by Dafydd Harvey

NWR Issue r35


by Kate Hamer

Kate Hamer’s Crushed is the story of three young girls studying at sixth-form. Phoebe, the bad girl, the troubled ‘pixie’, believes she is capable, through a cursed copy of Macbeth, of causing events by imagining them: willing them into being. Her friends, Orla and Grace, have their own issues. Grace is caring for her mother in the advanced stages of MS, and Orla is coming to terms with her blossoming homosexuality and rampant insecurities. The three girls, paralleling the Three Witches, recreate the old ritual of their childhood game with their cauldron in the dirt and address their own ambitions. Hamer’s debut novel The Girl in the Red Coat, received a lot of publicity. However, her accessible and indelicate writing can sometimes be at odds with the expectations a reader has regarding the quality of a Faber publication. In this case, the balance has slipped towards a brutish commercial fiction; even an airport book. Perhaps this is the result of commercial pressures following a breakthrough book that generated significant hype.

For all of the Shakespearean nods, the questions of free-will and psychological conflict, Crushed delves no deeper than the SparkNotes textbook that they study in class might. The characters are set up to pull at heart strings, but fail for that very reason. Hamer tries to establish their depths with rather boring alternating first-person perspectives, in which the girls’ thoughts are laid out at intolerable length, and with superfluous detail. The characters appear to come out of a teeny Brit-chick-flick, and are neither believable nor complex human beings.

My father leaving went along the same lines. He was there, or should I say more accurately his presence was there – because he came and went more or less as he pleased – through my early childhood. Then the presence got gradually less, like mist thinning (my emphasis)

Like mist thinning. The language is altogether too obvious and neither shocks nor pleases. The themes of the novel and its uninventive style led me to wonder if perhaps this is an example of Young Adult fiction, and to worry that I was holding Hamer to an unreasonable standard. The girls’ problems are, of course, that of sixteen- and seventeen-year olds, though there are darker elements. There are wonderful books written in a ‘naive’ and ‘girlish’ tone, the type that Phoebe imitates in her diary to deceive her prying mother – ‘I’ll even spend time injecting that girlishly naive tone to it for a measure of authenticity;’ – however, the prose feels unintentionally childish and is almost always flat:

Just seeing a disjointed piece of her is so weird. It makes me feel disconnected from who she is. The skin is very, very pale with a bluish tinge and a vein snakes up it. It’s an ugly sight.

Besides, I have always thought: why can’t young adults just read good books? Borges said that the novel, works of three hundred pages, ‘depend on padding, on pages which are mere nexuses between one part and another.’ If we accept that a certain padding is a necessary condition of the form, still, Kate Hamer’s Crushed has an overflowing, unhappy amount – ‘he seems to be staring extra hard and pointedly today.’ Perhaps this padding in the superior novelist might better be called ‘world-building’, or whatever, I’m sure there is a proper literary term. The long form of fiction never did too much injury to Tolstoy.

Now, to say of any mainstream novel that it ‘isn’t Proust’ may sound pretentious, austere; elitist, even, but herein lies the great trepidation of novel-writing — the book lends itself naturally to a certain monotony. This is why mediocre writing in book-length prose seem to me to be much more problematic than the very same deficits of originality in shorter fiction and poetry (though they are of course no more forgivable). Cliche is a sore thumb across literature. In the novel, it is gangrenous. I am in awe of the good novelists, and I feel a real sympathy for the poor courageous rest, especially in those writing popular fiction targeting an increasingly post-literate readership. Readers are perhaps more likely than ever to give it the old TLDR; there is an unprecedented aversion to filler. I count myself amongst the generation of horrible readers who may in time make true Borges’ prophesied death of the novel, and I demand, with the impatience emblematic of an age, some innovations from its saviours.

Dafydd Harvey is winter 2019’s reviewer in residence, in partnership with Swansea University’s College of Arts and Humanities.


previous review: Broken Ghost
next review: In Passing


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