Like the last book I reviewed here, this is a novel about a troubled family living in England. There are differences, however. This one is set during World War II and never leaves the Norfolk countryside. Is pastoral the right word for that? All of the significant characters are rural working-class, which I think is what pastoral means. But if pastoral seems to imply mild, sentimental or boring, then we need a different word to describe the The Listeners. Such as metal.
And when you think metal, think slow and doomy. Although some things do happen in it, this is the kind of book where plot is made out of remembrance. The things that happen to the characters in the window of the narrative aren’t so much story as they are just life. And much as in life, what gives structure to their days, and at the same time to the book, is what haunts them personally, what they dwell on, whom they miss, what they keep with them, what they can not let go of.
The doomy and steady pacing is taken care of by timely shifts in the narrative voice. One of the most impressive things about the The Listeners is how distinct, identifiable and memorable those voices are. I read the book several months ago, but even now, I find that that if I open it at random to literally any page, I can still figure out exactly which character it is speaking just from the variations in the prose. I know when it’s Rachel, the courageous but underprepared eldest sister who shoulders all responsibility for holding her family together. I know when it’s William, the traumatized little brother who functions both as a vehicle for Parnell’s ornithology addiction and, given his skill at sneaking through hedge and heath, as a kind of bird-spotting, pre-industrial, East Anglian ninja. I know when it’s the lusty, awkward Air Man. I know when it’s slutty Kate. I know when it’s the mother, because everything that happens with her happened so long ago.
Two more words which describe this book with only partial accuracy but show up in some of the blurbs are “landscape” and “gothic.” If you want to know why there isn’t much landscape in it, then it just shows that you’ve never been to Norfolk. The images here aren’t grand, sweeping vistas — they’re the images of what’s underneath that, namely ecology. As beautiful as the language often is, the descriptions of the trees and the birds and the fields aren’t just here to look pretty. Every scrap of memory, piece of fence, waving reed and breathing thing fits together in a system that the entire book depends on for survival. As Parnell switches between narratives, it sometimes leads to alternate perspectives on the same event, but more importantly reveals is the way that all these people are connected, how what one does, says or feels ripples in the existence of another, even if they never find out from whence the cold wind blows.
And gothic? Doom, yes. But gothic? Gothic novels have a lot of the things that The Listeners has, but they’re supposed to be lumbering and obsessive. Mary Butts, this is not. No matter how sinister or morbid it gets, The Listeners is too agile and modern for that kind of generic definition. Instead, the really metal thing here, and what is shared by the gothic mode and The Listeners, is the darkness. Because darkness drives them both. Especially when William speaks, and especially when he tells you how he inhabits his environment, every description conceals as much as it reveals. Every time Parnell shows something, he reminds us that it occults something else. That seeing is not all about light.
Like me and him up by the Black Sheds, our thin poles of ash casting worms into the water, which is at once dark and dazzling where the sun has found a way through the curtain of oak leaves above. I glance over and he is intent, staring at a shimmer among the swaying weeds, a razor of light making his coal-black hair glisten. He stands tall like a harnser, his eyes focussed only on the beck below. Suddenly he strikes and we are onto an unending shoal. For the next few minutes — though it seems like hours — we pull wriggling silver sticks from cold wet, each transforming into a gulping, dying roach when we lay them on the bank.
‘Look at the fins, William, ‘ he says. ‘Like blood. Red, like blood.’ (p. 32)
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Did I say doom metal? I meant black metal. At least if it’s Panopticon. It’s still October, and The Listeners is a spring-time story, so this is your point of access. The ecosystems and folk traditions that Autumn Eternal builds on may be indigenous to the Appalachians, rather than eastern England, but it still doesn’t get more darkly pastoral than this.