by Xan Brooks
Dark mornings. Limited hours of daylight, all-too-soon sunsets and ever-present shadows. The end of the year may be the best time to read Xan Brook’s ‘The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times’.
Set in the uncertainty of post-World War One England, this is a story spun out of fireside gatherings where nature reddens its teeth on the borders of the clearing. Here are gently rolling valleys and bold forests re-purposed as sinister homes for the damaged, the slow death of the suburb, broken families and the dissolution of Edwardian patriarchy in a sea of class A drugs.
Part fairy tale, part memento mori, the protagonists sink ever deeper into the shocking cultural schism war leaves behind; we meet them already waist high in the quicksand and watch as most of them disappear without trace. This is a narrative of decay. What better time to read it than in the last month of a turbulent year?
A sense of unease sits over the book from the first page, conjured with alarmingly direct prose that tempts you into assumptions that invariably circle back to bite you at regular intervals.
‘Sunday evening, after tea, she travels out of town and through the woods to visit with the funny men.’
You will spend time adjusting to the rhythm of the plot. You will wonder whether the sarcasm and dry humour is deliberate. It is, and provides partial ballast as you step into the shifting perceptions of Lucy, Winifred, the men they visit and a supporting cast of characters from as far afield as Grimm and the Penny Dreadfuls.
‘I have come to see where the bad girls play. I’ve come to see where they play with monsters.’ ‘Who are you?’ demands Lucy. ‘I don’t like this at all.’ ‘Isn’t it obvious? I am the Devil.’
They vie with elements of Ransome’s boys own adventures, Saturday morning cinema cliff-hangers, vaudeville villains and rare splashes of Delderfield’s rose-tinted inter-war stories. Never far away from my mind as I read were the haunted elegies for youth made golden by Auden and Sassoon.
The war is a constant footpad, following in your wake like a hobbled spy as the story makes it way from the ancient oak and hornbeam of Epping Forest to the faded grandeur of Grantwood House and its parade of dilettantes. Crueller still than the loss in the trenches is the loss of survivors who can’t come home.
‘But then none of the four are altogether unblemished and, even knowing what’s coming, she is still taken aback. What a collection they are, with their missing arms, legs and eyes, and their elaborate disguises intended to fill in the blanks. Put them together and you might arrive at one person.’
Through such a moveable feast, Brooks never lets go of the leash. He is in command of a whip-tight story that neither bloats or strays, his ensemble cast moving into the limelight as needed, before retreating to the borders of sight to await a recall. The language is layered, the characters full of depth, their tragedies and those of their families worn like birthmarks, the kind the Middle Ages would have punished with exile, or death. None more so than Lucy, who whilst never truly likeable is at the very least a sympathetic carrier of the key theme; that some form of redemption, however skewed and perhaps unpalatable, undeserved even, remains possible. Her growing empathy, her widening world-view and innate sense that not all is right holds the key to the final, beautifully paced chapters where an almost wistful re-balancing takes place.
‘People carry the storms of the things they once did, the people they once were. They come ambling through the village with their systems ablaze. They contain fireworks, sunbursts, holocausts. Peer closely and you might see orange cinders jumping in their eyes..’
For Lucy, the calm after the storm is quietly reflective. It hints at opportunities. Don’t be fooled, however; Brooks provides no chocolate-box, happy-ever-after ending. Instead, scattered over an England that doesn’t know how to heal, the debris continues to disperse, and we are left wondering, and hoping, it will find rest.