Slip of a Fish, Amy Arnold, And Other Stories, 2018, 256 pp, £10.00 (paperback)
Ash, the protagonist of Amy Arnold’s debut novel, is a curious creation; she is fascinated by the etymologies and sounds of language, storing her favourite discoveries in an imaginary ‘word collection’, she swims in an abandoned lake with her daughter Charlie to practice breathing underwater, steals dogs from pubs, and takes books from local charity shops. The inherent strangeness of her activities remains largely unacknowledged in Arnold’s narrative, as it is told directly from Ash’s warped perception with a voice that is as incredibly ambitious as it is intriguing. It is a story that is original, exciting and entirely deserving of the inaugural Northern Book Prize. More recently, it has also been shortlisted for the prestigious Goldsmith Prize which celebrates experimental and ground-breaking literature.
The publishers of Arnold’s debut, And Other Stories, aims ‘to push people’s reading limits and help them discover authors of adventurous and inspiring writing’. They are a motivated and forward-thinking press, with an ambition to both increase diversity in the publishing industry, and to offset the intrinsic London-centric nature of British publishing. This has been exemplified by their acceptance of Kamilia Shamsie’s challenge to only publish books by women in the year 2018, and by their conception of the Northern Book Prize: a commitment to award and publish the work of a writer ‘who has a strong connection to the North’. A worthy champion of a commendable cause, Slip of a Fish is a bold and courageous piece.
Arnold’s narrative is of an experimental vein: varying sentence structures, incessant digressions, and the increasing sense that conventional linguistics cannot adequately express personal trauma. The novel belongs to a tradition of stream-of-consciousness; one is reminded of the disjointed brilliance of Eimear MacBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing which was likewise shortlisted and went on to win the Goldsmith Prize in 2013. There is inevitable confusion in utilising such a form, and throughout one is often left bewildered and speculating whether preceding events happened, or if they were workings of the imagination. Ash’s creative mind is evidently complex, as her narration demonstrates; ‘I had the feeling the words were following me, I thought I felt them brush around my neck, then tighten a little.’
Clarity is unattainable: Was there a sex crime on a sofa in the garden next door? Did Ash and her daughter really steal an idle dog from a pub garden? It is purposefully unclear. The unreliable narrator whirls the reader through time and place, and just when one thinks there is a shred of reality, it is swiftly undermined by further distraction and commotion. This is particularly the case when Ash contemplates past experiences; moments that are seemingly accompanied by attempts of self-suppression, occasionally revealing undesirable and sinister insight. A glimpse of clearness, before sinking again underwater, out of sight.
The book deserves a careful read in this regard, and those looking for an intricate plot may be disappointed. There are no clear answers but instead, there is an intentional evasion of climactic revelations. The book is more about an exploration of character, and Arnold has surely utilised her degree in Neuropsychology in her characterisation of the protagonist. The book invites readers to make their own deductions based on what they think they know about Ash. Early in the narrative, speaking of her past, Ash maintains: ‘I spoke a lot in those days. I was always speaking.’ This is in total contradiction to the character in her present reality: withdrawn, unable to converse with anyone, even her husband and daughter. What has happened? Even at the novel’s conclusion, it is unclear.
I expected some enlightenment at the end, but curiously enough, when it did not arrive, I was not frustrated. Instead, the residual feeling was one of introspection. I read it in two sittings and the total immersion into a digressive consciousness was difficult to remove oneself from. The depiction of cognitive processes in social interactions was inventive, and a marked departure from earlier forms of modernism. It is a work that requires patience, but it is ultimately rewarding. It is, as the title suggests, a slippery book, and difficult to fully grasp – but the attempt to was exhilarating and unnerving in equal measure.
Words by Ronan Gerrard.
To buy Slip of a Fish by Amy Arnold, visit And Other Stories.
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