Time now to start on those reading trails that opened up during 2010 Edinburgh Book Festival. 

You may remember I enjoyed Ron Butlin’s reading from his yet unpublished novel, The Invisible Woman.  Discussing this at length with a friend, he recommended Butlin’s 1989 novella, The Sound of My Voice.  He even went so far as to suggest it was much better than Martin Amis’s Money in documenting 1980’s excess.   I have no point of comparison apart from the fact that I abandoned the only Amis novel I tried to read after about 70 pages and have never returned. There was never any likelihood of me abandoning Butlin’s work and there is every likelihood that I will now hunt down and devour his entire backcatalogue.

From paragraph one, the force of The Sound of My Voice picked me up and did not let go.

Morris Magellan is a 34-year old business executive, married with two young children.  He is also an alcoholic, about to lose control.  His wife, Mary, is – well, I can’t decide exactly.  In denial at the beginning, bravely holding the family together and keeping things hidden from the kids in the middle, disillusioned at the end.  She is always seen from the outside.  We watch her actions, we are left to infer her feelings.

In contrast to her husband.  We know why he turned to drink and, indeed, we drink every drop with him.  The omniscient narrator – the voice – talks  at him.  The entire story is told in second person and while there is an element of understanding for the drunk, the revelations in paragraph one alienate the reader, so that he is never a sympathetic character, never entirely a victim,

which all results in a incredibly emotive read.

The voice is sometimes understanding:

At first you wanted to drink the ocean dry, but as you did so all manner of horrors – both living and dead – were exposed.  These creatures groped sightlessly towards you.  The more horrific they were, the more you drank – as though trying to swallow them, to remove them from sight. You don’t drink to forget – it doesn’t happen that way any more – instead the ocean has become everything that has ever happened to you, and when you drink you can swim effortlessly wherever the mood suggests.  You do drink like a fish, for drink allows you to breathe underwater.

Sometimes accusing:

even now her tears are still the nearest you have come to feeling grief at your father’s death

Sometimes sarcastic, bitter even.  Always, but always incisive.  No detail too small and every sour note in a deteriorating marital relationship and an escalating crisis heard and observed as Morris Magellan, in contrast to the historical Ferdinand, is reduced to taking it one step at a time.

Your namesake, you almost laugh aloud, has already circumnavigated the Earth.  You must keep forcing yourself forwards, your hands stretched out in front.  If the brandy won’t come to the stranded traveller than the stranded traveller, you almost laugh aloud ….

It can only end badly. And it does, with a twist.   While the final word identifies the voice, there’s no letting go and I suspect I shall be musing on the issue of redemption for weeks to come.

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